Distracted brain and deep thinking

Carr N, 2010 The Shallows: what the Internet is doing to my brain, W.W. Norton & Compnay, NY

Nicholas Carr’s recent book ‘The Shallows’ makes interesting reading – he asks is the Internet stopping him from thinking. In it he presents the case that our brains are able to respond to changing circumstances and are not fixed or grow more fixed as we age, more the rate of change is related to changes in out environment which is likely to impact the way the brain responds. In other words, if you tend to do the same thing each day your brain will remain fixed in the way it operates, but if it gets presented with a new environment it will change especially more towards processing distractions rather than direct focus on one activity e.g. book reading, which is truly a learned skill that has re-shaped the brain away from its favoured role of processing many inputs – like a neural-network warning system, obviously a useful thing to posses when you want to go to the toilet surrounded by hostiles, much better than being able to deeply understand the book you maybe reading whilst on the toilet.

 As educators we are all interested in and use the Internet, and many wonder if our book reading may be on the slide, and therefore is it possible to fully understand something using distracting media such as the web rather than a single focus on deep reading of books. Carr makes the point that in ancient times the facility of our brain to respond and process external stimuli i.e. multi-tasking small amounts of information in a small time frame was a powerful survival skill (see my toilet example above), but not necessarily one that allowed us to pull things to together via deep reflection to allow concept building and the like.

 He then talks about the impact of inserting spaces between words in sentences and the possible impact this had on how our brain functioned. At the start there were no spaces, the written word simply mirrored the spoken word as a flow of sound, silent reading was not done, all reading was aloud. This meant that the brain had to do a parsing translation first to recognise the start and end of a word, sound it out and then pass on without having a chance to grasp full meaning of the past sequence- at least it was a time consuming task that was, it is thought, a distraction from thinking & understanding. In some ways, I see him arguing that our reading was more like us acting as a tape player – the thinking would have been done by the listener not the reader. You did not have time as you were engaged in a two step process of mentally inserting spaces. Computer language compilers do there reverse when they compile, in lexical analysis all unwanted symbols are removed and the program is packed into a long set of symbols. This string is then checked to see that it obeys the syntax rules of the language and if so the program is executed. But at no stage does the computer understand what the symbols mean, AI has and is making huge steps but to say a computer might understand ‘the sky is blue’ as we might is still a little way of.

Consider reading a sentence like theskyisblue – when you read this you have to parse the line to pluck out the words, and then read them one at a time and consciously keep the past words in short term memory if we are to try and get meaning. When we read ‘the sky is blue’ I don’t think we do quite the same thing, the space is looked for and we tend to group the words and are not conscious of reading each individual word, we are looking for meaning, whereas in the other example we are looking for words and then attempting to derive meaning. It is an interesting idea. Possibly our brains have altered to do this, so Carr argues. Also, web addresses have a similar problem don’t they – can’t yet have spaces, this used to apply to Windows and there was a whole era of the use of _ or pseudo spaces, Unix still uses these to allow easy reading of names of things.

The invention of the space between words changed this process, and according to Carr would have lead to a change in the way the brain functions away from symbol processing to in depth understanding. The act of reading was hugely impacted by the space between words, it made silent reading possible and to be able to spend many hours focused on gaining full understanding without distraction – Carr’s argument is that the actual wiring or behaviour of the brain changed and we potentially became much worse at paying attention to distractions. The effectiveness of our survival mechanism was lessened at the expense of our ability to think deeply – again an interesting proposition.

With the advent of the web and other digital devices we are, he argues, returning to an early era where we are bombarded by distractions – much like we were in the forests of pre-man, and that we don’t have time to understand in a deep way the significance of what we encounter. The reason for this Carr argues is that we are constantly stopping to process things like what hypertext link to follow, a new text message, a new popup screen etc. the opportunity to read and fully comprehend is constantly interrupted, often in an imperceptible way.

Again an interesting idea I feel.

Possibly we need to look at the process of obtaining the information and then absorbing and understanding it as a distinctly two step thing. When I use the web I am very conscious of not attempting to understand what I find but to store it so that I can retrieve it latter in an attempt to understand it. I recognised early on that the web is a gathering medium rather than one that directly informs you without further analytic effort on your part. Lets consider some examples of questions we can ask using a web browser.

What is the temperature today – this we will get directly answered.

My partner is having a birthday what should I buy – of course some wag may have developed a website “www.whattobuyforbirthdays.com” (see the word space problem) and this might flash up and then present a lot of options with pop up screens etc. You need to navigate through to find suitable things, but you make the decision – unless of course you enter a range of characteristics and the database pops up the end choice so that you don’t have to make it. The latter is the old idea of an expert system mirroring a humans thought-skill process – this is handing over control to HAL.

 The significance of global warming and the reliability of the simulations used by scientists – Yes, I’d like to know about that. The key question to me is if the web just allows you to access the information and then it is your responsibility to understand it, or does the web help in the understanding process, in other words the retrieval is more than just a technical issue, the act of retrieval carries with it some level of judgment as to what might be or might not be important, but how does the computer know what is or is not important? Page hits and the like make the assumption that your question can be classified based on what has been asked in the past. However, this does not take into account a persons motivations for asking the question in the first place, so I would think the responsibility still lies with us.

 If we teach web surfing as research with a distinct consolidation phase before analysis and interpretation and then essay or argument development it would seem to me a simple strategy that would enable us to develop both aspects of the brain – I am not sure that it is a dichotomy, it would seem to me to present the challenge of teaching traditional research processes which at some point requires a single in deepth effort to bring things together.

 There is also a romantic, rightly so, view of libraries. In the past 20 years I may have borrowed 100 books, but when I was in the library I am constantly processing distractions or evaluating and making intervening decisions about which book, which index to use, saying hi to friend, asking for help, using the photocopier – it never once occurred to me that my library use was other than a distinctly two step process. The first step is about gathering and dealing with distractions, the second is about synthesis – librarians know this. Seems to me the web promotes my model rather well, unless you are simply wanting the web to tell you the direct answer that you can cut and paste!

If the argument holds that technology can change the way the brain fires up, then we need to be asking ourselves some questions:

1. Is it possible to develop facility with the distracting environment of the web and also develop the ability to deeply understand things?

2. If we are able to use and enjoy the multi-distracting potential for interpreting what actions to take on the web does such interaction interfere with our capacity to deeply understand?

3. Is it possible to use the web and learn at the same time, if so, does this apply to deep learning type situations or is there need to structure our research into an obviously two staged process – one the hunter gather stage using and handing all the distraction to compile resources we think will be handy and then a quiet ‘reading’ phase away from the distractions in order to sequenctially  read to gain understanding, to enable use to compare and contrast etc. Answer seems simple enough to me.

Carr seems to be mostly worried, correctly in my view, that students will become expert users and gain a certain competency at living with the distracted environment. Things will be understood in bits and be accessed when needed – begs the question of when you will know it is the right time to ask though. However, this may come at the expense of gaining deep understanding or in developing skills in dealing with changes to the environment you live in.

For example, take the issue of global warming. If we live in the distracted world of the Internet how will this help us gain an understanding without at some point going deeper, or do we just accept the authority of our leaders, who I reckon often have less scientific training than a 12th grader! It seems to me that handing over our lives to live in the Internet world brings with it a responsibility to recognise that we still need to develop indeepth understanding and that is probably best done in quite and over a long period of time.

Group work in schools and at Uni has exploded over the past ten years, and there are good reasons for group work, as is the case for increased project work. But it is difficult to undertake both without at some stage students having quiet time to reflect and build indeepth personal understanding. Discussion is great, often only the loudest is heard, but it is not a substitute for sitting down and thinking and writing down logically what you wish to say, this requires analysis, drawing together threats from different sources and ethical committement – it is your work, you thought about it. I would love to hear kids say that ‘this is my work and I have thought about……a lot, and I still don’t know if I fully understand it’……Join the club mate.

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