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Thinking Faster

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New Electronic Technology Is Changing Our Brains

By James Donahue

We caught a thought provoking article by Nicholas Carr in Atlantic that suggested our brains are being damaged by the Internet. Carr said he enjoyed the fact that the web has become a storehouse of information available to researchers at the click of a button. He noted that it replaces what used to involve weeks, if not months of library research just to gather information for a single written story.

But Carr said he has noticed something troublesome about his personal reading habits since he began using the Internet.

He wrote: “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.”

Now Carr says, “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.”

Carr says he has talked about this change with friends and acquaintances and learned they are having a similar experience. “The more they use the Web, the more they have to fight to stay focused on long pieces of writing.”

Indeed, this writer also has noticed the same effect. We recently gained access to an amazing library of works, and last month I purchased signed books after hearing a lecture by the author, but have failed to get through the first chapter of any of them. I thought perhaps I needed my glasses updated and saw an optometrist. A new pair of glasses did not make any difference. I am still not reading books.

Like Carr, I once spent hours immersed in great novels and writings by many of the world’s best thinkers. I graduated from college with a major in English Literature and almost had enough hours collected in American Literature to gain a minor in that field.

So is Carr right? Has the Internet damaged our brains? Indeed, I personally doubt if I could today enjoy reading the great novels by James Fenimore Cooper, Herman Melville's Moby Dick, or even Mark Twain's classic Huck Finn. Books like that seem too wordy.

I discussed this article with our daughter, Jennifer, who also has been an ardent reader and has about as fine a brain as you will find anywhere. She thought for a moment and said she agreed that the Internet has changed our brain chemistry, but she believes it has been for the better.

We are just thinking faster now,” she said. “We have learned to download information at a faster pace and don’t have the time to spend hours reading books to get it.”

Thus we perceive that humans are mentally evolving in a way that may be necessary for our survival. Because of inventions like the typewriter, the offset printing press, then radio, television and the Internet, news and information has been speeding up until it is coming at us so fast it is impossible to spend much time absorbing it. While our brains have the capability, the use of reading skills lacks the speed now demanded of us to get the job done. 

As a former journalist who spent most of his life writing for various newspapers and publishing houses, I am fully aware of the fact that I worked for what is now a dying industry. Newspapers are struggling for survival, as are magazines. My website still appears to be doing well, which I attribute to the fact that all of my articles are brief and designed to capture a reader’s interest for at least five minutes or less.

Lets face it, because of my exposure to the speed of the Internet, that is about all the time I would spend on these stories. Why expect anyone else to want more?