Is the internet really altering the way our brains work? According to Nicholas Carr, yes. “The Shallows” opened my eyes to the price we are paying to enjoy the benefits of the internet. Some moments I was completely fascinated, and others I was disturbed. In the prologue, I was surprised to find out that the book was published nearly ten years ago because it honestly feels like it could’ve been written this year; it’s still very relevant to the modern times we live in 2021.
The very moment I was born, the internet already existed, and so by the time I was old enough to be playing games on my iPad at the dinner table, I probably knew more about the internet than my own parents did. I think we can all agree that the internet has transformed life. Information is quite literally only one Google search away. But with all these innovations, Carr argues that there is a price to pay for plugging into the Internet. The very existence of residential therapy centers to unhook the addicted and studies that using the Internet lights up the same part of the brain as cocaine is already enough evidence for me to believe that there must be some long-lasting, harmful effects to using the Internet.
The most relatable fact of the entire book was that the Internet has shortened our attention span. This could not be truer. Even when I want to relax, wind down, and dedicate time to read a book, I find my mind drifting to other places. I have lost the ability to focus and find myself reading the same passage over again just to grasp the meaning. Carr also feels that the Internet has destroyed his ability to read deeply.
He says, “My brain wasn’t just drifting. It was hungry. It was demanding to be fed the way the Net fed it.” Carr personifies his brain as an animal demanding to be fed. It’s true: when I’m reading a book, my brain just isn’t being stimulated the way it would be if I was browsing the Internet — no links, no pop-up notifications, just words on a page.
Carr himself admits that when writing “The Shallows,” he found it hard to sit down and write it—how ironic! As humans, I think we are more than capable of deep thinking if we put our minds to it. However, I think that the natural state of our thoughts is chaotic and all over the place. After all, we lead very busy lives, and our brains are in a constant state of thought.
I was never really interested in the inner workings of the brain, but “The Shallows” gave me my first lesson on how the neural pathways in the brain work starting with the neurons and the soma. Carr weaves his compelling argument with breakthrough discoveries by leading pioneers in brain plasticity such as Merzenich’s landmark experiment on monkeys. He made incisions in the hands and discovered that the signal confused the monkey’s brain to think that another body part was being stimulated. When the monkey repaired the damage on its own, neuroplasticity, the brain’s ability to rearrange itself in response to external stimuli, was discovered.
Nowadays, this phenomenon is widely accepted; you often hear children’s brains being compared to sponges because they absorb everything around them; their brain is constantly making new neural connections. Furthering Carr’s argument, the technology that we use in our day-to-day lives has the ability to literally reroute neural pathways. Because Carr explores what the Internet is doing to our brains through a neuroscience lens, it is helpful that he takes the time to explain the important discoveries that help us understand how the brain works.
Two years ago, I didn’t want to carry my world history textbook back and forth from school to home just to complete reading assignments, so I purchased my first eTextbook, fully accessible online. And I never looked back. I ended up preferring to read material on a computer not only because it was more convenient, but because of the way my eyes naturally flowed across the screen, and I could digest the information better. Now, I almost always prefer to read information online over a physical copy. As Carr says, we humans adapt to the tools and tasks we are given. Since using technology, I’ve adapted and acquired some skills that greatly benefit me. I can type at 112 words per minute speed — which comes in handy when typing essays or doing research — and the ability to skim information.
I think a discussion about the Internet would not be complete without mentioning social media. I’m not proud of my average screen time, but as Carr suggests, this is just a testament to how truly addictive the Internet is. An app that I find to be so addictive is TikTok, a video social media where users scroll on an endless “For You” page. Constantly switching to a new video, it’s like an information overload, and these social media apps are designed in a way where you have to make an effort to exit the app, or else it’s like navigating an endless loophole.
As we stare into the black mirror of our devices, our brains are being conditioned to becoming addicted. And I do think the Internet is taking away our ability to think; it throws so much information at us which is so readily available at our disposal that we start to act like computers instead of thinkers. But the problem is that the world needs more thinkers. While most people use social media as an escape from their day-to-day lives, I think that people should be using it as a way to educate themselves and achieve their goals. The Internet is powerful — it has the power to ruin someone’s reputation even start wars. We must be very careful and cognizant of what spending an unhealthy amount of time on the Internet can do long-term to our brain.
Technology and the Internet have enriched our lives beyond what words can describe. I certainly love technology and don’t think that I will be putting it down anytime soon. I think Carr agrees with me too. His book is not saying that technology is bad, but rather trying to get people to be cognizant of the ways in which technology is affecting us — whether that be good or bad.
As a fellow teen and user of the Internet, I urge you to read “The Shallows.” You will challenge preconceptions of nature and enter into some deep and personal reflection. There is much to glean from this book that will forever change the way you see the Internet and the human mind.