Snorkeling ’the shallows’: what’s the cognitive trade-off in internet behavior?

I am quite eager to comment on the recent explosion of e-commentary regarding Nicolas Carr’s new book. Bloggers have already done an excellent job summarizing the response to Carr’s argument. Further, Clay Shirky and Jonah Lehrer have both argued convincingly that there’s not much new about this sort of reasoning. I’ve also argued along these lines, using the example of language itself as a radical departure from pre-linguistic living. Did our predecessors worry about their brains as they learned to represent the world with odd noises and symbols?

Surely they did not. And yet we can also be sure that the brain underwent a massive revolution following the acquisition of language. Chomsky’s linguistics would of course obscure this fact, preferring us to believe that our linguistic abilities are the amalgation of things we already possessed: vision, problem solving, auditory and acoustic control. I’m not going to spend too much time arguing against the modularist view of cognition however; chances are if you are here reading this, you are already pretty convinced that the brain changes in response to cultural adaptations.

It is worth sketching out a stock Chomskyian response however. Strict nativists, like Chomsky, hold that our language abilities are the product of an innate grammar module. Although typically agnostic about the exact source of this module (it could have been a genetic mutation for example), nativists argue that plasticity of the brain has no potential other than slightly enhancing or decreasing our existing abilities. You get a language module, a cognition module, and so on, and you don’t have much choice as to how you use that schema or what it does. The development of anguage on this view wasn’t something radically new that changed the brain of its users but rather a novel adaptation of things we already and still have.

To drive home the point, it’s not suprising that notable nativist Stephen Pinker is quoted as simply not buying the ‘changing our brains’ hypothesis:

“As someone who believes both in human nature and in timeless standards of logic and evidence, I’m skeptical of the common claim that the Internet is changing the way we think. Electronic media aren’t going to revamp the brain’s mechanisms of information processing, nor will they supersede modus ponens or Bayes’ theorem. Claims that the Internet is changing human thought are propelled by a number of forces: the pressure on pundits to announce that this or that “changes everything”; a superficial conception of what “thinking” is that conflates content with process; the neophobic mindset that “if young people do something that I don’t do, the culture is declining.” But I don’t think the claims stand up to scrutiny.”

Pinker makes some good points- I agree that a lot of hype is driven by the kinds of thinking he mentions. Yet, I do not at all agree that electronic media cannot and will not revamp our mechanisms for information processing. In contrast to the nativist account, I think we’ve better reason than ever to suspect that the relation between brain and cognition is not 1:1 but rather dynamic, evolving with us as we develop new tools that stimulate our brains in unique and interesting ways.

The development of language massively altered the functioning of our brain. Given the ability to represent the world externally, we no longer needed to rely on perceptual mechanisms in the same way. Our ability to discriminate amongst various types of plant, or sounds, is clearly sub-par to that of our non-linguistic brethren. And so we come full circle. The things we do change our brains. And it is the case that our brains are incredibly economical. We know for example that only hours after limb amputation, our somatosensory neurons invade the dormant cells, reassigning them rather than letting them die off. The brain is quite massively plastic- Nicolas Carr certainly gets that much right.

Perhaps the best way to approach this question is with an excerpt from social media. I recently asked of my fellow tweeps,

To which an astute follower replied:

Now, I do realize that this is really the central question in the ‘shallows’ debate. Moving from the basic fact that our brains are quite plastic, we all readily accept that we’re becoming the subject of some very intense stimulation. Most social media, or general internet users, shift rapidly from task to task, tweet to tweet. In my own work flow, I may open dozens and dozens of tabs, searching for that one paper or quote that can propel me to a new insight. Sometimes I get confused and forget what I was doing. Yet none of this interferes at all with my ‘deep thinking’. Eventually I go home and read a fantastic sci-fi book like Snowcrash. My imagination of the book is just as good as ever; and I can’t wait to get online and start discussing it. So where is the trade-off?

So there must be a trade-off, right? Tape a kitten’s eyes shut and its visual cortex is re-assigned to other sensory modalities. The brain is a nasty economist, and if we’re stimulating one new thing we must be losing something old. Yet what did we lose with language? Perhaps we lost some vestigial abilities to sense and smell. Yet we gained the power of the sonnet, the persuasion of rhetoric, the imagination of narrative, the ability to travel to the moon and murder the earth.

In the end, I’m just not sure it’s the right kind of stimulation. We’re not going to lose our ability to read in fact, I think I can make an extremely tight argument against the specific hypothesis that the internet robs us of our ability to deep-think. Deep thinking is itself a controversial topic. What exactly do we mean by it? Am I deep thinking if I spend all day shifting between 9 million tasks? Nicolas Carr says no, but how can he be sure those 9 million tasks are not converging around a central creative point?

I believe, contrary to Carr, that internet and social media surfing is a unique form of self stimulation and expression. By interacting together in the millions through networks like twitter and facebook, we’re building a cognitive apparatus that, like language, does not function entirely within the brain. By increasing access to information and the customizability of that access, we’re ensuring that millions of users have access to all kinds of thought-provoking information. In his book, Carr says things like ‘on the internet, there’s no time for deep thought. it’s go go go’. But that is only one particular usage pattern, and it ignores ample research suggesting that posts online may in fact be more reflective and honest than in-person utterances (I promise, I am going to do a lit review post soon!)

Today’s internet user doesn’t have to conform to whatever Carr thinks is the right kind of deep-thought. Rather, we can ‘skim the shallows’ of twitter and facebook for impressions, interactions, and opinions. When I read a researcher, I no longer have to spend years attending conferences to get a personal feel for them. I can instead look at their wikipedia, read the discussion page, see what’s being said on twitter. In short, skimming the shallows makes me better able to choose the topics I want to investigate deeply, and lets me learn about them in whatever temporal pattern I like. Youtube with a side of wikipedia and blog posts? Yes please. It’s a multi-modal whole brain experience that isn’t likely to conform to ‘on/off’ dichotomies. Sure, something may be sacrificed, but it may not be. It might be that digital technology has enough of the old (language, vision, motivation) plus enough of the new that it just might constitute or bring about radically new forms of cognition. These will undoubtably change or cognitive style, perhaps obsoleting Pinker’s Bayesian mechanisms in favor of new digitally referential ones.

So I don’t have an answer for you yet ToddStark. I do know however, that we’re going to have to take a long hard look at the research review by Carr. Further, it seems quite clear that there can be no one-sided view of digital media. It’s not anymore intrinsically good or bad than language. Language can be used to destroy nations just as it can tell a little girl a thoughtful bed time story. If we’re to quick to make up our minds about what internet-cognition is doing to our plastic little brains, we might miss the forest for the trees. The digital media revolution gives us the chance to learn just what happens in the brain when its’ got a shiny new tool. We don’t know the exact nature of the stimulation, and finding out is going to require a look at all the evidence, for and against. Further, it’s a gross oversimplification to talk about internet behavior as ‘shallow’ or ‘deep’. Research on usage and usability tells us this; there are many ways to use the internet, and some of them probably get us thinking much deeper than others.

12 thoughts on “Snorkeling ’the shallows’: what’s the cognitive trade-off in internet behavior?

  1. […] I am quite eager to comment on the recent explosion of e-commentary regarding Nicolas Carr’s new book. Bloggers have already done an excellent job summarizing the response to Carr’s argument. Further, Clay Shirkey and Jonathan Lehrer have both argued convincingly that theres’ not much new about this sort of reasoning. I’ve also argued along these lines, using the example of language itself as a radical departure from pre-linguistic living. Did ou … Read More […]

  2. I don’t really feel qualified to talk about the cognitive aspects of the changes brought by ‘the web’ and new-fangled stuff. But I do on the social aspects.

    So here goes: a gross, but not unfair, simplification – “the internet prevents deep thought” seems to be what the Carr camp are saying.

    Implicit in ‘deep thought’ is the idea of ‘about something’. The web prevents us from thinking deeply about certain things. Nobody just ‘thinks deeply’ – it’s a transitive activity.

    The web is, and it’s almost impossible to commit hyperbole here (says he, managing it rather deftly I thought), revolutionary. None of the ‘old’ structures are safe.

    So, let’s say I’m thinking/reading/researching at the ‘intersection’ of two of the elder disciplines (There are close to a thousand who self-describe as being at the intersection in Twitter bios, for example:*+intersection%E2%80%9D ). Am I flitting about from discipline to discipline or am I thinking deeply about a ‘new’ discipline?

    I don’t know as much about ‘learning’ as some of my colleagues. I don’t know as much about ‘games’ as many of the hardcore gamers I know. I’m a proficient, but not expert, web user. Put these three things together, though, and I am pretty hot on Social Media for Organisational Development.

    The internet is distracting. But it allows deep thought on some of the new disciplines. Not only that, but it allows the relatively spontaneous creation of new disciplines.

    • Thanks for your reply Simon. I think you’ve done a good job pulling out one of the central problems in “the shallows”. As a colleague here said, ‘the entire notion of deep-thinking is a normative one’. The line between deep thought and distraction is like the line between procrastination and incubation- it depends entirely on my subjective feelings and the outcome of my work- the end product.

      So I think you raise an excellent example. In your case, it’s not that your multi-tasking raises any real issues with the depth of your thought, rather the depth of the thought lies in the actual act of multi-tasking. Carr seems to be coming from the point of view that if something (like tweets) are shown to reduce memory via distraction that we’re operating at a deficit. Well, language reduced our ability to smell pheromones, but it gave us new abilities we could have never imagined. I think the kind of cross-disciplinary, multi-modal thinking is just this sort of thing. It may take me a longer to get there, but in the end it’s a new kind of creative process.

  3. First off, I have not read Carr’s new book. I have read some of the reviews and have a somewhat high-level view of his contention — that the time we ‘waste’ on the internet is changing our brains in a bad way. Jonah’s Lehrer’s review in the NYT actually points out that there are a number of studies that prove the counter point that the internet (google, games, social networks) are improving our brains. I have also read a fair amount of the increase in IQ over the last century when apparently our brains were being rotted by radio, TV and games. Carr seems to have added the internet to the long list of things that is negatively impacting our brains. I want to read Carr’s book to find the research sources for his claims; hopefully they go further than his personal experience.

    I liked your article and the question that Todd Stark brought up — what is the trade-off? If we are spending more and more time on the internet (twitter, facebook, google, blogs etc.) what are we sacrificing? Does the seeming shallowness of digital media actually lead to shallow thinking or actually prevent us from deep thought — is that really what we are trading off? Are we trading deep thought (and attention) for shallow thought?

    This idea of trade-offs where by focusing on one mental skill we sacrifice others i.e. children when they learn to read, sacrifice their object recognition. Symbolic reasoning might be a trade-off against understanding the language of nature. Is this just a trade-off of time investment in a mental task? By learning the violin and spending 10,000 hours on it we are sacrificing spending 10,000 hours on another skill or task. But when it comes to reading we might be able to condense the knowledge of the natural world into a better semantic framework that has lead to science and an even better understanding of the natural world. Learning about nature might have involved 10,000 hours of our mental focus in pre-literate cultures, but now in an literate world we can gain the same knowledge even quicker through reading. Obviously the domains of knowledge that are open to us now far exceed just basic nature and we might decide to focus on neuroscience or music with our time. We could even focus to learn about the natural world in far more depth than we ever could before ‘reading’. What I am leading to is that I am not completely convinced we are looking at the trade-off’s correctly. I am not sure the examples of senses being deprived and the plastic mind being able to compensate with other senses is the same as devoting our time to one mental task over another. I think the somasensory examples of people that have lost their sight and have compensated with their hearing taking over that area of the brain are great to show the plasticity of our brains. What I am not so sure of is when by focusing on a new skill we have to sacrifice a major component of our mental pallette.(*) Half joking, but I doubt playing halo for 20 hours a day is going to lead to me losing my sense of smell. I think mental and physical skills impact our brains a little differently and the trade-off is in the limited amount of time we have and how spend it on learning new mental skills.

    So, I am not sure spending time on the internet is going to be a tradeoff against anything substantial. Actually counter to Carr’s contention, the internet like reading before allows us to create and share knowledge even faster than the printing press. The internet with google could allow us augment out memories (maybe even directly in the future with brain add-ons; iBrain – there is an app for that) allowing us to have access to even more information. This could actually be hugely beneficial to our minds in the long run. The way I use twitter and blogs is to find access to more information than I could 10 or 15 years ago. Yes it is true that I could just read the ‘onion’ or watch youtube videos and not get anything done but then again 15 years ago I could waste my time watching TV soap operas. There is always going to ways to waste time and people will find even more ways with the internet, but I am not sure that there is a direct correlation between the internet and wasting time. People will find ways to use new technology for bad and good and it comes to personal decisions of how your spend your time. I think more access to information is going to be far more beneficial than detrimental.

    (*)NOTE: my thoughts on the brain plasticity and mental trade-offs are still in their infancy and I am still thinking through this. I would love to hear anyone’s thoughts on this.

  4. This is an excellent discussion. I would (of course) hope that those interested in the subject would have the opportunity to read my book, as I discuss many of the issues raised here (such as the rise in IQ scores and earlier brain adaptations to technologies as diverse as maps and alphabets). The excerpts and responses don’t necessarily represent the entirety of the book. What I am trying to argue, in broad terms, is that every “intellectual technology” gives emphasis to certain modes of thought while de-emphasizing others. The Net (and related media) is no different, and the modes of though it is de-emphasizing are, in my of course subjective opinion, some of the most valuable and distinctively human modes of thought, in terms of both the intellectual lives of individuals and the creation of culture. You’ll be relieved to know that words like “dumb” and “stupid” and “rotting brains” don’t appear in my book, though they are certainly beloved by headline writers.

    Nick Carr

    • Hi Nick! Thanks for joining our discussion. I’m definitely a fan of your work, I’ve found it to be a constant challenge in my research, and I think it’s driven me to do better work. The Shallows is waiting for me back in Florida, and I’m very excited to read it. I’m sure you have done an impressive job compiling interesting resources, and the book is sure to be a great read. I look forward to future debate.

      It seems like we basically agree, but I want to highlight the cognitive benefits and am not convinced that your specific claims are central concerns. Privacy, or the abolition of privacy as a value, is definitely my number one concern when it comes to digital media. I’m curious to hear what you think about evidence indicating social media has brought about a massive revolution in authorship. Authorship is not necessarily good for deep thinking- it could be we’re authoring very shallow things. But then again, writing lots of shallow things should in theory improve writing, an analytical process.

      edit: I’m glad there are no zombie references in your book. Though I’m still not convinced that the Baroness isn’t a zombie :).

    • Hi Nick,
      I did finally get around to reading your book soon after posting my comment but I haven’t had an opportunity to post a response.
      First off I found certain aspects of your book amazing. I loved the breath of coverage of ideas around the brain and the studies. It is one of best compilations of the different disparate sources of research on the brain and I have recommended your book to a few people. I do add one caveat and that even though you cover a lot of studies that are ‘for’ and ‘against’ your main contention, your conclusions don’t always address the counter-arguments very well.
      It still seems like ALL you are pointing out is that people who spend too much time on shallow pursuits on the internet are ‘wasting’ their cognitive surplus (as Shirky would say). The piece you don’t address is that there is far more to the internet then ‘just’ shallow pursuits. It’s seems like the same argument against soap operas on TV in the 70’s or pulp fiction during the time of the printing revolution. Yes, if you spend your time on ‘shallow pursuits’ on the internet you are likely not helping your brain.
      I don’t believe the internet precludes deep thought, but you are right in one respect, there is a vast ocean out there and you shouldn’t get distracted by the shallows you need to wade through to get to the ‘deep’ ideas. It is true I “could” spend my day playing Farmville and tweeting my every mundane activity and spend no time reading scientific articles or watching TED videos for browsing Amazon to find new books to read or finding new ideas through following intelligent people of Twitter. I still think it comes down to personal choices. The internet does give you far more choices of superficial/time-wasting fluff then ever before BUT there is so many more things that are meaningful that the internet has given us.
      I think your ideas around brain plasticity and the ill effects of focusing on shallow pursuits is a promising area of research; brain plasticity, 10,000 hour rule, myelination etc.
      Anyway, your book is definitely a worthy read for it’s compilation of brain research, still not completely sold on your premise. I think there are 2 groups of people wallowing in the shallows of the internet: Group A knows it’s a waste of time and that they should be doing something else already and Group B who doesn’t care that they are wasting their time on the internet and would be wasting it in other ways anyway.
      That’s just my 2 cents.


  5. Hi, I’ve just come here from NeuroKüz’ blog where a related discussion has been taking place. I don’t really know what the form is for reposting comments on different blogs, so for the moment I’ll just link to it.

    I have much the same view on the issue as Micah and Kes, although from a slightly different perspective, and, sorry Nick, I, too, am basing my thoughts on reviews rather than the book itself.

    My perspective is somewhat different because I actually am a linguist (although a strongly anti-nativist one). I’ve never believed that there’s such a thing as a ‘language organ’, or whatever the current name is, simply because it hasn’t, in my opinion, been well-motivated enough to be shown to be necessary. As such, I’m no fan of either Pinker or Chomsky. I know they disagree strongly on some linguistic matters, but it’s all “angels on a pinhead” stuff as far as I’m concerned. In order to have the discussion, you have to believe in angels.

    In any case, all I really need to say here and now is that I’m glad I’ve found this blog, too. If it’s OK to repost my comment here to save people from being distracted and following a link, I’ll do so. ;-)

  6. Quite unbelievable. Most of the responses above are different versions of: “I think what I think already, and that’s good enough for me.” For some reason Steven Pinker stopped thinking a long time ago and many of the other responses that echo his response to Carr’s book a versions of the same. Even people who seem to have read Carr’s book clearly have not read it. Perhaps they are too busy trying to click on links when they see underlined text?

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