Internet Moderation and Online Research

Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains (ISBN10: 0393339750; ISBN13: 9780393339758) 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.

shane lems

13 thoughts on “Internet Moderation and Online Research”

  1. Yes, Shane, I have had this problem. It is too easy (lazy?) to just rely on the internet. However, I have found that if I use my printer so that I can review something in more detail when I have time, this helps me retain the information in my memory.

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  2. Very much agreed! In a library, for instance, you may be confronted with a whole shelf of books on the topic you want to research, but you can only read one at a time. On the internet, you get hundreds of quotes, references, and resources in a single blast–and additional distractions at every turn. It’s content overload.

    An interesting side note…I don’t know that calculators are all that different from the internet. If I didn’t have a calculator, think of the hundreds of math problems I might have to compute in my head or on paper every day–and think of how much sharper my brain might be. Instead, even something as simple as addition gets relegated to a machine, while my brain slowly atrophies.

    A timely topic.

    Michael Kearney
    West Sayville URC
    Long Island, New York

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    1. Michael, I absolutely concur about the calculator thing! In the ministry where I serve, there are about five of us who share the same desk, working in shifts. Some of the others don’t see the value of keeping everything in a designated spot so everyone knows where things are. For example, the calculator. It has completely vanished! At first, it was an irritation, but now, weeks later, I am finding that I can do without it, much to my senior surprise! In fact, if the calculator somehow reappeared, I probably would not even use it!

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  3. Thank you for some good thoughts on research. When my wife Robyn and I wrote our book Broken Minds Hope for Healing When You Feel Like You’re Losing It, we did very little research on-line, except for important updates on the brain and science. And we usually took advantage of solid sources like the National Institute of Mental Health or John Hopkins School of Psychiatry.
    The same can be said of the use of concordances. Concordances are amazing but you need to keep reading your Bible every day and if you preach, your divisions and subdivisions of the sermon will come directly from the Bible.
    I think we also need to keep reading books. Now of course if you like Kindle or e-book that is fine. If we write we must keep ourselves from the temptation to get fragmented information from the internet. We should read a book and the specific paragraphs contextually. For example, I love Spurgeon and have many of his books. However, my wife some years back bought me the fifteen volume set of Spurgeon’s sermons from A-Z.
    I am now reading the 6th volume and I read about a volume a year. It is amazing how you can learn his theology from his sermons and all kinds of details which are given within the framework of the times that he lived.

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  4. Of course the irony is you are posting this on the Internet, in one of thvery mediums that contributes to the problem. Strikes me as odd anyway.

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    1. I was thinking an internet blog is a good place to warn people about some possible dangers of the internet. Would it be better to go around to people who don’t use the internet much and tell them of its dangers?

      Furthermore, one of the main purposes of this blog is for people to get good solid books and read them.

      I apologize if I sound rude, but I don’t think your comment is helpful. Thanks, shane

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  5. We have a camp in the Targhee National Forest in eastern Idaho where we conduct a couple of small Bible camps for local middle school and high school youth. One of our rules is “no electronic devices”. Why? Because we want the campers to feel what it is like to be outside in the woods and mountains, of course, and the other is “to be with the people you are with”. With cell phones and small computer games, iPods, etc., etc., it seems like people too easily direct their attention away from the people they actually are with. Something similar can happen with internet research. To get a feel for Calvin or Luther or Augustine, it is helpful to spend some time with them, see how they spin out an argument or wander to things that are important to them, or how they bring up simply in passing some issue that is totally foreign to us, but sheds a flood of light upon their thought or life–internet research can too often lead to the collecting of quotes on the same topic from disparate authors (or discrete bite of quotes from different passages of the same author) without seeing these discussions in their natural context. It is too easy to become a “spermologos”, a person who picks up an idea here, a quotation there, like a chicken picking in the barnyard (Acts17:18). On the other hand, if it is used like an old-fashioned card catalogue, the web can be of immense help in leading the reader to sources that he might have overlooked.

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  6. Solid post.

    Yep, the internet does do some funny things to our brains. I\’ve been spending a great deal of time researching a particular topic lately and have found that internet posts abound and that people so easily appeal to these things while stating their views. But these individual posts and articles rarely fit within a larger argument. I think I find many internet sources unable to radically alter how I think about an issue is because my thinking has been shaped by a book which more systematically discussed the topic. Whenever I *do* find myself thinking of changing my views based on an internet post, I immediately order a book or two on the topic in order to get a more balanced and thorough presentation.

    And regarding your comment above – this blog is aimed (exactly as you say) at getting people to buy and read BOOKS!

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    1. There are numerous advantages to reading a book vs. internet. A few examples are: 1) When you need to turn back a page or two in order to re-read something, the pages don’t go by in a superfast blurr and cause you to have trouble finding what you’re looking for; 2) Real printed pages never freeze; 3) If the electricity goes out, the book is still there on the same page when the lights come back on. I’m sure others can come up with many more examples, but these are just a few.

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  7. I agree with you. The information overload on the internet is unhealthy. Your mind is overtaxed and your energy is quickly depleted because of the staggering amount of information and data you have to process. No doubt, the internet is helpful. However, if not used with wisdom and discipline, it could keep us from making the most use of our God-given minds.

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