During my 15 years as Larson Design Group CEO, I wasn’t a reader. I was a skimmer and scanner – a victim of the rapidly expanding internet media environment. When I retired in 2020, I was intent on rekindling my long past love of reading.
It was then that I came across Nicholas Carr’s updated edition of “The Shallows – What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains”. Curious, I got a copy hoping to learn about the long-term effects of my “brain on the internet”.
The book’s contents are broad and compelling – covering history of media technologies, neuroscience and biology, search engine theory, and memory and learning research. Carr examines how the brain’s inherent neuroplasticity has allowed humans to adapt as media tools and technologies evolved over the ages. As we’ve moved from storytelling to books to screen-based media for sharing information, our brains and senses have shifted from listening, to linear reading, to patterned scanning as means of transferring information into memories. Carr goes on to highlight research on how the quantity, rate, and frequency of information flow to short-term memories affects our ability to consolidate that information into retrievable long-term memories. The research findings are not surprising.
To use an analogy, our short-term memory is like a relatively small bucket that fills quickly with information when using an internet search engine. Knowledge retention for retrieval many years later requires several hours in a brain process that moves the information to a much larger, long-term memory reservoir. Research has shown that extended web-surfing and multi-tasking interrupts the short- to long-term memory transfer process, resulting in less retention of knowledge from internet searches. Research shows long-term knowledge retention from storytelling and book reading to be higher.
With these findings, I thought Carr might attack the internet and call for a retreat to our former approaches to knowledge transfer, but he did not. Instead, he shows how the internet supports neuroplasticity and how neuroscience research around digital media might be used to modify internet behaviors and adapt practices in education and the media, to benefit society and people of all ages.
So, what do I remember from my 15 years of internet skimming and scanning? Honestly, I don’t remember much – except for information I copied and pasted into various reference documents. Research would suggest that whatever else made it into my brain isn’t retrievable, but hopefully, the internet will be around when I need it. And if it’s not – well, that’s probably the topic for another blog!
As always, I’d enjoy hearing your thoughts and comments!