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The Shallows: Chapter nine: search, memory

This is my summary of chapter one of The Shallows: How the internet is changing the way we read, think and remember, by Nicholas Carr.

For my summary of chapter eight, the previous chapter, please click here.

Desiderius Erasmus was one of the earliest scholars to recommend that his students keep a notebook in which they could note down facts they found to be the most significant, so they remained fixed in the mind.

This idea evolved into a common place book, adopted by Francis Bacon, among other Enlightenment thinkers, serving as a chronicle of the intellectual development of many a gentlemen throughout the Enlightenment period.

This practice gradually fell out of favour with audio and video and the development of artificial forms of memory, committing info seemed less necessary.

With the widespread adoption of the Net, we have come to see memory as something which can be ‘outsourced’ to machines – we no longer regard memorizing facts as an efficient use of our brains – such things are better left to the Net, and our brains saved for more intricate, or more human matters.

Short term and long term memory…

Various experiments demonstrate that physical changes take place in the brain with long term memory formation, and the quality of human memory depends on interactions long after the information is first received, on how the information is processed.

The process of memory formation is complex, involving lots of interactions across different parts of the brain. Botanical metaphors are more accurate as descriptors than machine metaphors. Biological memory is alive, computer memory is not.

The machine metaphor, where memory is concerned, is wrong: the brain cannot be full, it has an unlimited capacity to store and expand. We don’t constrain our ‘other’ mental powers when we store more information, we are not freeing up space when we outsource our memories to the net.

The Internet and Memory

The calculator made it easier for the brain to transfer ideas from working memory to long term memory and encode them in conceptual schemas that are useful to working knowledge – this highly specialized tool was a boon.

The net has a different effect… it places more pressure on our working memory not only diverting resources away from our higher reasoning faculties but obstructing the consolidation of long-term memories and the development of schemas. The Web is a technology of forgetfulness…

Basically because attention is a key determinate of what we remember…. The influx of competing messages hinders…. And learning how to think really means learning to exercise control over how or what you think!On writing this book: He’s not immune!

For my summary of chapter one (which links to further chapters) please click here. To purchase the book (it’s a cracking read!) please click below!

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The Church of Google?

Google was incorporated in September 1998, a collaboration between Larry Page and Sergey Brin, helped out with $100K of venture capital. Google a play on googol, the world for the number 10 raised to the hundredth power… showing their ambition of organizing masses of information…

According to Nicholas Carr, the way in which Google is organized reflect Taylorist management principles, and the way its products effect us is not necessarily positive!

This is my summary of chapter eight of The Shallows: How the internet is changing the way we read, think and remember, by Nicholas Carr.

Google = Taylorism applied to information work

Taylor’s principles of scientific management helped shape the organisational form of the industrial revolution. Probably the best known example of applied Taylorism lies in the Ford motor plants in North America, in which turning workers into automatons resulted in extremely efficient production.

In 1993 Neil Postman outlined six assumptions of Taylorism:

  1. That the primary, if not the only goal of human labour and thought is efficiency
  2. The technical calculation is in all respects superior to human judgement
  3. That in fact human judgement cannot be trusted because it is plagued by laxity,ambiguity and unnecessary complexity
  4. That what cannot be measured does not exist or is of no value
  5. That subjectivity is an obstacle to clear thinking.
  6. That the affairs of citizens are best guided and conducted by experts…

What Ford did for physical manufacturing plants, Google is doing for the mind, applying Taylor’s principles to knowledge work.

According to Carr, we find these principles in many aspects of Google’s operations:

  • Google is obsessed with testing. Subjective aesthetic judgements have no place in its software design
  • The way it ranks web pages…. Web pages are like citations… the value of any page could be gauged by the links coming into it. AND an incoming link from a page which itself has more links pointing to it is more valuable than a page with fewer links pointing to it. Larry Page realiszd early on that the relative value of any web page could be evaluated by a mathematical analysis of two factors: the number of incoming links to the page attracted and the authority of the sites that were the sources of those links.
  • The company’s ads policy: placement is determined by the bid but also the frequency with which people click on them.

How Google effects us…

Google is quite literally in the business of distraction. Google’s profits are directly proportionate to people’s informational intake – the more links that are clicked, the higher the profits. The last thing Google wants is concentrated reading. It actually skimming and breaks in concentration

Then there is the fact that Google’s control of data means, to some extent, it has control over what we see, over our intellectual lives!

Carr also argues that Googles’ book digitization programme isn’t necessarily beneficial… To make a book available online is to dismember it. Fragment it.

When carried into the realm of the intellect, the industrial ideal of efficiency poses, as Hawthorne understood, a threat to meditative thought. The ability of a well rounded mind requires reflection, not just the ability to find information quickly.

We are now dependent on machines to filter information, it use to be human decision and time…. Out of a million books, only a handful would make it through the generations… Emerson again.

Everything that human beings are doing to make it easier to operate computer networks is at the same time, but for different reasons, making it easier for computer networks to operate human beings.’

For my summary of previous chapters please click here. To purchase the book (it’s a cracking read!) please click below!

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How does the internet effect our brains? A summary of The Shallows, chapter 7.

This is my summary of chapter seven of The Shallows: How the internet is changing the way we read, think and remember, by Nicholas Carr. For my summary of the previous chapter, chapter six, please click here.

This is finally the chapter where Carr gets to the real point of the book!

What can science tell us about the actual effects that internet use is having on the way our minds work?

Dozens of studies point to the fact that when we go online we enter an environment that promotes cursory reading, hurried and distracted thinking, and superficial learning. It is possible to think deeply while surfing the net, it’s just not the kind of thinking that that the technology encourages or rewards.

The Net delivers the kind of sensory and cognitive stimuli – repetitive, intensive, interactive, addictive – that have been show to result in strong and rapid alternations in brain circuits and functions. With the exception of alphabets and number systems, the Net may well be the single most powerful mind-altering technology that has ever come into general use.

The Net encourages all our senses simultaneously – except, so far, smell and taste. It also provides a high-speed system for delivering responses and rewards:

  • When we click a link, we get something new to look at.
  • When we Google a key word, we receive something interesting to appraise
  • When we send an instant message, we often get an instant reply,
  • When we write a blog post, we get comments and new users.

The Net commands our attention with far greater insistence that TV or radio: just look at a teenager on their phone as an example, what you see is a mind consumed with a medium, oblivious to everything else going on around them.

smart phone addiction

The interactivity of the Net amplifies this effect…. The self-consciousness magnifies the intensity of the involvement… particularly for the young.

One of the paradoxes…. The Net seizes our attention only scatter it. The Net’s cacophony of stimuli short circuits both conscious and unconscious thought, preventing our minds from thinking either deeply or creatively.

What we’re not doing online is just as important as what we are doing… web pages crowd out time we spend reading books, bite sized messages crowds out the time we spend constructing sentences and paragraphs, time hopping across hyperlinks crowds out the time we devote to quiet reflection and contemplation.

Evidence on how the Net is changing our Brains

The rest of this chapter Carr devotes to outlining the evidence on how increased use of the Net is changing our brains, most of it decreasing our ability to concentrate, but he does note that not all changes are necessarily bad!

I won’t outline the research extensively, it seems to make more sense to link to some more recent research in forthcoming blog posts, so just the gist here…

Garry Small conducted some research in 2008 in which he found that a region in the brain – the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex was more active in experience net users compared to novice net users. He also got the novice net users to surf the web for an hour a day for six days and on retesting found that this part of the brain was much more active.

When reading regular text, experienced net users have active prefrontal cortexes, while less experienced surfers do not – this is the part of brain associated with decision making and evaluation rather than interpreting.

The mind of a book reader is calm, the mind of a surfer is buzzing.

The depth of our intelligence hinges on our ability to transfer information from our working memory to our long term memory and weave it into conceptual schemas – but we can only store a certain amount of information at a time… our cogntivie load – when this is breached, info is not transferred.

Two of the biggest sources of cognitive overlaod are divided attention and extraneous problem solving, both things the internet encourages.

Frequently switching between tasks can greatly add to our cognitive load.

Evidence that web pages are skimmed…

Carr now cites various pieces of research that people who get information from just one source remember more information when tested. It seems that multimedia education do not work to improve learning, necessarily.

Compensations

There are a few upsides to our changing brains in the internet age…..

  • Encourages speed of shifting visual focus
  • Fast paced problem solving
  • Expansion in capacity of working memory.

However, overall, multitasking hampers our ability to think creatively and deeply….. it odes not make us more productive.

For my summary of chapter eight please click here. To purchase the book (it’s a cracking read!) please click below!

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The Shallows by Nicholas Carr:  How the internet is changing the way think. A summary of chapter 6

This is my summary of chapter six  of The Shallows: How the internet is changing the way we read, think and remember, by Nicholas Carr. For my summary of the previous chapter, chapter five, please click here.

Book sales (of paper books) have remained fairly robust with the mass adoption of the internet.

There are many advantages of books compare to mobile devices on which you might read the same text. (As if it wasn’t obvious by now, Nicholas Carr loves paper books!)

  • They are more robust – you can spill coffee on them without ‘killing’ them!
  • You don’t have to worry about batter life
  • You strain your eyes less when reading them.
  • They are less distracting than reading on a screen.

Carr now muses that new ebooks such as the Kindle may well take over from books. (Remember he wrote this book in 2010 when ebooks were still relatively new.) This seems likely given the cheaper production costs, and improving manufacture which improves the reading experience with ereaders.

However, E readers are likely to change our experience of reading in the same way as the Internet. They have many of the same features embedded into them, such as hyperlinks and browsers.

Carr now cites various examples of people’s experiences of reading using E readers, all of whom say they were more distracted (by looking things up on Google, for example), than when reading a regular book.

How E readers might change our writing

Carr now suggests several ways in which E readers might change the way we write….

  • They do according to Nicholas Carr in 'The Shallows'
    Do E readers change the way we read and write?

    In Japan, ‘cell phone novels’ have become increasingly popular – these are novels written via text message, with shorter sentences and less plot structure than regular novels.

  • Vooks are ebooks with videos embedded
  • Publishing is seen as an ongoing process rather than a finished product.
  • The impact of social media means that reading a book becomes less private.

Carr makes a lot of this final point, as he did in his previous chapter. He reiterates the idea that when silent reading became the norm in the Enlightenment, this transformed reading into an intimate, private relationship between the reader and the author. This then encouraged people to ‘write privately’ – to think and write deeply as if inviting someone to personally engage with them – this was the style of writing adopted by the great philosophers and novelists such as Marx and Tolstoy – writing was still done to be published, but the process of writing was a very deeply personal one…. And that style of writing in turn encouraged generations of people to engage at a deeply involved level with the novels and thus the authors, creating the good old virtuous circle. (It follows that in Carr’s analysis, deep reading and writing were probably central to the development of early sociology.)

A groups of Northwestern University professors wrote in a 2005 article in the Annual Review of Sociology:

‘The recent changes in our reading habits suggest that the era of mass book reading was an anomaly in our intellectual history. We are now seeing such reading return its former social class base: a self-perpetuating minority that we shale call the reading stage…. The question that remains to be answered is whether that reading class will have the power and prestige associated with an increasingly rare form of cultural capital, or will be viewed as the eccentric practitioners of an increasingly arcane hobby.’

Today there are those who suggest that the decline of the book is nothing to lament….

Mark Federman, an education researcher argues that the time has come for teachers to abandon the linear, hierarchical world of the book and enter the Web’s world of ubiquitous connectivity and to develop the skill of discovering emergent meaning among contexts that are continually in flux.

However, in reality, to enter the world of the net may just be to enter a context of constant distraction…

For my summary of chapter seven please click here. To purchase the book (it’s a cracking read!) please click below!

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The Shallows by Nicholas Carr:  How the internet is changing the way think. A summary of chapter 5

This is my summary of chapter five of The Shallows: How the internet is changing the way we read, think and remember, by Nicholas Carr. For my summary of chapter 4, please click here.

The computer has become a universal information and communication machine because so many different sorts of information – words, numbers, sounds, images and moving images, can all be translated into digital code. All of these sources of information can be ‘computed into a series of 1s and 0s.

And today the internet is a computing machine of immense power, which differs from traditional media because it is bidirectional. We can connect with businesses and each other through the internet, something not possible with traditional forms of audio and visual media.

As the internet has expanded, so our time online has grown…

time online

Correspondingly, our reading of books has been in decline – the number of minutes 25-34 year olds spent reading print media per week fell 29% between 2004 to 2008, to just 49 minutes per week. (It’s kind of depressing that it’s ‘minutes’ rather than ‘hours’!)

Until the net arrived, the history of the media was one of fragmentation: different media progressed down different paths. With the arrival of the internet, that changed: the boundaries dissolved. The internet, founded on 1s and 0s, is a medium of the most general nature.

The Internet: A Technology of Distraction

In this section Carr makes a concise and convincing argument that the way information is presented to us on the internet makes for a more distracted media experience. This is because of interactivity, hyperlinking, searchability and the multimedia ‘nature’ of the net.

Interactivity….

You’ve probably never thought about it, but reading text online is a very different experience of reading text on a physical page… simply because on the net we can click and scroll around a page. The fact that we can actively click and scroll has changed the cognitive process of reading – we are now less likely to concentrate on a page in a linear fashion, we are more likely to scroll down to the bottom or click away all together.

Hyperlinks 

Links don’t just point towards related sources of information, they propel us towards them, they encourage us to dip in and out of text. They are designed to grab our attention and take us away from what it is we are presently reading!

Searchability 

As with hyperlinks, the ease of searching online also encourages us to flit away from the present object of our attention. It follows that our attachment to any one text becomes more tenuous – we are less likely to finish one particular text and more likely to dip in and out of fragments of multiple texts.

Multimedia 

This is probably the most obviously distracting feature of the internet. Carr wrote The Shallows in 2008, and talked about the flickering adverts on most web pages which were competing  for our attention back then. Fast forward to 2018 and most news paper web sites have so much advertising on them that reading the actual content has become unbearable.

The Decline of other forms of Media 

As the internet has expanded, so other forms of media have contracted. The most drastic example of this is the decline of print newspapers.

A Vicious Cycle?

With the increased adoption of the internet, media companies have changed the form of their content to meet the changing expectations of their audiences:

  • Web based media companies are now chopping up their content, adapting it to their audience new expectations and shortened attention spans.
  • The design of online publications have changed: pages have become ‘busier’ and articles have become shorter.
  • T.V. shows have become more net like… with information tickers at the bottom of news feeds for example.
  • The way we experience real world performances has also changed – with our portable devices now ever-present to engage through social media.
  • Even Libraries have changed.

For my summary of chapter six please click here. To purchase the book (it’s a cracking read!) please click below!

 

Sources 

 

 

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The Shallows by Nicholas Carr:  How the internet is changing the way think. Summary of Chapter 4: The Deepening Page

This is my summary of chapter one of The Shallows: How the internet is changing the way we read, think and remember, by Nicholas Carr.

Chapter Four: The Deepening Page

For my summary of chapter three, please click here

Shallows Carr Book SummaryIn this chapter Nicholas Carr covers the evolution of writing technologies and their impacts on the human brain and the development of knowledge.

When people first began to write, they simply scratched their marks on anything that was convenient, such as smooth faced rocks, or strips of bark.

The Sumerians were the first to use a specialised medium for writing: specially prepared blocks of clay, and then the Egyptians began manufacturing papyrus scrolls around 2500 BC.

The problem with scrolls is that they were expensive, but the development of the wax tablet meant writing technologies spread to more people: these were much cheaper than scrolls as they could be wiped clean and thus reused. In order to store lengthier texts people would lash together several wax tablets.

The wax tablet also served as the model for the first book. This was created by an anonymous Roman artisan who first lashed together several sheets of parchment between a pair of rigid rectangles of leather to create it.

However, it wasn’t until the introduction of the printing press in the mid 15th century that the book found its perfect medium. The printing press led to a ‘virtuous cycle’ in which the increased availability of books further stimulated demand for books.

The 16th century saw the printing press go global and the first great flowering of printed literature: from Shakespeare to Milton and from Bacon to Descartes. Of course, there was also more ‘tawdry’ literature available, but this just help spread literacy to the masses.

Carr argues that the arrival of movable-type printing was a central event in the history of Western culture and the development of the Western mind.

For the medieval type of brain according got J.Z. Young, making true statements depended on fitting sensory experience with the symbols of religion. The letterpress changed that: As books became common, men could look more directly at each other’s observations, with a great increase in the accuracy and content of the information.

The social and cultural consequences were as widespread as they were profound….. reading and writing became two main attributes of citizenship in a new ‘republic of letters’.

Carr now argues that there is something of an intimate relationship between a writer and a book, and a reader and a book: the book encourages a focussed and sustained intellectual effort in a way that simply was not possible before the invention of the book.

To read a book, at least one of the great literary works, one must follow an argument, a sustained narrative… this encourages intellectual development.

Simply put, our great literary tradition of the last 400 years simply would not have existed without the technology of the book and the influence this had on the ‘neural pathways’ of so many of our great writers.

However, with the infiltration of media and especially 2.0 technologies into the mainstream, the pathways of our brain are once again changing.

For my summary of chapter five please click here. To purchase the book (it’s a cracking read!) please click below!

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The Shallows (2010) Nicholas Carr. Summary of Chapter Three: Tools of the Mind

This is my summary of chapter two of The Shallows: How the internet is changing the way we read, think and remember, by Nicholas Carr. (For my summary of chapter two, please click here!)

Conceptualizing the evolution of technology

Our intellectual maturation can be traced by looking at the way we draw pictures. Infants scrawl down only a very rough visual representation of what they see, as we get older, we develop the ability to represent pictures more accurately, with scientific precision.

This ‘artistic maturation’ process seems to mirror Jean Piaget’s evolutionary model of cognitive development within children:

  1. In very young children’s pictures there is no recognition of perspective or depth.
  2. As children mature, they develop a greater sense of intellectual realism – pictures display a greater degree of proportionality.
  3. Finally, children develop a sense of intellectual realism – they employ abstract scientific measurements to make their pictures even more accurate.

The above process of individual development also seems to mirror the evolution of map making in society:

  1. The very first maps were simply scrawls in the dirt.
  2. Over many centuries these maps became more accurate and increasingly sophisticated scientific measurements were employed to portray regions with more precision.
  3. Finally, maps were developed to display abstract ideas in an efficient form, as with the London Tube Map for example.
london tupe map.jpg
The London tube map – changing the way we perceive space?

These historical advances in cartography didn’t simply mirror the development of the human mind. They helped change the human mind. The more frequently and intensively people used maps, the more their minds came to understand reality in the maps’ terms.

The upside of this is that people are generally now more able to comprehend (unconsciously?) the unseen forces that shape their existence, because so many modern maps represent areas which we do not see in our day to day lives.

What the map did for space, the clock did for time….

For most of human history, time was experienced as cyclical phenomenon, dictated by agrarian rhythms, and it ‘flowed’ rather than being divided into abstract chunks.

All that started to change in the later half of the Middle Ages when monks started to demand more rigorous time keeping methods following an edict from Saint Benedict which stipulated that prayer should take place at specified times of the day. This spurred on the development of clocks which measured time.

As commerce, industrialisation and urbanisation took place, clock-time became increasingly important to co-ordinate the activities of business. And the units of time by which we measured things became smaller too…hours became minutes became seconds.

As clocks became smaller and watches became more popular, clock time infiltrated into our daily lives.

The clock profoundly changed the way we thought – it made us perceive reality as broken up into discrete measurable chunks, all divisible into further sub-units.

As Lewis Mumford said in ‘Technics and Civilization’, the clock ‘helped create the belief in an independent world of mathematically measurable sequences. The ‘abstract framework of divided time’ became ‘the point of reference for both action and thought’.

Categories of human technology

Carr suggests that there are four categories of human technology, divided according to how they support our amplify our native capacities.

Technologies which enhance physical strength include the plough, the ruck sack, the fighter jet.

Technologies which enhance the sensitivity of our senses – the microscope and the amplifier for example.

Technologies which reshape nature to better serve our needs and desires – such as genetically modified crops or contraceptive technologies such as the pill (heralding in the age of ‘plastic sexuality’, to coin one of Anthony Gidden’s phrases.)

Finally, there are intellectual technologies, which extend our mental powers to find and classify information, to take measurements and make calculations and even to formulate and articulate ideas. Carr provides many examples of intellectual technologies including: the clock, the map, the typewriter, the abacus, the sextant, newspapers, schools, library, the computer and the internet.

intellectual technologies examples.png

All technologies are an expression of human will, and all change us to an extent, but is intellectual technologies which affect us the most deeply. It is these that transform the very way we perceive our place in the world, and the ways in which we express ourselves.

Technological determinism versus Instrumentalism

There is an ongoing debate over the extent to which technology shapes the individual. Technological determinists argue that by and large technology shapes the individuals. This view is like that of structuralist sociologists who argue that society shapes the individual. Exponents of this view include Veblen, Marx himself, and McLuhan.

Instrumentalists take the contrary view and argue that individuals play more of an active role in using technologies, and effectively have control over technology rather than being controlled by it.

So who is right? It depends on your analytical focus…

If you look at any particular technology at a particular time, then the instrumentalist view seems to be right. For example, the Amish have successfully resisted the use of many technologies into their culture.

However, if you take a broader, more general and historical perspective, then it is hard to argue that we choose not to use widely adopted technologies such as the clock, the map, the school or the internet.

As Landgon Winner puts it:

‘Though we’re rarely conscious of the fact, many of the routines of our lives follow paths laid down by technologies that came into use long before we were born’.

The social consequences of technology

The debate between technological determinists and instrumentalists is unlikely to be solved any time soon. This is probably because the stance one takes depends on the broad or narrow perspective which one has already subscribed to.

However, most of us can agree on the fact that that technological advances are often turning points in human history. It is hard to imagine modern civilization without technology.

Carr states that it is harder to measure the historical impact of technological developments on the neurocircuitry of the human brain. This is because, up until very recently, we simply haven’t had any way of measuring micro-level changes to the human brain.

However, the recent findings which support neuroplasticity (outlined above) suggest that the brain is extremely malleable. It is therefore reasonable to posit that with every mass adoption of a new intellectual technology such as the clock, map, or internet, there is a parallel mass re-wiring of our neural circuitry.

Each new technological development has influenced how we find, store and interpret information, how we direct our attention and how we remember and forget. New technologies have also influenced how we interact with others. In short, new technologies favour certain mental traits, leaving others to fade away.

Carr further suggests that we hand down our habitual neural patterns to our children, which are further reinforced by schooling and the media. Genetic traits matter little in establishing the general neurological zeitgeist, it would seem.

Nicholas Carr devotes the rest of the chapter to an account of how intellectual technologies may have shaped people’s mental capacities in a very broad sense.

He theorises that the development of the alphabet and of a written, rather than an oral culture represented fundamental evolutionary shifts in human social development. A literate culture (rather than an oral one) was necessary as a basis for modern science.

He generally seems to believe that writing enhances human consciousness

summary of chapter four please click here. To purchase the whole book, please click the link below…

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The Vital Paths, The Shallows, Nicholas Carr: Summary of Chapter 2

This is my summary of chapter two of The Shallows: How the internet is changing the way we read, think and remember, by Nicholas Carr. (For my summary of chapter 1, please click here!)

Friedrich Nietzsche suffered from severe health problems through most of his life, so severe that he had to resign his university post as a professor of philology at the University of Basel when he was just 34 years old in 1879.

By 1881, he found that his vision was failing and that if tried to focus on reading or writing, he would soon be defeated by crushing headaches and even vomiting.

In desperation, he ordered a Malling-Hansen Writing Ball, basically a typewriter, but funky in the extreme, and in fact the fastest one made to date: with practice one could type up to 800 characters a minute.

The Malling-Hansen Writing Ball

This typewriter saved Nietzsche, at least for a time, as once he’d learned to use it, he was able to transfer words from his mind to the page with his eyes shut, thus avoiding the crippling headaches that came with regular writing.

But the device had a subtler effect on his work: one of his closest friends, Heinrich Koselitz, noticed a change in the style of his writing. There was a new forcefulness to it, as though the iron in the machine was being transferred onto the page.

Nietzsche agreed, stating in a letter to his friend that ‘out writing equipment takes part in the forming of our thoughts’.

Recent studies have found that neurons are both like and unlike other cells in our bodies. Neurons have central cores, or somas, which carry out the functions of common to all cells, but they also have two kinds of tentacle like appendages – axons and dendrites – that transmit and receive electric pulses.

When a neuron is active, a pulse flows from the soma to the tip of the axon, where it triggers the release of chemicals called neurotransmitters which flow across synapses and attach themselves to a dendrite of a neighbouring neuron, triggering (or suppressing) a new electric pulse in that cell.

There are 100 billion neurons in the human brain, which take many different shapes and range in length from a few tenths of a millimeter to a few feet. A single neuron has one axon, and many dendrites and dendrites and axons can each have multiple branches and synaptic terminals.

The average neuron makes about 1000 synaptic connections.

In other words, our brain is incredibly complex, consisting of millions of billions of connections.

Thoughts, memories, emotions, and basically our entire sense of who we are all emerge from the electrochemical interactions of neurons mediated by synapses.

The historically mistaken idea of the ‘mechanical brain’

Throughout the 20th century, most biologists and neurologists continued to believe, as many still do, that the structure of adult brain never changed: the brain was viewed as something which was malleable in childhood but became fixed in adulthood. The only structural change the brain would go through was that of decay.

There were a few heretics such as British biologist J.Z. Young and psychologist William James, but the mainstream scientific view was of the fixed structure adult brain.

Descartes was one of the first people to popularise this idea. For Descartes, in his Meditations of 1641 he claimed the brain consisted of two separate spheres: the material and the ethereal. Descartes saw the physical brain as purely mechanical instrument like a clock or a pump, while the conscious mind was more ethereal…

As reason became more part of the enlightenment, the idea of the ethereal disappeared and the idea of the brain as something which was hardwired took root.

This conception fitted in well with the industrial age obsession with mechanical contraptions. The brain was conceived of a machine that worked in a set way.

From the hardwired brain to neuroplasticity 

In 1968, Michael Merzenich mapped out the neural circuitry of monkey brains, using micro-electrodes.

He cut open a monkey’s skull, inserted a micro-electrode into a particular part of the brain he new to be associated with hands. He then prodded various parts of the monkey’s hand until the electrode lit up. He repeated this process thousands of times, inserting the electrode into slightly different parts of the brain, with five monkeys. Eventually he had the most detailed neural map (to date) of which specific parts of the brain registered sensation from which part of the hand.

In the second phase of the experiment, Merzenich moves on to severing some of the peripheral nerves in the monkeys’ hands, which grow back haphazardly.

He then proceeded with the prodding and electrodes in the brain to see how the brain reacts. At first the brain is confused: when the tip of the left finger is prodded (for example), the brain thinks the sensation is actually coming from somewhere else, maybe the middle finger.

However, after a few months the brain has remapped itself, and the new map corresponds to the new nerve structure which has grown back in the hands: prod a little finger, and the part of the brain associated with the little finger lit up again.

What Merzenich had discovered was evidence of neuroplasticity in mature primates.

He published his findings in April 1972 in the Journal ‘Brain Research’, but his findings were ignored, it seems, because they lay outside the dominant paradigm of the time which held that the adult brain was immutable and resistant to change.

He persisted in his research, and uncovered further evidence of neuroplasticity, but his findings were ignored for at least a decade more. In 1983 he wrote in another journal…

‘…. these results were completely contrary to a view of sensory systems as consisting of a series of hardwired machines.’

Eventually, however, Merzenich’s research gained credibility with the establishment, and a re-reading of the research-record finds a tradition of ‘deviants’, going back to Freud, that have either theorised or found evidence of the active-learning, ‘neuroplastic’ brain.

More recent evidence for neuroplasticity

From the 1980s research on neuroplasticity evolved with ever more microscopic brain probing equipment, and extensive research has now been carried out on both animals and humans. The evidence today suggests a very high degree of brain plasticity in several neuro circuits – not just those associated with physical sensation, but also seeing hearing, feeling and memory.

Our brains, it appears, are massively plastic. They may get less plastic as we age, but the ability of our brains to reform themselves and create new new neural pathways in response to new experiences carries on into our old age. Our neurons are always breaking old connections and forming new ones, and brand-new nerve cells are always being created.

Every time we perform a task or experience a sensation, whether physical or mental, a set of neurons in our brains is activated… as the same experience is repeated, the synaptic links between the neurons grow stronger and more plentiful. What we learn is embedded in the ever-changing cellular connections inside our head, forming true vital paths. This has become known as Hebbs rule – cells that fire together wire together.

One experiment which demonstrate how synaptic connections can change in relation to experience is Eric Kandel’s Sea Slug (Aplysia) experiment. This found that if you touch a sea slugs gill, it will normally immediately and reflexively recoil. However, if you repeatedly touch the gill without oing it harm, ,the recoil reaction stops.

Neuroplasticity: common ground for nature and nurture views of human development

The plasticity of our synapses brings into harmony two philosophies of the individual that have for centuries been in conflict: the nurture versus nature view of the mind.

This conflict of views stretches all the way back to very beginning of Enlightenment thought. John Locke’s Tabula Rasa empiricist view of the individual as a blank state is one of the earliest expressions of the nurture view of human development, while Kant’s rationalist view of the individual as consisting of a mental template at birth which determines what we can know is one of the earliest theories of human development which favours the role of nature over nurture.

The opposing philosophies of the empiricist and the rationalist find common ground in the synapse – our genes specify many of the connections between neurons, but our experiences regulate the strength or the long-term effectiveness of these connections.

The brain is not the machine we once thought it to be…… the cellular components do not form permanent structures or play rigid roles. There are various examples and experiments which demonstrate this:

  • If a person is struck blind, the visual cortex will be redeployed and used for audio processing to mitigate the loss of site.
  • Those struck deaf will develop stronger peripheral vision.
  • Edward Taub’s success with ‘intensive therapies’ for stroke victims whose brains have been damaged so that they have lost control over one side of their body. His therapies basically involve stroke victims repeating repetitive tasks with their ‘stricken’ limbs until, eventually their brains are reprogrammed, and movement restored.

NB Brain plasticity is not just limited to extreme cases. It seems that the map of the brain is changed in subtle ways even when we simply learn a new skill. The brain is so plastic, in fact, that it can reprogram itself on the fly, change the way it functions.

Two experiments which suggest that lived experience changes the shape of the brain….

  • The posterior hippocampus region (the bit that deals with spatial awareness) of the brain of London cab drivers is larger than a normal brain. The longer serving cab drivers had the largest posterior hippos.
  • An experiment with non-piano players got two groups of people to learn a short simple piece. One group practiced the piece 2 hours a day for 5 days, the second group just imagined practising the piece. Both improved, and both demonstrated the same brain changes.

According to Alvaro Pascual-Leone, ‘Plasticity is the normal ongoing state of the nervous system throughout the lifespan’. It may just be that the genius of our brains lies not in it’s complex structure, but in the lack of a structure.

In other words, we become neurologically what we think!

The downsides of neuroplasticity

Unfortunately, plastic does not mean elastic.

The paradox of plasticity is that for all our mental flexibility, it can also lock us into rigid behaviours. Once we have activated new circuitry in our brain, we long to keep it activated. In addition to being the mechanism for development and learning, plasticity can be a cause of pathology’.

Neuroplasticity has been linked to afflictions such as depression, OCD and tinnitus, and it works in much the same way as addictive drugs… the more we focus on these negative traits, the more we get locked into them.

A final problem is that there appears to be a rule of ‘survival of the busiest’. There is an opportunity cost associated with reinforcing any set of neural pathways. If we reinforce one set, others become less prominent. In other words, we cannot be skilled at everything!

In conclusion (to chapter 2)

It is comforting to think of our brain as existing in ‘splendid isolation’ but the research evidence suggests that this is not the case – our brains are a product of our experience. They change as we experience new things.

For my summary of chapter three, please click here. To purchase the whole book, please click the link below…

Image Sources 

The Enlightenment mind as machine image

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The Shallows by Nicholas Carr:  How the internet is changing the way think. A summary of chapter 1

This is my summary of chapter one of The Shallows: How the internet is changing the way we read, think and remember, by Nicholas Carr.

Carr has an uncomfortable sense that someone, or something, is remapping the neural circuitry in his brain. He feels as if he’s not thinking the way he used to think.

He says that he used to find it easy to immerse himself in a book, but that’s rarely the case anymore… his concentration drifts after a page or two and he starts looking for something else to do. Deep reading used to be easy, now it’s a struggle.

He believes this is because he spends a lot of time online, surfing and sometimes adding to the great databases of the net.

He notes that ‘the Net has become my all-purpose medium, the conduit for most of the information that flows through my eyes and ears and into my mind’ (hardly surprising giving the sheer amount of ‘functions’ that are now facilitated online!)

He notes that there are positives to the internet – having so much information to hand is very convenient and means we can think and work more efficiently. He also recognises that skim-reading short snippets of lots of articles probably makes us more creative, as this encourages us to make a greater diversity of linkages between different information sets.

However, the positives come at a price. McLuhan noted that media shape process of thought as well as supplying us with material to think about, and Carr thinks that the net is chipping away at his ability to concentrate and contemplate… Once he was like a scuba diver in a sea of words. Now he zips along the surface like a guy on a Jet-Ski.

He is not the only one who believes that the internet is changing the way he thinks: friends have made similar observations as have various bloggers. For example, Bruce Friedman who blogs about the use of computers points out that he skim-reads even short blog posts and his thinking has taken on a ‘staccato’ quality.

Phillip Davis (among many others) points to the advantages of ‘skimming’ lots of articles – believing it makes us more efficient and creative than the older linear ways of reading and thinking. Others believe the net has made books superfluous.

A research study by nGenera which interviewed six thousand members of what it called ‘Generation net’ found that young people don’t even read a page from left to right or top to bottom, they skip around, scanning it for areas of interest. It truly appears that the net is changing the way we absorb information.

Even though there are different degrees of net usage, what is clear is that for society as a whole, the net has become the communication and information medium of choice… we have embraced its uniquely rapid-fire mode of collecting and dispensing information. This transformation is profound, and so are its likely impacts.

We seem to have arrived at an important juncture in our cultural history – we are trading away our old linear thought process, calm focused and undistracted. These are being replaced by a new kind of mind that wants and needs to take in and dole out information in short, disjointed, often overlapping bursts – the faster the better.

Ever since Guttenberg’s printing press, the linear, literary mind has been at the center of art, science and society. It’s been the imaginative mind of the Renaissance, the rational mind of the Enlightenment, the inventive mind of the Industrial Revolution, even the subversive mind of Modernism. It may soon be yesterday’s mind!

Carr was born in 1959 and noes that for Baby Boomers and Generation Xrs, life began in the analogue age and gradually transitioned to the digital age from the 1980s onward.

He was an English major at Dartmouth college and outlines how in the late 1970s he spent most of his time working towards his degree in the library, rather than in the cutting edge (at the time) computer center.

He says that he didn’t feel the anxiety of information overload symptomatic of today’s online age despite the tens of thousands of books in the library. ‘Take your time, the books used to say to him, we’re not going anywhere’.

He now takes us through his own personal history of his ever-increasing engagement with computers… From his first purchase of a mac Plus in 1986; getting caught up in the ‘upgrade cycle’ in the mid-1990s; getting online for the first time by installing Netscape in 1995; and then broadband, Napster, Google, YouTube, and the rest…

When the net went Web 2.0 in 2005, he became a social networker, and a content generator, benefiting from the new ease of access to information and reduced barriers to publication afforded by new modes of connectivity.

However, by 2007 he realised that his brain was ‘hungry’… it was demanding to be fed in the way the next fed it…. in 2-minute chunks.

The internet was changing him into a high-speed data processing machine… being connected had made him want to be connected constantly… he wanted to check emails even when he was offline.

Ultimately Carr notes that… ‘The computer…. Was more than just a simple tool that did what you told it to do. It was a machine that, in subtle but unmistakable ways, exerted influence over you…. The more I used it, the more it altered the way I worked.’

For my summary of chapter two please click here. To purchase the book (it’s a cracking read!) please click below!

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