Columnists > Voices

Fleeting thoughts

How the internet is eating my brain

Issue: "NextGen worship," July 26, 2008

Now I know why my attention span has shortened and my concentration level has dropped. It's not age, it's excess.

I've suspected this for a long time, ever since merging onto the info-bahn and ratcheting up the speed. With more to read, I've sensed a decline in reading skills. It's harder to fix on one topic or question and follow it through a logical development. My mind catches a flicker off to one side and abandons the subject to chase it. The Information Superhighway, as Al Gore liked to call it, is pitted with hyperlinks. Sometimes I think my license should be revoked.

I've mentioned this to friends who don't seem to relate. "But you can access all of Calvin's commentaries, all of Spurgeon's sermons! It's like having the Library of Congress in your office!" Yes, and that seems to be the problem. I used to be overwhelmed by the vastness of all I didn't know in the print edition of The New York Times Book Review-why turn me loose in the Library of Congress?

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Then (on the internet, via hyperlink), I discovered I'm not alone. A featured article in the current issue of The Atlantic raises the provocative question: "Is Google Making Us Stupid?"

Like all good titles this one overstates the case, and the article doesn't provide a definitive answer. But it plants a speed-limit sign in an area where we may need to slow down and take notice. Like me, the author can only cite anecdotal evidence, since the long-term, double-blind neurological experiments have yet to be performed. But studies of online research habits indicate that users are info-hoppers, skipping from one source to another and seldom going back to a source already skimmed. Though in-depth articles and entire volumes reside online, they are seldom read, or else printed out to be read "later" (which, like tomorrow, never arrives).

In other words, the internet may well be changing not just what we read, but how we read. And that could mean a fundamental change in how we think.

A public school librarian once told me that in her opinion, computers are the main reason for the decline in book reading among her students. It's not that kids aren't reading; in fact, with Facebook and email and text messages, kids may actually be reading more than they were 20 years ago. But they read differently.

As E.D. Hirsch and others point out, the alphabet is not a natural function of speech. Rather, it's an artificial means for encoding language. Different ways of encoding, such as Chinese ideograms, form distinctly different brain circuitry. In the same way, the internet demands or at least encourages a certain superficiality, the antithesis of printed text. Five thousand words on a given topic makes the mind go deep; five links makes it go wide. Maybe even to the point of flattening.

The Stanford whiz kids who founded Google see their search engine as an expansion of the brain, and they look forward to the day when one can literally be fused with the other. "Certainly," claimed co-founder Sergey Brin, in a 2004 interview, "if you had all the world's information directly attached to your brain, or an artificial brain that was smarter than your brain you'd be better off." How cool is that? Practically speaking, probably less an über-brain than the hybrid imagined in M.T. Anderson's novel Feed, where mind-meld by computer chip exists mainly to subject consumers to a steady stream of advertisement.

The good news is that our brains are more plastic than previously thought, and good habits can be molded from bad. Ideally, children should be kept from the internet until they can comprehend book-length nonfiction in a variety of subjects. Since that seems unlikely, we can at least set aside 30 minutes of focused reading per day. Being a people of the Book implies a responsibility to attend the book, and see that our children do the same.

If you have a question or comment for Janie Cheaney, send it to

Janie B. Cheaney
Janie B. Cheaney

Janie lives in Missouri, is a columnist for WORLD, writes novels for young adults, and is the author of the Wordsmith creative writing series. She also reviews books at Follow Janie on Twitter @jbcheaney.


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