Shallow minds?

In ‘The Shallows: What the Internet is doing to our brains (Norton, 2010) Nicholas Carr suggested that acquiring new tools and skills changes us because using them forms new connections in the brain. This echoes the ideas of Marshall (the media is the message) McLuhan, who once said that ‘the future of the book is the blurb’. Long before him Plato also took the view that our tools affect our thoughts.

There is plenty of evidence that the brain is adaptable. A London cab driver who knows how to get about the capital, that is has ‘the knowledge’, has a hippocampus (the part of the brain where such information is stored and used) larger than most of the rest of us. Brain scans indicate that the web strengthens our “primitive” mental functions (quick decision-making and problem-solving). Many studies (in Nature and elsewhere) have concluded that gaming leads to improvements in performance on various cognitive tasks, from visual perception to sustained attention. Bjarki Valtysson ‘Access culture: Web 2.0 and cultural participation’, International Journal of Cultural Policy, 16, 2, 2010, pp. 200 — 214, demonstrated how digital communication and new media platforms enhance cultural participation.

However, Carr argued that another aspect of this plasticity is that, given the opportunity to dip and sample, we tend to be more easily distracted and interrupted and to use the processes associated with reading less. To employ the analogy of the brain as a computer, our circuits are being reprogrammed by our gadgets.

 The book builds on Carr’s 2008 article in The Atlantic, “Is Google Making Us Stupid?,” in which he claimed that the net made it much harder (at least for him) to engage with difficult texts and complex ideas; ‘what the Net seems to be doing is chipping away my capacity for concentration and contemplation’.

Sir John Daniel, President and Chief Executive Officer of the Commonwealth of Learning called this book ‘thoughtful and readable’ (see here) noting that ‘Carr carefully explodes the myth that by making the Net our memory we create greater capacity in our real memories for more important things’. Sir John also made a connection to the OU:

“I am reminded of a line from Geoffrey Crowther’s great speech when he inaugurated the UK Open University in the week of the first moon landing in 1969: ‘Now the great new advance is the invention of machines to multiply the potency of men’s minds. As the steam engine was to the first revolution, so the computer is to the second’. Without doubt Crowther was right, but Carr shows that too much interaction with the Internet may actually multiply the impotency of our minds.”

If we are to understand how learning and teaching can be developed, if we are to assess how far our ability to read and think deeply is being destroyed by the net, we need to look back, as Sir John Daniel has done, and reflect on where we have come from.

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