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6/3/2010
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Fritz Nelson
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Book Review: Nicholas Carr's 'The Shallows'

The 'IT Doesn't Matter' author is at it again -- this time arguing that the Internet is making us shallow.

[Meet Nicholas Carr at the 2010 InformationWeek 500 Conference, September 12-15.]

You really should read Nicholas Carr's "The Shallows." The snippets I give you will hardly do it justice, and by reading the book you'll avoid the many distractions of this web page -- the revolving and flashing ads, lists of related content, click-to-play videos, embedded links, and so many other objects we put before you. These objects, these distractions interfere with your ability to ponder, to think deeply, and to remember the words that follow. Carr argues that the brain is shaped (literally) by the repetition of these distractions, and made shallow.

While reading "The Shallows" I grew defensive, and hopeless about how to change the course we're on. The very site upon which these words HTML themselves into your browser is guilty of the assault Carr says is being aimed at our brains. Meantime, the Twitters and Facebooks and FourSquares feed us their drips of disruption, letting us beg for our celebrity. But they are fun, and they make us feel like we belong, or at least that we haven't missed out on something. Let's all retweet and then head off to Sprinkles, where we're only three visits a day away from becoming its mayor.

In bestowing these things status, we are complicit. And in joining we send our minds into a depthless pool, where we've seen and heard but have not absorbed. A Wells Fargo analyst and I recently compared how many devices and monitors we watch during a day, how many tabs we have on how many browsers. We each took notes on our iPads and checked our BlackBerrys several times during the meeting, and we took pride in how insidious our addictions could grow.

Our Brains Are Plastic
The "Shallows" picks up where Carr's notorious piece from The Atlantic ("Is Google Making Us Stupid") leaves off (much of the beginning text is lifted directly), taking Marshall McLuhan's "the medium is the message" one step further: "Every new medium," Carr says, "changes us."

Far from offering a series of rants on the dangers of new media, Carr spends chapters walking us through a variety of historical experiments and laymen's explanations on the workings of the brain. He quickly launches into one of the book's foundations: a deep discussion of neuroplasticity. For years, neurologists held that our brain structure doesn't change much. A breakthrough series of experiments by researcher Michael Merzenich in 1968 showed definitively that brain structure does, in fact, change; like plastic.

As biologist Eric Kandel demonstrated, neurons work together to form paths, and neurologist Vilayanur Ramachandran's experiments on amputees showed how neural pathways formed over a lifetime can slowly rewire themselves in the form of phantom limbs.

Carr also cites the remarkable case of Michael Bernstein, a stroke victim whose left hand was crippled but through an experimental program at the University of Alabama led by neuroplasticity researcher Edward Taub taught his brain to form neural pathways that eventually led to recovery. (The Bernstein case was written about in Norman Doidge's book "The Brain That Changes Itself.")

Neuroplasticity has allowed us to adapt to changes in our environment and our experiences. "Evolution has given us a brain that can literally change its mind -- over and over again," Carr says. But what's more important, at least to the conclusions Carr makes, is that neuroplasticity is the result of the actual act of thinking. He cites an experiment conducted by Alvaro Pascual-Leone, in which a group of subjects played a simple song on the piano (all of them inexperienced on the instrument) by imagining themselves doing so, and they were able to play as well as those who had actually practiced. "We become, neurologically, what we think," Carr concludes. The danger is that these pathways want to remain in place, and in some ways, ask to be reinforced. So while they're plastic, Carr observes, they're not elastic.

The linkage that Carr is building, of course, is that the Web and Web tools we use today are starting to form neural pathways in our plastic brains, shaping what and how we think. Beyond providing an overview of the science of the brain, Carr shows how our brains have been shaped. Friedrich Nietzche, for example, found that the typewriter changed HOW he thought. The map, Carr says, pointing to cartography expert Vincent Virga, "embodies a particular mode of seeing and thinking ... the technology of the map gave to man a new and more comprehending mind, better able to understand the unseen forces that shape his surroundings and his existence."

Clocks, too, changed us, making us think about the synchronization of work, schedules, and transportation, Carr says. "Once the clock had redefined time as a series of units of equal duration, our minds began to stress the methodical mental work of division and measurement," he writes.

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