Is Nicholas Carr right about the Internet and attention spans?

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There's a lot that's been written lately about how the Web is puréeing people's gray matter. The most thorough take on the topic is Nicholas Carr’s new book, The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains, but anyone who's been spending a lot of time surfing is probably going to be so distracted by e-mails and Facebook, etc., that he won't be able to finish the book. Instead, he'll turn, with irony, to the Web, where he'll find plenty to read, especially if he's looking for it today: The New York Times has just published two stories, a blog post, and an interactive feature arguing that the electronic methods by which they themselves are delivered are “intrusive, have increased [people's] levels of stress and have made it difficult to concentrate.”

The "Google makes us stoopid" argument is a perennial of modern life, and right now, it's in season. At Slate, one writer got frustrated with the scattershot quality of his thinking and decided it was the Internet's fault; he has gone offline for four months and is chronicling the results the old-school way, with paper and pen (and color—he's a cartoonist). Ditto for The Washington Post, where eight reporters recently signed off, albeit only for a week, and albeit with not much success. And of course, there's Carr's book, which Slate calls "a Silent Spring for the literary mind." It's no technophobic screed, but it's also not great news for those of us who appreciate the pleasure of reading (and, gulp, writing) missives longer than 140 characters. The Internet, Carr argues, isn't making us stupid, per se, but it sure is making us distractible. (Question: how did he sell a publisher a book about how no one is capable of reading books anymore?)

Over at The Frontal Cortex and in the Times, the terrific neuroscience writer Jonah Lehrer has started a debate with Carr over what the science actually says about the Web and our brains. Lehrer says a lot of it is encouraging (an argument you may remember from Steven Johnson's Everything Bad Is Good for You—that "gaming led to significant improvements in performance on various cognitive tasks, from visual perception to sustained attention," and that "performing Google searches led to increased activity in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex." Carr is not convinced; he rallies back on his own blog, referring readers to a scientific paper that they'll never be able to plow through if he's right about their Web-induced attention deficit.

As with most debates about the brain, the problem here is probably that the scientific literature—like the Web—is pretty messy. For all that fMRI scans look cool, there are limits to what they can tell us; that's true of the psych lab, too. And how can we measure the long-term psychological effects of online reading when the means by which we're reading—web, iPhone, iPad, etc.—are relatively new and constantly changing? Someday it may be possible to look back and see clearly what the Web did to our minds (that is, assuming we still have minds), the way Carr casts his gaze at history and assesses the effects of the printing press. But right now, I'd guess, it's too early to judge. Either that, or I'm just wrapping up this post in an easy way because I've reached the limit of my attention span and, hey, I've got e-mail to check.

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