I’ve blogged on this book before: The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains by Nicholas Carr. One part of the book that sticks out to me is where Carr talks about the research which proves that the way we often use the internet is actually detrimental to our thinking and long-term memory. Here are a few excerpts from that chapter (chapter nine, “Search, Memory”).
“Clive Thompson, the ‘Wired’ writer, refers to the Net as an ‘outboard brain’ that is taking over the role previously played by inner memory. ‘I’ve almost given up making an effort to remember anything,’ he says, ‘because I can instantly retrieve the information online.’ He suggests that ‘by offloading data onto silicon, we free our own gray matter for more germanely ‘human’ tasks like brain-storming and daydreaming.’
“…[In 1892 when] William James declared that ‘the art of remembering is the art of thinking,’ he was stating the obvious. Now, his words seem old-fashioned.”
“…’The amount of information that can be stored in long-term memory is virtually boundless.’ Evidence suggests, moreover, that as we build up our personal store of memories, our minds become sharper. The very act of remembering, explains clinical psychologist Sheila Crowell in ‘The Neurobiology of Learning,’ appears to modify the brain in a way that can make it easier to learn ideas and skills in the future.'”
“We don’t constrain our mental powers when we store new long-term memories. We strengthen them. With each expansion of our memory comes an enlargement of our intelligence. The Web provides a convenient and compelling supplement to personal memory, but when we start using the Web as a substitute for personal memory, by passing the inner processes of consolidation, we risk emptying our minds of their riches.”
“As the experience of math students has shown, the calculator made it easier for the brain to transfer ideas from working memory to long-term memory and encode them in the conceptual schemas that are so important to building knowledge. The Web has a very different effect. It places more pressure on our working memory, not only diverting resources from our higher reasoning faculties but obstructing the consolidation of long-term memories and the development of schemas. The calculator, a powerful but highly specialized tool, turned out to be an aid to memory. The Web is a technology of forgetfulness.”
Since many of our readers are students (students of Scripture, students in seminary, and other types of students), this is worth considering. How do we use the internet? Is it becoming a crutch for deeper learning and memorizing? Since we can find dates and definitions online instantly, are we becoming lazy by not memorizing this information ourselves? Is the internet keeping us from engaging and reading books that tell us the information we want to know?
In the last few years, I’ve come to the point where I do very little research online. I realize there are outstanding resources online, but for me personally, it has been more harmful than helpful. I found myself wasting so much time following rabbit trails, getting sidetracked by issues I’m not studying, and running into very poor scholarship along the way – it began to be a frustration. Furthermore, I realized I actually forgot a lot of what I researched on the internet.
Here’s one example with which I’ll end this post. Several years ago, as I began to read the Puritans, I was interested in learning a little about the Puritan theologians I was reading. So I found much of my information online. But I’d forget it by the time I finished the book and I’d spend so much time trying to find the information back later I got lazy and quit trying. And a few times in my online research I knew the information was incorrect! So rather than researching online, I purchased Joel Beeke’s book, Meet the Puritans, which has a summary of most of the Puritans’ lives and writings. Now I go to that book in my studies, which is quicker, more accurate, and more helpful for my long-term memory than finding the information online. This example could be used in many areas of theology – commentaries, church history, and so forth.
Perhaps you can identify with me here, or perhaps you beg to differ (your comments are welcome!). Either way, I’d recommend reading this book: The Shallows by Nicholas Carr.