What Is the Internet Doing to Our Brains?

The debate about the future of book publishing is largely focused on two questions: First, how will books be sold (bricks and mortar vs. the Internet)? And, second, how will the content be delivered (traditional bound books vs. digital)? Both of these issues are, of course, being driven by the new realities made possible via the Internet.

a man's head exploding

But I think something even more profound is happening. While the Internet is shaping how we read, it is also shaping how we think.

In a recent issue of Atlantic Monthly (July/August 2008), Nicholas Carr asks, “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” He then goes on to describe what the Internet is doing to our brains. This is a must-read for anyone in the book publishing industry.

He says,

Over the past few years I’ve had an uncomfortable sense that someone, or something, has been tinkering with my brain, remapping the neural circuitry, reprogramming the memory. My mind isn’t going—so far as I can tell—but it’s changing. I’m not thinking the way I used to think. I can feel it most strongly when I’m reading. Immersing myself in a book or a lengthy article used to be easy. My mind would get caught up in the narrative or the turns of the argument, and I’d spend hours strolling through long stretches of prose. That’s rarely the case anymore. Now my concentration often starts to drift after two or three pages. I get fidgety, lose the thread, begin looking for something else to do. I feel as if I’m always dragging my wayward brain back to the text. The deep reading that used to come naturally has become a struggle.”

I can definitely relate to this. Something is happening to me, too. I am finding it increasingly difficult to focus when I read books or even long articles.

Carr notes that he no longer really reads. He just skims:

And what the Net seems to be doing is chipping away my capacity for concentration and contemplation. My mind now expects to take in information the way the Net distributes it: in a swiftly moving stream of particles. Once I was a scuba diver in the sea of words. Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski.”

He goes on to say that it’s not just reading. Something is happening to our brains:

When the Net absorbs a medium, that medium is re-created in the Net’s image. It injects the medium’s content with hyperlinks, blinking ads, and other digital gewgaws, and it surrounds the content with the content of all the other media it has absorbed. A new e-mail message, for instance, may announce its arrival as we’re glancing over the latest headlines at a newspaper’s site. The result is to scatter our attention and diffuse our concentration.”

What does this mean for book publishing? I don’t know. But I do think Carr is onto something significant. If he is right, then how books are sold and delivered are the least of our worries.

Question: How about you? What impact is the Internet having on your brain?
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  • http://sam.duregger.net sam

    Michael, I've been mulling over this Internet Induced ADD for a while… In fact, I actually unplugged for a season — living in a tent with no electricity or running water — while working at LifeChurch.tv as the project manager for the Digerati team… it was an unbelievable experience and one that I am still processing through.

    not to be too dichotomous… but here is a link to a 90 sec video about my experience that is just short enough to capture your attention, so you don't have to skim.

  • http://www.smithsk.com S K Smith

    Like most any tool, the Internet is amoral – it depends how it is used. I can look up facts more quickly with a few clicks, have access to new and old ideas. With discipline and a moral ballast, it can be a very positive tool and has helped my brain. The lack of either discipline or moral guidance, negative. I'm sure this same topic was hashed with the advent of TV, movies, and the printing press. As Solomon has said, There is nothing new under the sun …. including the debate about the internet.

  • http://www.davidjdunn.com David J. Dunn

    This is not an entirely new idea. The ancient Greeks knew that "entertainment" damaged reason. Which is true both of reading and writing. Lately, I have taken to writing longhand and then transcribing. Slowing down makes everything clearer.

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  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1419226621 Eva Pauline Scott

    I think the real culprit is TV. It is made to flash every few seconds. I do not watch TV. I read on the Internet, and I read print books, and I read .pdfs, and books on Kindle. I still read very long books, and have a fairly good concentration level. 

    I think it depends on what media you are immersing yourself. I do not watch many videos either. 

    As far as publishing, if people are no longer able to concentrate on larger content; then, I think writers will need to write shorter paragraphs to keep readers’ attention. For instance, it is easier to read what someone says if they break it up like this comment, instead of making it one long post.

    I understand this is true for speakers as well. If you are speaking to an audience (and perhaps to individuals as well), you need to change pace every few seconds to keep the audience’s attention.

    You have to work with the culture to impact it.

  • http://blog.rumorsofglory.com/ Lucille Zimmerman

    I was listening to a radio interview and the senator said our colleges are commiting educational malpractice because they aren’t making kids read, they are simply teaching them where to find things.  

    We are certainly experiencing a paradigm shift. Rather than fight it, I try to understand it and find what is good about it. 

  • http://about.me/colinmichael Colin Michael

    An odd phenomenon, yes, but I find that my brain snaps back into shape fairly quickly. Due to the recent brush with Irene, we were without power for a day and a half. After about 24 hours with no digital media of any kind bombarding me, and no hope of jumping online to distract me, I was able to delve much deeper into the book I have been trying read for several days. 

    This has prompted me to consider something I like to call “a day of rest”, one day in the week where I purposefully unplug for at least 24 hours. Crazy idea? Perhaps, but I hear that it has been used successfully in the past ;-)

  • Nicolewian

    Yes, I have noticed this immensely.  It wasn’t so bad when I just had Facebook.  Then I opened up a twitter account and suddenly reading novels was difficult.  For the first time in my life.  I love to read!  I related it right away to the internet and social media with its threads and 140 characters and links, etc, etc.  So I made myself go back, read what I had skimmed and sit through it as I would have in the past.  Because I don’t want to lose the important and enriching  ability to be able to enjoy the written word, even in length.  

  • Tom Hoffman

    I used to think my reading had become like that discussed in the article because I am around children all day and frequently interrupted.  When I am free to read in the evenings, my mind is often spent.  Now this article has me wondering.  But just as environment does play a part, the ‘Net might not be the only culprit.  Television, radio, even a stroll through most retail stores offer sensory overload and scatter our attention in a dozen different directions.  I think maybe the internet is just the most efficient at doing what is going on all around us.
    I worry about the intellectual implications of this reality, but also the spiritual.  What does Eternal Truth mean to a society that has become accustomed to–maybe even needs–a new image every couple of seconds?  And if we do apprehend that Truth, our present environment makes it hard to meditate, contemplate, reflect, or ponder.

    • Kusa

      I like to read books and listening audio. I am concern for shaping our souls.  I decided to protect my heart and mind and I am reading or listening only selected authors. The faith comes by haring…

  • http://twitter.com/PodcastinChurch Paul Alan Clifford

    My experience is the opposite.  I always had trouble concentrating when I read, but now that I’m online a lot, reading a lot, I can read more per sitting.  

    The other day, I read an entire book on my Kindle in a day.  I don’t think the Kindle reading experience had anything to do with it.  


  • http://www.coachingreallyworks.com/ Abe S.

    While the internet may be changing the way we think, I’m often more concerned with people insisting that the way things were is better based only on the fact that it’s changing.

    Could it be that the changes in thinking are part of a shift in our development, a micro-evolution? I’m aware of dangers of technology “dumbing down” our culture. At the same time we are simply facing change and could it be that while we may feel uncertain about it, in the end its simply a matter of change; not good, not bad, just change?

  • http://twitter.com/blessingmpofu Blessing Mpofu

    I feel exactly the same… However , i do think one of the most valuable lessons for writers and publishers is to get books that get to the point. Length of books mustn’t matter than what they say for their size

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  • Darlene Pawlik

    Agreed. I hadn’t articulated it, but I have noticed a difference. For me, it means shorter paragraphs and short sections, not really chapters. I never read fiction, but I do love to read. I read manuals and self help or teaching texts. So, maybe I have an advantage in that way. Nonfiction tends to lend itself easily to stops and starts.

    Happy reading and Happy writing!

  • BK Burger

    Boy this article is right on. And both children and adults are developing a shorter attention span. Not good!

  • James Cook

    I already have ADD. While reading this article, ironically, I remembered some notes from a meeting that I needed to write down and almost forgot to come back until I saw the tab still open.

    I believe he’s spot-on. If I’m reading an e-book (for instance) I prefer the Kindle to a pad because my basic Kindle does not allow me to escape down ‘bunny trails.’

    Instead of processing and critical thinking, I’ve turned into an information vacuum not just sucking up what I want but the staples and paperclips that I should probably avoid.

  • Cindy Cleaver

    I absolutely agree. I haven’t finished very many books lately. Sometimes it seems like a chore to skim through the newspaper. It’s a relief to get away from the screen, and yet I am pulled back to it. When I young, I read book after book after book. There were no computers then, no internet. Big corporations had simple computers. I learned to write by reading. I read everything I could get my hands on. Today, I can’t be bothered to read a long blog post, and my own blog posts are 500 to 900 words.

    Yesterday, I went to a concert put on by a family with 10 children (eight of them performed with the parents). They sang in close harmonies. It was the first concert (set) they had ever performed in public. They were pretty good. But they sang together as a family all the time. When leaving for the day, in the evening. This family has gone through some hard times, yet they sing. My youngest is a friend to the family, and said she knew that they sang like this (she stayed overnight quite a few times), and wondered why they didn’t sing for others. As I was growing up, my own family sang like this. We sang on trips, while doing the dishes and other chores. We sang for fun.

    People don’t have time to sing anymore. They don’t have time to read anymore. It’s the constant thrum thrum thrum of our times.

  • http://moderndigitalmarketing.com/ Michael Massie

    Michael, I absolutely agree. The only time I get engrossed in a novel these days is when the writing is really superb. Of course, that may have a lot to do with the fact that I read a lot of indie fiction (hey, I love supporting indie writers, because they’re both entrepreneurs and writers, like me).

    Although I agree with Karla to an extent (that we need to be aware of the short attention spans of modern readers), I think both we and our readers would be better served by improving the quality of our writing. Or, maybe that’s just the literary romantic in me – because I hate to think what the world would be like if all modern literature read like a Huff Post article. :)

    Personally, I limit the amount of time I spend consuming digital content. I find it necessary, since I spend the majority of my day producing it. I have to remind myself that I need to get outdoors, go meet some people and interface face-to-face, and have an actual conversation (that’s not with my three-year-old). In the future (which is now, methinks) perhaps people will need to be mindful of stretching their focus by engaging in activities that rewire the brain for extended periods of concentration.

    Or, maybe we just need to get off the net, and into a good book. A good, old-fashioned, paper book.

  • http://changeyouremotions.com/ Linda Lochridge Hoenigsberg

    This is fascinating, Michael. I just noticed the other night while I was immersed in a new book by an author I have not read before. I LOVED the writing, and really didn’t want to put the “book” down (it’s on my iPad), but I noticed that a few times I just skipped sentences. I had this feeling of cognitive dissonance, like, “Why did I do that?” It wasn’t boring me at all…I just knew that the next few sentences were not really going to add any new information to the story line. Wow…very interesting.

  • Patricia Zell

    I think what that means for us as writers, particularly non-fiction writers, is that we need to be able to distill information and present complex material in understandable terms. I learned that skill in a high school classroom where I taught for 11 years before retiring. The internet is not going away, and a lot of what has been written in books is redundant and un-necessary. Clarity will be the key.

  • http://anselm-ministries.us/ Chuck Sigler

    I notice it when reading online material. I’ll quickly switch to scanning if the first paragraphs don’t grab me. Can’t say I’ve noticed it with books.

  • http://www.brainwads.net/drewhawkins Drew Hawkins

    Have you read his book The Shallows? A much deeper dive into technology and how we consume information?

    • http://michaelhyatt.com/ Michael Hyatt

      I have not.

  • Melinda Todd

    It completely depends on what I am reading. If it’s a lot of info I’m not really interested in, I tend to skim. If it’s something that I WANT to know, I read all of it. And if it’s a good book, I become completely engulfed in it and read every word as well.

  • Scott Hays

    More variables need to be considered here. For example, are the people more proficient at multi-tasking finding that their focus is not what it used to be? What about caffeine intake? I think our society drinks a lot more coffee than it used to, not to mention the Rock Star, Monster and Mountain Dew patrons. In the period of time before Starbucks, which I refer to as “BS”, there was an increased ability to just plain relax, often with a good book. We have to watch what and how much we are taking in. Then we can see if maybe we can tweak it a little to our benefit.

  • Rod Stilwell

    Over 30 years ago I taught a program on the effects of TV on kids, where the question was: Is television shaping our lives.” It didn’t take long to realize that the question was pointless and likely asked far too late in the process. The Internet experience isn’t new – just different from what we saw when we introduced TV. It has changed the way we view the world, and as a result it has changed the way we live in and “process” in the world.

    We used to say that TV let your kids go around the world before you let them cross the street. So the internet is simply TV on steroids. I don’t think the Internet is the problem to focus on, however. Instead, we need to focus on how we leverage this not-so-new tool, how we embrace it as a means of opening the dialogue with our kids, or our friends. In our home, for example, I encourage my 4 daughters to whip out their smart phones to find relevant articles or additional information whenever we are discussing something at the dinner table. It has allowed us to challenge each other in new and creative ways. And invariably, a few days later, one of them will say “hey, you know that thing we discussed last week, well I was talking with my friends and…”

    Do we still read books at home? You bet. Do we read aloud? Absolutely. But we also read articles aloud and share our “discoveries” a lot more than I ever did growing up in a household that read lots of books. So information “chunking” may be reducing our attention span (or is it growing old that’s doing that?) but it is also ushering in more opportunity for dialogue and relationship building.

  • Francisco

    What some of the brain scans show in young children is that they become dependent on stimulation.

    I struggle with the idea of “more is better” with regard to information and content. I need to transition to successful application rather than just more.

    I’m trying to see if there are equivalent windows of time I can fit in long periods of thinking, engaging in or focusing on just one thing at a time.

    I’m terribly unsuccessful right now and travel makes it worse.

  • Steven

    Well said, my mind flies away after a few pages and stops the reading process. Right now books my reading list is adding up much faster than I can consume them.