Sunday, August 22, 2010

What the Internet Has Done to My Brain

I just finished The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains by Nicholas Carr. I also read his Atlantic article when it came out a couple of years ago, entitled "Is Google Making Us Stupid?" Both pieces resonated with me, and it's nice to know I'm not alone.

I've long noticed my inability to read an article online word for word. I find much too easy to scroll or mouse down the page and have to physically take my hand off the keyboard or mouse in order to force myself to read and not skim. I am apt to scroll all the way to the bottom if I'm searching for information for a patron because I want to make sure I haven't missed anything that will help them, but often that patron will have noticed something and is anxious for me to click on a link immediately. However, if I've found something of interest for myself, I'd rather print out a few pages than read the whole thing online. I check a national newspaper everyday, but if an article goes to a second, or heaven forbid a third, page, I probably won't click to continue reading. My attention span isn't that long, and my physical ability to absorb information online is small.

I used to think it was because I came of age before the Internet became commonplace, that I hadn't grown up doing research online and was used to books and print material, that maybe it was a matter of preference for me. But after reading Carr's article I decided it wasn't just me. It was that I had fallen prey to the ephemeral nature of the Web and had embraced its seductive ease of navigation. Now that I'm aware of this, I've found myself trying to read more deeply online and have made more of an effort to concentrate better when reading books.

I've always been a big reader. I have to have at least one book going at any given time, and I switch between fiction and nonfiction, although I'm more drawn to fiction. My tastes have changed over the years, but I still gravitate towards mysteries and suspense, though lately I find myself reading character studies or stories with true-to-life situations. I want a world where I can get lost, where I can put myself into someone else's shoes and wonder what I would do in the same place. I read for escape, though I also read to learn. If I don't get enough fiction, if I don't let my mind wander along with the characters, I get restless. I have to have that outlet to unwind.

It saddens me to hear about kids and teens who don't know how to entertain themselves. What happened to playing outside, making up games and pretending? Where are these youngsters' imaginations? As a librarian, I struggle to help students who don't know how to research. They are unwilling--and probably unable--to take notes, to use multiple sources and synthesize an answer to a complex question. They want something quick, easy, and short. Is that the fault of them, a product of their own natural laziness (which is really the laziness of most humans)? Is it the teachers' fault for not explaining the research process and demanding well-written, well-documented papers? It seems to easy to blame the Internet for these shortcomings, but maybe Nicholas Carr is onto something. Kids are used to instant gratification. Need song lyrics? Google the song title. Why memorize dates when you can look up events in Wikipedia  (or even the Britannica and other online reference sources)? They can post their intimate or mundane thoughts on Facebook or Twitter and get immediate feedback from friends who are also logged on. No one has to wait for any bit of information anymore.

The Shallows doesn't offer solutions, but reading it made me re-evaluate my approach to in-depth reference questions. It's challenged me to find alternative ways of helping students with their research. I need to learn patience, I need to learn how to train them to use the sources available, whether in print or online (because the Internet as well as propriety sources are valuable tools), and I need to learn how to explain the research process.

I think every educator in all areas should read Carr's book, or at least his article, and decide how best to combat this loss of the ability to read deeply and to absorb and internalize information. We should be aware of the strengths and weaknesses of the Internet and be conscious of its effects. We need to learn how to use the Internet and our computers without sacrificing what makes us human and therefore different from the machines we've become addicted to: our ability to think.

How has the Internet changed your brain? Leave your experiences in the comments.

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