Book Notes – The Shallows (What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains)

The premise of the book is that as we move into integrating the Internet into our lives more and more, we are shifting from thinking deeply and creatively on topics, to learning quickly on a surface level.

Brain Plasticity

The brain is capable of being rewired and redeveloped through-out the entirety of a human life – even if that ability slows down in age. This applies in many cases such as the loss of capabilities (blindness, loss of limb, etc.) – the gray matter will be rerouted in the brain to other functions.

Plasticity, however, means that as changes occur in a person’s thinking and interaction, they can have lasting effects on how the brain processes in the future. In a sense, we become how we think and practice.

Connection to Medium

In writing and creation, there is a sort of tie-in that correlates to the medium being used to express. For instance, the way a book is written will change if the book is written online (where hyper-linking is available) or written in a paper-back book.

Prime example in this when using a Kindle (which I usually use to read), you have the ability to go to different websites and look up words right on the device – therefore diverting from the general process of reading the book from start to finish (took a look while writing this – no way to turn that off on the Kindle unfortunately).

In the comparison to digital vs. print, there’s also the connection between mutable (digital) vs. immutable (print). This makes for a push of more speed vs. quality, as publishing has become more of an ongoing process. This could remove the pressure of perfection seen in writing an immutable novel.

Personal note: I don’t see the above as an issue, although I’m sure I’m biased being in software. In this case, I see it as more of a “perfect is the enemy of good”.

Internet as a Medium of Distraction

The Internet serves as a medium that promotes distraction, which comes from sources such as:

  • Social media (engineered to provide stimulus rewards for checking regularly, much like a rat pulling a lever)
  • Page layout (advertisements)
  • Pop-ups

This does potentially come with some benefit – because browsing the internet promotes a shallow and quick level of thinking, it can keep minds sharp. However, this can mean we become good to identifying information and losing the ability to think creatively (especially thinking our own thoughts) on particular topics. Neuropyschologist Jordan Grafman says “The more you multitask, the less deliberative you become; the less able to think and reason out a problem.”

The major issue comes into the difficulty of learning and processing when our cognitive load is increased by use of the Internet (cognitive load – information flowing into our working memory at any given moment). Essentially, we can only handle so much information (2-4 things max) at a time before our ability to absorb information is diminished, and the information just rolls off.

Memory Collection, Digital vs. Biological Memory

When making memories, we have two types:

  • Short-term – like RAM, in working thoughts
  • Long-term – like HDD, stored away in brain

Short-term memories become long term memories after a period of time and reinforcement, where they gain new context on each subsequent retrieval and storage.

This changes with technology – memories are stored with no context, and as they are, which can limit their usefulness.

Personal note: This is another I don’t necessarily see a negative. It’s been proven that human memory is flawed, and our long-term memory is tarnished over time, moving away from reality over time and becoming what we want to believe. Using technology to store memories is a way to ensure those memories can be viewed intact. Something like writing a journal can show the thoughts of a particular experience at the time, and seeing how they compare to the long-term memory stored.

Tool Usage and Dependence

When using tools to amplify output (using a calculator to perform simple math, or using physical tools to perform labor), this has a numbing effect on our ability to perform the task ourselves.

This can especially apply in the software we use when interacting with a computer. A study of different users for software using both helpful and unhelpful software showed “The subjects using the bare-bones software consistently demonstrated “more focus, more direct and economical solutions, better strategies, and better imprinting of knowledge.” The more that people depended on explicit guidance from software programs, the less engaged they were in the task and the less they ended up learning.”

This reflects in the way we search for information – we use tools that provide easy results without contemplation on our end, limiting the amount of creativity we can apply to our work.

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