On the one hand, the fact of our "massively plastic" brains should make us optimistic about our ability to adapt in the face of our own technology. We'll take advantage of opportunities (the spurs to thought supplied by literacy) and work around the losses (the ability to concentrate deeply on a task). On the other hand, we can worry that the rewiring now under way might be exacting too steep a price. Is the kind of brain that engages in deep reading and mindful contemplation like a dying salmon swimming upstream with no chance of finding a mate? "When we go online," Carr writes, "we enter an environment that promotes cursory reading, hurried and distracted thinking, and superficial learning."
Carr's argument is based on the work of scientists studying online reading and brain researchers studying memory and attention. One big problem seems to be hyperlinks. The foundation of the Web acts like a road bump in a sentence. A link causes us to stop reading and evaluate whether or not to click on it—activating the decision-making pockets of our mind. Books present a more passive environment, letting the mind concentrate on the words instead of constantly being on the lookout for new, possibly better words. Carr sums it up this way: "Try reading a book while doing a crossword puzzle; that's the intellectual environment of the Internet."
So what if we are a little distracted? Maybe the Internet is helping us develop new minds, ones that can quickly process and evaluate information in short, directed bursts of attention. Thinkers like Tyler Cowen have argued along these lines. I may not be able to drink deeply of Proust like I used to, but I collect information from a diverse range of sources and am more informed about the things that I care about than I have ever been before. This is where I salute the genius of Carr's title, The Shallows. It's not that we aren't learning things when we scan our sites and feeds, he argues; it's that we are missing out on making the kind of deeper connections of which we were once more capable. We are splashing about in the shallows.
The problem isn't necessarily that the information online is of poorer quality than the information found in books or conversation. The trouble is that we are consuming it in a state of distraction. Carr quotes the neuroscientist Jordan Grafman: "Does optimizing for multitasking result in better functioning—that is, creativity, inventiveness, productiveness?" The studies show that when we try to do two things at once, the attention given to both activities lessens, and we do each more carelessly. Doing more multitasking doesn't mean getting better at doing two things at once; it means continuing to do many things more poorly.
The literary mind was a mind that could pay attention, and attention turns out to be a cornerstone of memory. With our plastic minds, part of learning is converting our working memory (what you are using to read right now) into long-term memory (what was that Carr book about again?). Carr points to research that suggests it's attention that determines what we remember: "The sharper the attention, the sharper the memory." If we are only paying half-attention, if we are distracted by all of the buzzes and dings on our computers, or if we don't bother to pay attention at all because we can just Google it later, we are losing a chance to build lasting connections in our minds. Connections that might one day mingle and mesh in ways that we don't understand, connections that would allow us to frame the world differently or come up with a new solution.
Carr acknowledges throughout The Shallows that it's neither possible nor preferable to rewind technology. He loves his RSS feed as much as the next guy. But because Carr is someone who grew up in the linear, literary mind-set, he's trying to capture the virtues of our "old brains" before they become even more of a rarity. It's tempting to feel he's worrying too much. You may lose an afternoon to pointless Web surfing, but not an entire mind-set. But here I am, making an extreme argument again, when what Carr is saying is actually quite measured and cautious. The Internet is changing us, changing our culture. Perhaps some of these lab experiments are detecting the initial effects of this change. Maybe we're more distractible, more frenzied, less able to concentrate. Maybe these mental tics are part of the turbulence of the transition, a pocket of air as we soar to ever higher intellectual heights. Maybe they aren't.
Whatever our destination, Carr would have us reserve a place for attentive thinking. For to judge by history, he is being not an alarmist but a realist in pointing out that the literary, attention-capable mind, though it may not quite go the way of the chanting Greek poets, will no longer reign. When that happens, our culture will lose something ineffable. And we're likely to have forgotten what it is or was.