The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation may be focusing on “deeper learning,” but the impact of the Internet may be leading us into shallower thinking. That’s Nicolas Carr’s premise in The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains. He bases his argument on quite an exhaustive review of research into how the brain functions, how information gets stored in memory, how we retrieve and relate information when we think, and the “history” of reading.
It turns out deep thinking does not come naturally. Early man, living in a state of nature, didn’t have time to think deeply. You had to be alert every moment for threats to your safety as well as the source of your next meal. We’re wired to constantly scan our environment. Along with civilization came, for some at any rate, the freedom to let your guard down and absorb yourself in internal thought, but to do so you have to overcome your natural inclination to scan. Deep thinking and deep reading are skills that have to be learned and developed, and doing so takes practice and discipline.
There is a reciprocal relationship between learning to read deeply and thinking deeply. Carr would not call reading a “passive” activity. Certainly not deep reading. Deep reading involves a complicated conversation between the text and ourself that includes constant reference to our personal store of knowledge and experience. He asserts that the way the Internet delivers content—as a flood of busy and often unrelated images, text, and sounds—and the way we tend to use this content—multitasking, jumping quickly from one link to the next—does not only discourage deep thinking but actually erodes our ability to think or read deeply.
Some recent research, reported in the New York Times, lends support to Carr’s position. It seems students who took repeated tests on content learned it better than those who just studied it a lot or who created concept maps to represent what they were learning. Commenting on the research, UCLA psychologist Robert Bjork said, “When you’re retrieving something out of a computer’s memory, you don’t change anything; it’s simple playback…when we use our memories by retrieving things, we change access…What we recall becomes more recallable in the future.” And, to paraphrase my remark in an earlier post, “You can’t think about something deeply unless you can remember something to think about.”