The scatterbrained

In the few days since my essay on the Internet’s effects on cognition appeared in The Atlantic, I’ve been flooded with emails and blog posts from people saying that my struggles with deep reading and concentration mirror their own experiences. “I found the first couple of pages almost eerie in how well they described my own feelings,” wrote a typical correspondent today. Uber-blogger Andrew Sullivan said in a post a short while ago that my story “strikes close to home.”

I feel an odd mix of emotions. I’m of course gratified to see further evidence confirming my hypothesis, but it’s a melancholy sense of gratification since the hypothesis is (to me, anyway) such an unhappy one. There should be a word to describe the feeling of finding support for one’s gloomy idea.

22 thoughts on “The scatterbrained

  1. asnklv

    One vote from me on the issue of cognition and the effects of the net. However, isn’t is possible that with increased information load, speed, and accessibility we can teach our brains to be better without supplanting them with AI? I have noticed some increase of my paper books reading speed. Why can’t this be used as a off-line benefit. Step by step, hour by hour, it is possible to abstain from the NET. Plus, if the brain is as pliable as you say, then with some discipline and effort we WILL be able to get the best of the situation?

  2. Ivo Quartiroli

    I am online since the very early nineties and I was the first publisher in Italy to publish books on Internet. Even though I do meditation and bodywork to balance the prevalence of mental work, I feel how my cognitive modalities change when I am online for longer time. Having a path toward self-awareness helps me in looking on the inner screen while I look at the outer one. After I contributed to spread the Internet culture in my country now I need, through my blogs, to reflect on the impact of technology on our psyche. We know what happens in our bodies regarding food intake but we don’t know the long term impact of the overwhelming information on our minds.

  3. T Scott

    I posted a note about your excellent essay on my blog this morning, and referred to the work of David Levy, who is at the U of Washington School of Information. Levy’s take on the information overload problem (and I’m oversimplifying drastically) is that we have to discipline ourselves to take in less information and make time for reflection. The technology tools that we create help us control information flow only for awhile, but then end up creating even more overload. I can strongly recommend the December 2007 issue of Ethics and Information Technology, which he guest edited under the overall title “Information, silence, and sanctuary.”

  4. EzraBall

    You cite McLuhan in the article; I think that some of the points he makes in Understanding Media about “amputation” go a long way to explaining why you struck a nerve. He goes into great (almost deranged and incomprehensible) detail about the emotional and almost physiological reaction we feel when functions previously owned by our central nervous system are externalized as electronic media. I think few other current writers have talked much about some of these side effects of the Google amputation.

  5. alan

    Nick why would the hypothesis be an unhappy one? Your melancholic temperament must be overriding your ability to draw back and see the larger picture.

    With any and all technological advances, throughout the ages, there are going to be the challenges and benefits for culture and society. You have, with the article, both touched a nerve, I do wonder what nerve might have been touched, and opened up a dialog that can only be of greater interest as more detailed insights regarding the intersect of technology and the human being might be expressed.

    The resulting loss of cognition, in your case, might just be the price you have to pay as a result of your involvement with both technology and technological advancement!

    Ivo appears to be on the path I would choose to manage cognitive, or any other, technological/personal health situation.

    Nick loses a little cognition, we gain prophetic writing. Good trade off?


  6. Ivo Quartiroli

    I think the amputation notion in McLuhan can be applied as well to the Net, even in a broader way. The Net is “a sum of all media” and both an extension and amputation of our overall mental qualities. As the car gave us the possibility to move much farther but at the same time made our legs and cardiocirculatory system weaker, the Net extends our access to information and knowledge but at the same time takes away our capacity for deep reflection and mental silence. On an evolutionary level this could even be a way to go beyond our minds. Every spiritual path affirms that the deeper states of the soul are not found inside the mind and the mind can’t reach them. But one thing is going beyond, another is going… below and become dumb. Recently I read “The Dumbest Generation, How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes our Future”, by Mark Bauerlein. Even though I think his analysis on the subject is sometimes too journalistic and a bit superficial, the book presents interesting facts about the falling mental skills.

  7. Linuxguru1968

    How about this: deep reading of traditional books puts your brain into Beta (meditative) mode while reading off of a computer keeps you in Alpha wave (alert) mode. Unlike a book, a monitor is refreshing at a rate below your perception threshold – you are not conscious of it but your brain at the neurological level is dealing with changes in the visual field occurring at a rate that can interfere with the synaptic firings. It would be interesting to do a comparison between brain waves while reading a book vs. reading the same material on a computer screen. My guess is that the brain of a traditional reader is absorbing information in a more orderly manner while reading from a computer screen for long periods of time is creating chaos at the neurological level.

  8. friarminor

    Can’t help but often put my hands to my face and wipe my eyes as if I’m convinced that I’m also wiping cookies that have squatted in my brain.

    Recite my Mantra: Knowledge isn’t wisdom. Or go analog from time to time.



  9. Crazyfinger

    Actually I had a hard time reading your article completely, though I did read it. Not because I had become conditioned to skim by internet browsing habit hence couldn’t finish reading your “longish” article, but because while reading first one or two pages I kept saying to myself, “Yeah but…why is the obvious so hard to see? Turn the damn thing OFF if it bugs you so much!” Well, that exhortation is neither here nor there, however simple the wisdom underlying it is.

    Getting straight to the point, I wonder sometimes if the thoughts such as the ones you articulated in the Atlantic piece are a bit naive and deliberately sophisticated, just for the pleasure of it. Perhaps what all you said is experienced mostly by you all folks who opine a lot and make a living by doing it (“a lot” being the keyword here. I too am opining here).

    I work in semiconductor field, use internet quite often during my day-to-day work hours and do find it fairly easy keeping the hours under control. Most of the stuff out there is pretty boring actually. Once in a while I browse a few sites, like yours, and whatever spurs my thought, I blog. I do have an opinion about everything but am not in a major rush to blog about it.

    From where I stand, I don’t see internet influencing our reading habits to such an extent that you say. Well, if you sit and watch 18 hours of TV over a long weekend you’d experience similar shift, admittedly temporary, in how you view the world, do you not? Why is internet any special? Frankly I think you guys are giving way too credit to Google, it’s not that powerful just because it wants you to believe it is so.

    Those who relate to the Atlantic piece should realize that you are now addicted to internet. Addicted. Yes, good old fashioned addiction, like every acquired habit can be, like smoking and drinking. So just shut your computers, go out, smell fresh air and take a few walks, talk to REAL people and for crying out loud live a little…;-)

    Way back when I was under the same addiction, I wrote a blogpost which now when I read it again, is a not-so-bad a “counterbalance to the sentimentality” that your Atlantic piece is filled with (article link at the bottom, because I don’t want you to click on it rightaway, I hate that.)

    Parthian shot: On a friendly note, read a short 22-page publication by George Steiner called “The Uncommon Reader,” part of the Bennington Chapbooks in Literature series. Similar thoughts, makes a good reading, as Mr. Steiner’s earlier writings always are. An excerpt:

    “Current literacies are diffuse and irreverent. It is no longer a natural motion to turn to a book for oracular guidance. We distrust auctoritas – the commanding script or scripture, the core of the authoritarian in classic authorship – precisely because it aspires to immutability. We did not write th book. Even our most intense, penetrative encounter with it is experience at second-hand. This is the crux. The legacy of Romanticism is one of strenuous solipsism, of the development of self out of immediacy. A single credo of vitalist spontaneity leads from Wordsworth’s assertion that ‘one impulse from a vernal wood’ outweighs the dusty sum of libraries to the slogan of radical students at the University of Frankfurt in 1968: ‘let there be no more quotations’. In both cases the polemic is that of the ‘life of life’ against the ‘life of letter’, of the primacy of personal experience against the derivative-ness of even the most deeply-felt of literary emotions. To us, the phrase ‘the book of life’ is a sophistic antinomy or cliche. To Luther, who used it as a decisive point in his version of Revelation and, one suspects, to Chardin’s reader, it was a concrete verity.”

    Link to above-mentioned blogpost:

    Regards, Crazyfinger

  10. Greg Ferro

    In a sample of one, I recognise the concept of your article. However, after 15 years as an IT worker, deeply involved with absorbing new technologies on a constant basis, I find that I am adapting my learning processes to a new level that adapts or overcomes your articles premise.

    While the effects are real I feel it is ‘mental muscle memory’, and you can adapt your knowledge ingestion process. In my traditional education, all knowledge was to be ingested as permanent, however, in IT much knowledge is transitory or ephemeral.

    My method now involves identifying the fundamentals of a technology, and ingesting that as permanent knowledge, but that aspects of that learning, mostly relating to applying that knowledge to problems, is ephemeral. This ephemeral knowledge changes form rapidly, may be used only once, and oftens obsoletes quickly. Therefore a ready access to knowledge is more effective than attempting to retain this.

    Many co-workers attempt to gain and hold all knowledge on a given topic, often past its useful date. Adaptation to allow relinquishment of that knowledge, but accessing it at need is a learned skill (and no different from other historical changes).

  11. Simon

    I find that if I read articles on the web i.e. on a screen, I have a really hard time concentrating – it seems that my mind moves into an attention-deficit mode whenever I’m on a computer.

    However, I feel that I have no problems with following sustained arguments in newspapers, books etc. But again, if I read the same newspapers online with the same sort of in-depth articles, I find that I just can’t concentrate…

    So there’s that odd dichotomy of being on a device with access to so much information, but being in a mental mode that finds me unable to digest it properly.

    As to why this is… perhaps too much choice overwhelms me. Perhaps computer displays are too bright, with not a high enough dpi or refresh rate to make my eyes feel rested. Perhaps it’s a combination of both of these.

    But it’s definitely worrying that you and so many people are experiencing similar symptoms…

  12. Alastair Sweeny


    I was fortunate enough to be a student of Marshall McLuhan at the University of Toronto. He was a great and voracious reader, but I think he was fully aware of the physical effort involved in reading – partaking of the technology of the printed word. He was a quick and witty speaker, but reading for him was always heavy lifting.

    He also had a very interesting take on type. I remember him saying once that the tactile poet Gerard Manley Hopkins was “Braille for the poetically blind.”

    McLuhan would of course be fascinated by the effects of the internet and especially wireless networking and smart phones. I am sure he would agree with the statement by RIM’s Mike Lazaridis that,

    “Applications and devices taking advantage of wireless networks will revolutionize the way people interact. These connected data devices will become the closest thing we have to mental telepathy on a world scale.”

    Maybe these devices will give us blind people a kind of Braille for the global village. Maybe they will restore something we have lost, or something we once amputated.

  13. JBSay

    “There should be a word to describe the feeling of finding support for one’s gloomy idea.”

    Is it kind of the opposite of Schadenfreude?

    Maybe: Konfirmationdunkel.

  14. Bertil

    I can’t but agree and admire the plasticity of your mind. I find it is my being in the same room as a computer that keeps my mind on-line; as son as I step in the living room with a tea, or go in the garden, I’m fine.

    Are your findings gloomy? No, it’s (very early) science: the problem is not that humans can’t go beyond a hundred yards in less then 10, 15 seconds — the blessing is that we know why, and how to cure that (internal combustion engine, or a bicycle).

    For all the Mac users, I can’t but mention “Freedom”, the surprising Internet-connexion disabler, by the brilliant Fred Stutzman:

    (His blog and his research are great too, but it’s not the topic here.)

  15. Nick Carr

    Is it kind of the opposite of Schadenfreude?

    Come to think of it, it kind of is.

    Maybe: Konfirmationdunkel.

    My German sucks, but I sense you’re on to something.

  16. Charlie

    I completely agree with what you say. I recently sorted all my books into those I’d read and those I either hadn’t started or hadn’t finished. The hadn’t finished pile was huge. It really worried me. I’ve decided to go “offline” for a few months to have a really good crack at the backlog.

    Despite this there is something that I really love about the new world of online reading: concision. Books are often the worst examples of needless verbosity. The online world cuts through a lot of this bloat and gets right to the heart of issues.

    Have you thought that the reason we struggle to read books now is that it is a broken medium? Perhaps books have been superceded.

  17. Condo

    “There should be a word to describe the feeling of finding support for one’s gloomy idea.”

    Maybe “The Anti-Gay Science?”

  18. Brook Ellingwood

    I started off writing a comment, but it quickly became so long I turned it into a blog post of my own. Funny how the attention span to read is coming to be in short supply, at the same time that the ability to self-publish has vastly expanded the number of writers…

  19. KathyF

    These comments are all way too long. Skimming the first couple is the best I can do. After all, I’ve got email to check!

  20. haydn

    There’s been a much longer-term erosion in the functions of memory – going back to the development of the PC. What we’re seeing now is not all attributable to the web – television too has gone short form. I think the underlying problem is not to do with contemplation or meditation but the loss of a role for memory and commemoration – machines do all that for us now. Traditionally our use of communications had a high point (spelling but literature, paint but art, jokes and Shakespeare) which elevated life and made it memorable. Artists, thinkers, writers need to intervene in the web, the PC and the television to re-establish a role for communications that make life memorable.

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