The Second Half: What has the Internet done to my brain?

July 28, 2010

By Kathleen D. Tresemer
Columnist

It started in my book club.

Members—myself included—were complaining our book choices were too long, too rambling, too “wordy” to read. In particular, I remember complaining about Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, “Blah, blah, blah…I get the point, they are bored and miserable and disillusioned…get on with it, already!”

OK, so you are probably thinking, “What does this literary cretin know? Hemingway’s work was magnificent and inspired!”

I’m not the only one who thinks Hemingway dwells on drunken disillusionment a bit too long, which does not detract from his eloquence in lean prose and his ability to open up a lens through which we may view society’s ills. One Second Half reader stated, “If Hemingway were alive and writing today, he’d never get an agent!”

His rejection letters might sound like this: “While your basic story concept has potential, you dwell so long on the characters’ boredom and angst that you lost me. These characters are too shallow and uninspired to engage the reader. … I found myself unable to like any of them long enough to finish your piece.”

Forget about Hemingway, though, because that wasn’t the main point (and please do not e-mail me with reasons why I’m too stupid to understand the great Ernest Hemingway…I know, he’s great!). The main point of the discussion was our ability to concentrate on works of literary genius long enough to find a reason to finish reading them.

Experts in the field agree: we read differently today than in Hemingway’s heyday. Dr. Maryanne Wolf, a bigwig at Tufts University, wrote the book Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain. Her research tells us that reading is not instinctive, like vocalizing—we have to teach our brains to understand the letters of the alphabet. And the way we read influences the type of pathways our brains create.

For example, she says the Internet promotes reading skills such as “decoding” and “efficiency,” while weakening skills in interpreting what we read and making mental connections on a deeper level.

In Chapter One of Proust and the Squid, Dr. Wolf reports: “We now know that groups of neurons create new connections and pathways among themselves every time we acquire a new skill.” Good news!

She goes on to quote author Joseph Epstein: “A biography of any literary person ought to deal at length with what he read and when, for in some sense, we are what we read.”

That makes me wonder: If I recently read the content of 60-bazillion Web pages, does that make me—and my work—trivial?

“As a writer, finding BALANCE requires time spent researching and surfing the Net,” I defend myself, “as well as reading and contemplation.”

The truth is—for the sake of my work—I lose hours of my day bouncing from one site to another, gleaning little pieces of info from some but never lingering long anywhere. That is one reason I love my Kindle—the lack of access to the Internet suppresses the constant urge to leave the characters in a novel and flip over to check e-mails or news feeds, as my techie brother does on his iPad.

How different is he from the 20-something who can’t carry on a conversation without constantly referencing his Blackberry for text messages, e-mails or other bits of insignificant information? He doesn’t see that behavior as an interruption, he’s multi-tasking.

“You know, Socrates thought that use of the written word would cause people to lose the ability to debate,” I share a recent bit of info gleaned from today’s surfing, “Was he wrong?” This caused us to wonder if the experts are over-reacting to the negative research, but we really didn’t discuss it further…too busy.

We have enough distractions in our Second Half: health issues, financial concerns, family. Control over them might afford some mastery over our lives. But, every time we surf the Net, we add a whole bag of distractions to our day that didn’t even exist prior to logging on!

Author Nicholas Carr recently released The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains. Amazon declares: “It discusses the intellectual and cultural consequences of Internet and computer use and, more broadly, examines the role that media and other technologies have played in shaping intellectual history.”

It sounds like an extension of his famous article, penned in 2008 for the Atlantic Monthly: “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” The article discusses the Internet’s influence on our brains—and it is compelling!

Carr says neuroscientists report our brains are adapting to this technology on a biological level.

“Isn’t that evolution?” a book club pal asked.

Good question. Are our brains evolving to be less able to contemplate, in favor of strengthening our ability to process many unrelated bits of information? Will surface knowledge replace actual wisdom?

None of us had the answer, but at least we are contemplating the matter. The answer isn’t as important as our ability to think about it and develop ideas surrounding it…right?

The difference between reading books and surfing the Net is the difference between immersion into a subject and reading about a subject. If I want to keep—or even expand—the brain circuitry that allows me to be a wise old crone, I’ve gotta over-ride the evolutionary process…but how?

I believe it was the ancient Greeks who advised: Nothing in excess. Or I could take Hubby’s advice: Do something, even if it’s wrong!

(Read Carr’s entire article at http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2008/07/is-google-making-us-stupid/6868/ )

In her second half of life, Kathleen D. Tresemer is both a journalist and an award-winning fiction writer. She lives with her husband on a small ranch in rural Shirland, Ill. Kathleen can be contacted by e-mail at kdt-insights@hotmail.com.

From the July 28-Aug 3, 2010 issue

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