Hal and Me
Media aren’t just channels of information. They supply the stuff of thought, but they also shape the process of thought. And what the Net seems to be doing is chipping away my capacity for concentration and contemplation. Whether I’m online or not, my mind now expects to take in information the way the Net distributes it: in a swiftly moving stream of particles. Once I was a scuba diver in the sea of words. Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski.
The Vital Paths
If we stop exercising our mental skills, we do not just forget them: the brain map space for those skills is turned over to the skills we practice instead. This process is termed as “survival of the busiest” by Jeffery Schwartz.
It seems ludicrous to think that fiddling with a computer, a mere tool, could alter in any deep or lasting way what was going on inside my head. But I was wrong. As neuroscientists have discovered, the brain-and the mind to which it gives rise- is forever a work in progress.
Tools of the Mind
Langdon Winner: If the experience of modern society shows us anything, it is that technologies are not merely aids to human activity, but also powerful forces acting to reshape that activity and its meaning.
Although the workings of our gray matter still lie beyond the reach of archaeologists’ tools, we now know not only that it is probable that the use of intellectual technologies shaped and reshaped the circuitry in our heads, but that it had to be so. Any repeated experience influences our synapses; the changes wrought by the recurring use of tools that extend or supplement our nervous systems should be particularly pronounced.
Walter J. Ong: Technologies are not mere exterior aids but also interior transformations of consciousness and never more than when they affect the word. The history of language is also a history of the mind. Language itself is not a technology. It’s native to our species. Reading and writing however, are not innate talents. They are unnatural acts made possible by the purposeful development of the alphabet and many other technologies.
The Deepening Page
Readers didn’t just become more efficient. They also become more attentive. To read a long book silently required an ability to concentrate intently over a long period of time, to “lose oneself” in the pages of a book, as we now say. Developing such mental discipline was not easy. The natural state of the human brain, like that of the brains of most of our relatives in the animal kingdom, is one of distractedness. Our predisposition is to shift our gaze, and hence our attention, from one object to another, to be aware of as much of what’s going on around us as possible. Neuroscientists have discovered primitive “bottom-up mechanisms” in our brains that operate on raw sensory input, rapidly and involuntarily shifting attention to salient visual features of potential importance. What draws our attention most of all is any hint of a change in our surroundings. Our senses are finely attuned to change. Stationary or unchanging objects become part of the scenery and are mostly unseen. As soon as something in the environment changes, we need to take notice because it might mean danger or opportunity. Our fast-paced, reflexive shifts in focus were once crucial to our survival. They reduced the odds that a predator would take us by surprise or that we’d overlook a nearby source of food. For most of history, the normal path of human thought was anything but linear.
To read a book was to practice an unnatural process of thought , one that demanded sustained, unbroken attention to a single, static object. It requires readers to place themselves at the still point of the turning world. They had to train their brains to ignore everything else going on around them, to resist the urge to let their focus skip from one sensory cue to another. They had to forge or strengthen the neural links needed to counter their instinctive distractedness, applying greater “top-down control” over their attention. The ability to focus on a single task, relatively uninterrupted represents a strange anomaly in the history of our psychological development. What was so remarkable about book reading was that the deep concentration was combined with the highly active and efficient deciphering of text and interpretation of meaning.
Reading a book was a meditative act, but it didn’t involve a clearing of the mind. It involved a filling, or replenishing, of the mind. Readers disengaged their attention from the outward flow of passing stimuli in order to engage it more deeply with an inward flow of words, ideas, and emotions. That was – and is- the essence of the unique mental process of deep reading. It was the technology of the book that made this “strange anomaly” in our psychological history possible. The brain of the book reader was more than a literate brain. It was a literary brain.
The letterpress opened at least theoretically to anyone able to exercise the two main attributes of citizenship, reading and writing. The literary mind, once confined to the cloisters of the monastery and the towers of the university, had become the general mind. After 55 years the printing press and its products are being pushed from the center of our intellectual life to its edges.
A Medium of the Most General Nature
A page of online text viewed through a computer screen may seem similar to a page of printed text. But scrolling or clicking through a web document involves physical actions and sensory stimuli very different from those involved in holding and turning the pages of a book or a magazine. Research has shown that the cognitive act of reading draws not just on our sense of sight but also on our sense of touch. It’s tactile as well as visual. “All reading is multi-sensory. There’s a crucial link between the sensory-motor experience of the materiality of a written work and the cognitive processing of the text content. The shift from paper to screen doesn’t just change the way we navigate a piece of writing. It also influences the degree of attention we devote to it and the depth of our immersion in it.
We like to be able to switch between reading and listening and watching without having to get up and turn on another appliance or dig through a pile of magazines or disks. We like to be able to find and be transported instantly to relevant data -without having to sort through lots of extraneous stuff. We like to be in touch with friends, family members and colleagues. We like to feel connected-and we hate to feel disconnected. The Internet doesn’t change our intellectual habits against our will. But change them it does.
Tyler Cowen: when access to information is easy, we tend to favour the short, the sweet, and the bitty.
The Very Image of a Book
“Why in the world would you want to be interrupted – and distracted – by email while programming?” a question by one attending scientist when multi-process Xerox was first presented. Multitasking has become so routine that most of us would find it intolerable if we had to go back to computers that could run only one program or open only one file at a time. Even though the question may have been rendered moot, it remains as vital today as it was 35 years ago. It points to a conflict between two different ways of working and two different understanding of how technology should be used to support that work. Whereas the Xerox researcher was eager to juggle multiple threads of work simultaneously, the skeptical questioner viewed his own work as an exercise in solitary, single-minded concentration. In the choices we have made, consciously or not, about how we use our computers, we have rejected the intellectual tradition of solitary, single-minded concentration, the ethic that the book bestowed on us. We have cast our lot with the juggler.
The Juggler’s Brain
P115, when we go online, we enter an environment that promotes cursory reading, hurried and distracted thinking, and superficial learning. It’s possible to think deeply while surfing the Net, just as it’s possible to think shallowly while reading a book, but that’s not the type of thinking the technology encourages and rewards. It’s not that the that we tend to use the Net regularly, even obsessively. It’s that the Net delivers precisely the kind of sensory and cognitive stimuli – repetitive, intensive, interactive, addictive – that have been shown to result in strong and rapid alterations in brain circuits and functions. With the exception of alphabets and number systems, the Net may well be the single most powerful mind-altering technology that has ever come into general use.
Teens and other young adults have a terrific interest in knowing what’s going on in the lives of their peers, coupled with a terrific anxiety about being out of the loop. If they stop sending messages, they risk becoming invisible.
Not all distractions are bad. As most of us know from experience if we concentrate too intensively on a tough problem, we can get stuck in a mental rut. Our thinking narrows, and we struggle vainly to come up with new ideas. But if we let the problem sit unattended for a time – if we “sleep on it”- we often return to it with a fresh perspective and a burst of creativity. Ap Dijksterhuis indicates that such breaks in our attention give our unconscious mind time to grapple with a problem, bringing to bear information and cognitive process unavailable to conscious deliberation. We usually make better decisions if we shift our attention away from a difficult mental challenge for a time. Dijksterhuis ‘s work also shows that our unconscious thought process don’t engage with a problem until we’ve clearly and consciously defined the problem. If we don’t’ have a particular intellectual goal in mind, unconscious though does not occur.
Michael Merzenich: Our brain is modified on a substantial scale, physically and functionally, each time we learn a new skill or develop a new ability. The Net is the latest in a series of “modern cultural specializations that contemporary humans can spend millions of practice events at the average human a thousand years ago had absolutely no exposure to. Our brains are massively remodeled by this exposure. When culture drives changes in the ways that we engage our brains, it creates different brains. Our minds strengthen specific heavily -exercised processes. Their heavy use has neurological consequences. What we’re not doing when we’re online also has neurological consequences. As the time we spend scanning web pages crowds out the time we spend reading books, as the time we spend exchanging bite-sized text messages crowds out the time we spend composing sentences and paragraphs, as the time we spend hopping across links crowds out the time we devote to quiet reflection and contemplation, the circuits that support those old intellectual functions and pursuits weaken and begin to break apart. The brain recycles the disused neurons and synapses for other, more pressing work. We gain new skills and perspectives but lose old ones.
While Steven Johnson’s diagnosis is correct, his interpretation of the differing patterns of brain activity is misleading. It is the very fact that book reading “under-stimulates the senses” that makes the activity so intellectually rewarding. By allowing us to filter out distractions, to quiet the problem-solving functions of the frontal lobes, deep reading becomes a form of deep thinking. The mind of the experienced book reader is a calm mind, not a buzzing one. When it comes to the firing of our neurons, it’s a mistake to assume that more is better.
The depth of our intelligence hinges on our ability to transfer information from working memory to long-term memory and weave it into conceptual schemas. But the passage from working memory to long-term memory also forms the major bottleneck in our brain. Unlike long-term memory, which has a vast capacity, working memory is able to hold only a very small amount of information. Imagine filling a bathtub with a thimble. By regulating the velocity and intensity of the information flow, media exert a strong influence on this process. When we read a book, the information faucet provides a steady drip, which we can control by the pace of our reading. Through our single-minded concentration on the text, we can transfer all or most of the information, thimbleful by thimbleful, into long-term memory and forge the rich associations essential to the creation of schemas. With the Net, we face many information faucets, all going full blast. Our little thimble overflows as we rush from one faucet to the next. We’re able to transfer only a small portion of the information to long-term memory and what we do transfer is a jumble of drops from different faucets, not a continuous, coherent stream from one source.
The information flowing into our working memory at any given moment is called our “cognitive load” when the load exceeds our mind’s ability to store and process the information = when the water overflows the thimble – we’re unable to retain the information or to draw connections with the information already stored in our long term memory. We can’t translate the new information into schemas. Our ability to learn suffers, and our understanding remains shallow. Because our ability to maintain our attention also depends on our working memory – a high cognitive load amplifies the distractedness we experience. When our brain is over taxed, we find distractions more distracting. (some studies link attention deficit disorder, or add, to the overloading of working memory). Experiments indicate that as we reach the limits of our working memory, it becomes harder to distinguish relevant information from irrelevant information, signal from noise. We become mindless consumer of data. Deciphering hypertext substantially increases reader’s cognitive load and hence weakens their ability to comprehend and retain what they’re reading.
Web-page readers with many links around were forced to devote more and more of their attention and brain power to evaluating the links and deciding whether to click on them. That left less attention and fewer cognitive resources to devote to understanding what they were reading. Erping Zhu’s experiment suggested a strong correlation between the number of links and disorientation or cognitive over load. Reading and comprehension require establishing relationships between concepts, drawing inferences, activating prior knowledge, and synthesizing main ideas. Disorientation or cognitive overload may thus interfere with cognitive activities of reading and comprehension.
The Net is by design an interruption system, a machine geared for dividing attention. That’s not only a result of its ability to display many different kinds of media simultaneously. It’s also a result of the ease with which it can be programmed to send and receive messages. Each glance at email represents a small interruption of thought, a momentary redeployment of mental resources, the cognitive cost can be high. Frequent interruptions scatter our thoughts, weaken our memory, and make us tense and anxious. The more complex the train of thought we’re involved in, the greater the impairment the distractions cause.
The juggling imposes “switching costs” on our cognition. Every time we shift our attention, our brain has to reorient itself, further taxing our mental resources. Maggie Jackson: the brain takes time to change goals, remember the rules needed for the new task, and block out cognitive interference from the previous, still-vivid activity. Many studies have shown that switching between just two tasks can add substantially to our cognitive load, impeding our thinking and increasing the likelihood that we’ll overlook or misinterpret important information. On the Net, where we routinely juggle not just two but several mental tasks, the switching costs are all the higher. The Net’s ability to monitor events and automatically send out messages and notifications is one of its great strengths as a communication technology. We want to be interrupted, because each interruption brings us a valuable piece of information. To turn off these alerts is to risk feeling out of touch, or even socially isolated. We crave the new even when we know that the new is more often trivial than essential. We willingly accept the loss of concentration and focus, the division of our attention and the fragmentation of our thoughts in return for the wealth of compelling or at least diverting information we receive. Tuning out is not an option many of us would consider.
On the Web, there is no such thing as leisurely browsing. We want to gather as much information as quickly as our eyes and fingers can move.
The digital environment tends to encourage people to explore many topics extensively, but at a more superficial level. Hyperlinks distract people from reading and thinking deeply. One of the participants in Liu’s study told Liu, “I find that my patience with reading long documents is decreasing. I want to skip ahead to the end of long articles. The time spent on in-depth reading and concentrated reading is falling steadily. What is troubling is that skimming is becoming our dominant mode of reading. Once a means to an end, a way to identify information for deeper study, scanning is becoming an end in itself-our preferred way of gathering and making sense of information of all sorts. We’ve reached the point where a Scholar is comfortable admitting not only that he doesn’t read books, but that he doesn’t see any particular need to read them. Why bother, when you can google the bits and pieces you need in a fraction of a second. What we’re experiencing is, in a metaphorical sense, a reversal of the early trajectory of civilization: we are evolving from being cultivators of personal knowledge to being hunters and gatherers in the electronic data forest.
P140, Constant shifting of our attention when we’re online may make our brains more nimble when it comes to multitasking, but improving our ability to multitask actually hampers our ability to think deeply and creatively. The more you multitask, the less deliberative you become; the less able to think and reason out a problem. You become more likely to rely on conventional ideas and solutions rather than challenging them with original lines of though what we’re doing when we multitask is learning to be skillful at a superficial level.
Patricia Greenfield: every medium develops some cognitive skills at the expense of others. Our growing use of the Net and other screen-based technologies has led to the widespread and sophisticated development of visual-spatial skills. We can for example, rotate objects in our minds better than we used to be able to. But our new strengths in visual-spatial intelligence go hand in hand with a weakening of our capacities for the kind of deep processing that underpins mindful knowledge acquisition, inductive analysis, critical thinking, imagination, and reflection. The Net is making us smarter, in other words, only if we define intelligence by the Net’s own standards. If we take a broader and more traditional view of intelligence- if we think about the depth of our thought rather than just its speed – we have to come to a different and considerably darker conclusion.
P141, Research found that the heavy multitaskers were much more easily distracted by irrelevant environmental stimuli, has significantly less control over the contents of their working memory, and were in general much less able to maintain their concentration on a particular task. Whereas the infrequent multitaskers exhibited relatively strong “top-down attentional control”, the habitual multitaskers showed a greater tendency for bottom-up attentional control, suggesting that they may be sacrificing performance on the primary task to let in other sources of information. Intensive multitaskers are suckers for irrelevancy. Everything distracts them. As we multitask online, we are training our brains to pay attention to the crap. The consequences for our intellectual lives may prove deadly.
The Church of Google
P151, In his 1993 book Technoply, Neil Postman distilled the main tenets of Taylor’s system of scientific management. Taylorism, he wrote, is founded on six assumptions:
- The primary, if not the only, goal of human labor and thought is efficiency;
- Technical calculation is in all respects superior to human judgment;
- In fact, human judgment cannot be trusted, because it is plagued by laxity, ambiguity and unnecessary complexity
- Subjectivity is an obstacle to clear thinking
- What cannot be measured either does not exist or is of no value
- The affairs of citizens are best guided and conducted by experts
P152, In Google’s view, information is a kind of commodity, a utilitarian resource that can, and should, be mined and processed with industrial efficiency. The more pieces of information we can “access” and the faster we can distill their gist, the more productive we become as thinkers. Anything that stands in the way of the speedy collection, dissection, and transmission of data is a threat not only to Google’s business but to the new utopia of cognitive efficiency it aims to construct on the Internet
P156, Google, as the supplier of the Web’s principal navigational tools, also shapes our relationship with the content that it serves up so efficiently and in such profusion. The intellectual technologies it has pioneered promote the speedy, superficial skimming of information and discourage any deep, prolonged engagement with a single argument, idea, or narrative. “Our goal,” says Irene Au, “is to get users in and out really quickly. All our design decisions are based on that strategy.” Google’s profits are tied directly to the velocity of people’s information intake. The faster we surf across the surface of the web – the more links we click and pages we view – the more opportunities Google gains to collect information about us and to feed us advertisements. Its advertising system, moreover, is explicitly designed to figure out which messages are most likely to grab our attention and then to place those messages in our field of view. Every click we make on the Web marks a break in our concentration, a bottom-up disruption of our attention – and it’s in Google’s economic interest to make sure we click as often as possible. The last thing the company wants is to encourage leisurely reading or slow, concentrated thought. Google is, quite literally, in the business of distraction.
P166, The irony in Google’s effort to bring greater efficiency to reading is that it undermines the very different kind of efficiency that the technology of the book brought to reading – and to our minds – in the first place. By freeing us from the struggle of decoding text, the form that writing came to take eon a page of parchment or paper enabled us to become deep readers, to turn our attention, and our brain power, to the interpretation of meaning. With writing on the screen, we’re still able to decode text quickly – we read, if anything, faster than ever- but we’re no longer guided toward a deep, personally constructed understanding of thee text’s connotations. Instead, we’re hurried off toward another bit of related information, and then another, and another. The strip-mining of “relevant content” replaces the slow excavation of meaning.
P168, The stress that Google and other Internet companies place on the efficiency of information exchange as the key to intellectual progress is nothing new. It’s been, at least since the start of the Industrial Revolution, a common theme in the history of the mind. It provides a strong and continuing counterpoint to the very different view, promulgated by the American Transcendentalist as well as the earlier English Romantics, that true enlightenment comes only through contemplation and introspection. The tension between the two perspectives is one manifestation of the broader conflict between, in Leo Marx’s terms, “the machine” and “the garden” – the industrial ideal and the pastoral ideal – that has played such an important role in shaping modern society.
When carried into the realm of the intellect, the industrial ideal of efficiency poses, as Hawthorne understood, a potentially mortal threat to the pastoral ideal of meditative thought. That doesn’t mean that promoting the rapid discovery and retrieval of information is bad. It’s not. The development of a well-rounded mind requires both an ability to find and quickly parse a wide range of information and a capacity of open-ended reflection. There needs to be time for efficient data collection and time of inefficient contemplation, time to operate the machine and time to sit idly in the garden. We need to work in Google’s “world of numbers,” but we also need to be able to retreat to Sleepy Hollow. The problem today is that we’re losing our ability to strike a balance between those two very different states of mind. Mentally, we’re in a perpetual locomotion.
P173, the desire to build a HAL-like system of artificial intelligence is a natural ambition and even an admirable one. Still, Brin and Page’s easy assumption that we’d all be “better off” if our brains were supplemented, or even replaced, by artificial intelligence is as unsettling as it is revealing. It underscores the firmness and the certainty with which Google holds to its Taylorist belief that intelligence is the output of a mechanical process, a series of discrete steps that can be isolated, measured, and optimized. “Human beings are ashamed to have been born instead of made,” the twentieth-century philosopher Gunther Anders once observed, and in the pronouncements of Google’s founders we can sense that shame as well as the ambition it engenders. In Google’s world, which is the world we enter when we go online, there’s little place for the pensive stillness of deep reading or the fuzzy indirection of contemplation. Ambiguity is not an opening for insight but a bug to be fixed. The human brain is just an outdated computer that needs a faster processor and a bigger hard drive – and better algorithms to steer the course of its thought.
P176, There’s little reason to believe that this new approach to incubating an intelligent machine will prove any more fruitful than the old one. It, too, is built on reductive assumptions. It takes for granted that the brain operates according to the same formal mathematical rules as a computer does – that, in other words, the brain and the computer speak the same language. But that’s a fallacy born of our desire to explain phenomena we don’t understand in terms we do understand. John von Neumann himself warned against falling victim to this fallacy. “When we talk about mathematics,” he wrote toward the end of his life, “we may be discussing a secondary language, built on the primary language truly used by our central nervous system.” Whatever the nervous system’s language may be, “it cannot fail to differ considerably from what we consciously and explicitly consider as mathematics.”
It’s also a fallacy to think that the physical brain and the thinking mind exist as separate layers in a precisely engineered “architecture”. The brain and the mind, the neuroplasticity pioneers have shown, are exquisitely intertwined, each shaping the other. As Ari Schulman wrote in “Why Minds Are Not like Computers”, a 2009 New Atlantis article, “Every indication is that, rather than a neatly separable hierarchy like a computer, the mind is a tangled hierarchy of organization and causation. Changes in the mind cause changes in the brain, and vice versa”. To create a computer model of the brain that would accurately simulate the mind would require the replication of “every level of the brain that affects and is affected by the mind”. Since we’re nowhere near disentangling the brain’s hierarchy, much less understanding how its levels act and interact, the fabrication of an artificial mind is likely to remain an aspiration for generations to come, if not forever.
Google is neither God nor Satan, and if there are shadows in the Googleplex they’re no more than the delusions of grandeur. What’s disturbing about the company’s founder is not their boyish desire to create an amazingly cool machine that will be able to outthink its creators, but the pinched conception of the human mind that gives rise to such a desire.
[Digi Hunch] This is the best chapter of the book and it presents biochemical and physiological details.
P180, Clive Thompson refers to the Net as an “outboard brain” that is taking over the role previously played by inner memory. “I’ve almost given up making an effort to remember anything because I can instantly retrieve the information online”. He suggests that by offloading data onto silicon we free our own gray matter for more germanely ‘human’ task like brainstorming and daydreaming. David Brooks, the popular New York times columnist, makes a similar point. “I had thought that the magic of the information age was that it allowed us to know more”, he writes, “but then I realized the magic of the information age is that it allows us to know less. It provides us with external cognitive servants – silicon memory systems, collaborative online filters, consumer preference a algorithms and networked knowledge. We can burden these servants and liberate ourselves.”
Neurologists and psychologist had known since the end of the 19th century that our brains hold more than one kind of memory, as backed up by William James in Ebbinghaus’s test:
- Primary Memories – “short term memory” evaporated from the mind soon after the event that inspired them
- Secondary memories – “long term memory” the brain could hold onto indefinitely
P184, It takes an hour or so for memories to become fixed, or “consolidated” in the brain. Short-term memories don’t become long-term memories immediately, and the process of their consolidation is delicate. Any disruption, whether a jab to the head or a simple distraction, can sweep thee nascent memories from the mind.
Long-term memories are not just stronger forms of short term memories. The two types of memory entail different biological processes. Storing long-term memories requires the synthesis of new proteins. Storing short-term memories does not. Repetition encourages consolidation. The formation of long-term memories, in other words, involves not only biochemical changes but anatomical ones. That explained why memory consolidation requires new proteins.
The fact that even after a memory is forgotten, the number of synapses remains a bit higher than it had been originally helps explain why it’s easier to learn something a second time.
Kandel wrote in his 2006 memoir “In Search of Memory”: we could see for the first time that the number of synapses in the brains is not fixed – it changes with learning. Moreover, long-term memory persists for as long as the anatomical changes are maintained. It was also revealed that the basic physiological difference between the two types of memory: short-term memory produces a change in the function of the synapse, strengthening or weakening pre-existing connections; long-term memory requires anatomical changes. Further experiments soon made it clear that the biochemical and structural changes involved in memory consolidation also take places in primates.
P188, “Implicit memory” – the unconscious memories of past experiences that are recalled automatically in carrying out a reflexive action or rehearsing a learned skill. A slug calls on implicit memories when retracting its gill. A person draws on them when dribbling a basketball or riding a bike. As Kandel explains, an implicit memory is recalled directly through performance, without any conscious effort or even awareness that we are drawing on memory.
When we talk about our memoirs, what we’re usually referring to are the “explicit” ones – the recollections of people, events, facts, ideas, feelings, and impressions that we’re able to summon into the working memory of our conscious mind. Kandel refers to explicit memory as “complex memory” because the long-term storage of it involves all the biochemical and molecular process of “synaptic consolidation” that play out in storing implicit memories. And it also requires a second form of consolidation, called “system consolidation” which involves concerted interactions among far-flung areas of the brain. The consolidation of explicit memories involves a long and involved “conversation” between the cerebral cortex and the hippocampus. The hippocampus plays an important role in the formation and management of explicit memories.
P189, Molaison’s experience, meticulously documented by the English psychologist Brenda Milner, suggested that the hippocampus is essential to the consolidation of new explicit memories but that after a time many of those memories come to exist independently of the hippocampus. The memory of an experience seems to be stored initially not only in the cortical region, but also in the hippocampus. The hippocampus provides an ideal holding place for new memories because its synapses are able to change very quickly. Over the course of a few days, through a still mysterious signaling process, the hippocampus helps stabilize the memory in the cortex, beginning its transformation from a short-term memory into a long-term one. Eventually, once the memory is fully consolidated,, it appears to be erased from the hippocampus. The cortex becomes its sole holding place. Fully transferring an explicit memory from the hippocampus to the cortex is a gradual process that can take may years. That’s why so many of Molaison’s memories disappeared along with his hippocampus.
The hippocampus seems to act as something like an orchestra conductor in directing the symphony of our conscious memory. It is thought to play an important role in weaving together the various contemporaneous memories– visual, spatial, auditory, tactile, emotional – that are stored separately in the brain but that coalesce to form a single, seamless recollection of an event. Neuroscientists also theorize that the hippocampus helps link new memories with older ones, forming the rich mesh of neuronal connections that give memory its flexibility and depth. Many of the connections between memories are likely forged when we’re asleep and the hippocampus is relieved of some of its other cognitive chores.
The memory inside our heads is the product of an extraordinarily complex natural process that is, at every instant, exquisitely tuned to the unique environment in which each of us lives and the unique patterns of experiences that each of us goes through. Governed by highly variable biological signals, chemical, electrical and genetic, every aspect of human memory – the way it’s formed, maintained, connected, recalled – has almost infinite gradations.
P191, Kobi Rosenblum studies how different biological memory is from computer memory. The process of long-term memory creation in the human brain is one of the incredible process which is so clearly different than ‘artificial brains’ like those in a computer. While an artificial brain absorbs information and immediately saves it in its memory, the human brain continues to process information long after it is received, an the quality of memories depends on how the information is processed.
Those who celebrate the “outsourcing” of memory to the web have been misled by a metaphor. They overlooked the fundamentally organic nature of biological memory. The proponents of the outsourcing idea also confuse working memory with long-term memory. In contrast to working memory, with its constrained capacity, long-term memory expands and contracts with almost unlimited elasticity, thanks to the brain’s ability to grow and prune synaptic terminals and continually adjust the strength of synaptic connections.
The web places more pressure on our working memory, not only diverting resources from our higher reasoning faculties, but obstructing the consolidation of long-term memories and the development of schemas.
The key to memory consolidation is attentiveness. Storing explicit memories and forming connections between them requiring strong mental concentration, amplified by repetition or by intense intellectual or emotional engagement. The sharper the attention, the sharper the memory. For a memory to persist, the incoming information must be thoroughly and deeply processed, this is accomplished by attending to the information and associating it meaningfully and systematically with knowledge already well established in memory. If we’re unable to attend to the information in our working memory., the information lasts only as long as the neurons that hold it maintain their electric charge – a few seconds at best. Then it’s gone, leaving little or no trace in the mind.
Conscious attention begins in the frontal lobes of the cerebral cortex, with the imposition of top-down, executive control over the mind’s focus. The establishment of attention leads the neurons of the cortex to send signals to neurons in the midbrain that produce the powerful neurotransmitter dopamine. The axons of these neurons reach all the way into the hippocampus, providing a distribution channel for the neurotransmitter. Once the dopamine is funneled into the synapses of the hippocampus, it jump-starts the consolidation of explicit memory probably by activating genes that spur the synthesis of new proteins. The influx of competing message that we receive whenever we go online not only overloads our working memory; it makes it much harder for our frontal lobes to concentrate our attention on any one thing. The process of memory consolidation can’t even get started. And, thanks to the plasticity of our neuronal pathways, the more we use the web, the more we train our brain to be distracted- to process information very quickly and very efficiently but without sustained attention. That helps explain why many of us find it hard to concentrate even when we’re away from our computers. Our brains become adept a forgetting, inept at remembering. Our growing dependence on the web’s information stores may in fact be the product of a self-perpetuating, self-amplifying loop.
Culture is sustained in our synapses. The offloading of memory to external data banks doesn’t just threaten the depth and distinctiveness of the self. It threatens the depth and distinctiveness of the culture we call share.
A Thing like me
Weizenbaum: What makes us most human is what is least computable about us – the connections between our mind and our body, the expertise that shape our memory and our thinking, our capacity for emotion and empathy. The great danger we face as we become more intimately involve with our computers – as we come to experience more of our lives through the disembodied symbols flickering across our screens- is that we’ll begin to lose our humanness, to sacrifice the very qualities that separate us from machines. The only way to avoid that fate, is to have the self-awareness and the courage to refuse to delegate to computers the most human of our mental activities and intellectual pursuits, particularly tasks that demand wisdom.”
Experiment of pliers-wielding monkeys revealed how readily the plastic primate brain can incorporate tools into its sensory maps, making the artificial feel natural. In the human brain, that capacity has advanced far beyond what’s seen in even our closest primate cousins. The evolution of our extraordinary mental capacity to blur the boundary between the internal and the external, the body and the instrument, was, says Univ of Oregon neuroscientist Scott Frey, “no doubt a fundamental step in the development of technology.”
The tight bonds we form with our tools go both ways. Even as our technologies become extensions of ourselves, we become extensions of our technologies. Wehen the carpenter takes his hammer into his hand, he can use that hand to do only what a hammer can do. The hand becomes an implement for pounding and pulling nails. Every tool imposes limitations even as it opens possibilities. The more we use it, the more we mold ourselves to its form and function. That explains why, after working with a word processor for a time, I began to lose my facility for writing and editing in longhand. John Culkin: We shape our tools and thereafter they shape us.
Marshall McLuhan: our tools end up “numbing” whatever part of our body they “amplify”. When we extend some part of ourselves artificially, we also distance ourselves from the amplified part and its natural functions. The price we pay to assume technology’s power is alienation. The toll can be particularly high with our intellectual technologies. The tools of the mind amplify and in turn numb the most intimate, the most human, of our natural capacities – those for reason, perception, memory, emotion. Even a tool as seemingly simple and benign as the map had a numbing effect. Our ancestors’ navigational skills were amplified enormously by the cartographer’s art. When people came to rely on maps rather than their own bearings, they would have experienced a diminishment of the area of their hippocampus devoted to spatial representation. The numbing would have occurred deep in their neurons – “auto-amputation”.
As a universal medium, a supremely versatile extension of our senses, our cognition and our memory, the networked computer serves as a particularly powerful neural amplifier. Its numbing effects are equally strong. Norman Doidge: the computer extends the processing capabilities of our central nervous system and in the process also alters it. Electronic media are so effective at altering the nervous system because they both work in similar ways and are basically compatible and easily linked. Thanks to its plasticity, the nervous system can take advantage of this compatibility and merge with the electronic media, making a single larger system. There’s another, even deeper reason why our nervous systems are so quick to “merge” with our computers. Evolution has imbued our brains with a powerful social instinct, which as Jason Mitchell says entails ” a set of processes for inferring what those around us are thinking and feeling.”
While the cybernetic blurring of mind and machine may allow us to carry out certain cognitive tasks far more efficiently, it poses a threat to our integrity as human beings. Many studies of hypertext and multimedia show that our ability to learn can be severely compromised when our brains become overloaded with diverse stimuli online. More information can mean less knowledge. In Van Nimwegen’s puzzle solving test between two groups. The findings indicated that those using the unhelpful software were better able to plan ahead and plot strategy, while those using the helpful software tended to rely on simple trial and error. Often, in fact, those with the helpful software were found “to aimlessly click around” as they try to crack the puzzle. He concluded that as we “externalized” problem solving and other cognitive chores to our computers, we reduce our brain’s ability to “build stable knowledge structures” – schemas, in other words – that can later “be applied in new situations”. The brighter the software, the dimmer the user.
Van Nimwegen suggested that programmers might want to design their software to be less helpful in order to force user to think harder. That may well be good advice, but it’s hard to imagine the developers of commercial computer programs and web applications taking it to heart. One of the long-standing trends in software programming has been the pursuit of ever more “user-friendly” interfaces. That’s particularly tru on the Net. Internet companies are in fierce competition to make people’s lives easier, to shift the burden of problem solving and other mental labor away from the user and onto the microprocessor. Automating cognitive processes in this way has become the modern programmer’s stock-in-trade.
P217. several counterintuitive findings:
- As more journals moved online, scholars actually cited fewer articles than they had before. Scholars cited more recent articles with increasing frequency. A broadening of available information led to a narrowing of science and scholarship.
- Search engines tend to serve as amplifiers of popularity, quickly establishing and then continually reinforcing a consensus about what information is important and what isn’t. The quicker that scholars are able to “find prevailing opinion”, the more likely they are to follow it, leading to more citations referencing fewer articles. Old-fashioned library research probably served to widen scholars’ horizons.
- Before Federick Taylor introduced his system of scientific management, the individual laborer, drawing on his training, knowledge, and experience, would make his own decisions about how he did his work. He would write his own script. After Taylor, the laborer began following a script written by someone else. The machine operator was not expected to understand how the script was constructed or the reasoning behind it; he was simply expected to obey it. The messiness that comes with individual autonomy was cleaned up, and the factory as a whole became more efficient, its output more predictable. Industry prospered. What was lost along with the messiness was personal initiative, creativity, and whim. Conscious craft turned into unconscious routine.
When we go online, we, too, are following scripts written by others – algorithmic instructions that few of us would be able to understand even if the hidden codes were revealed to us. The scripts can be ingenious and extraordinarily useful, but they also mechanize the messy processes of intellectual exploration and even social attachment. Thomas Lord: software can end up turning the most intimate and personal of human activities into mindless “rituals” whose steps are “encoded in the logic of web pages” rather than acting according to our own knowledge and intuition, we go through the motions.
A series of psychological studies over the past twenty years has revealed that after spending time in a quiet rural setting, close to nature, people exhibit greater attentiveness, stronger memory, and generally improved cognition. Their brains become both calmer and sharper. The reason, according to attention restoration theory, or ART, is that when people aren’t being bombarded by external stimuli, their brains can, in effect, relax. They no longer have to tax their working memories by processing a stream of bottom-up distractions. The resulting state of contemplativeness strengthens their ability to control their mind. Spending time in the park, the researchers found “significantly improved” people’s performance on the cognitive tests, indicating a substantial increase in attentiveness. Simple and brief interactions with nature can produce marked increases in cognitive control.
There is no Sleepy Hollow on the Internet, no peaceful spot where contemplativeness can work its restorative magic. There is only the endless, mesmerizing buzz of the urban street. The stimulations of the Net can be invigorating and inspiring. But they are as well exhausting and distracting. They can easily overwhelm all quieter modes of thought. One of the greatest dangers we face as we automate the work of our minds, as we cede control over the flow of our thoughts and memories to a powerful electronic system, is a slow erosion of our humanness and our humanity.
It’s not only deep thinking that requires a calm, attentive mind. It’s also empathy and compassion. Experiments revealed that while the human brain reacts very quickly to demonstrations of physical pain – when you see someone injured, the primitive pain centers in your own brain activate almost instantaneously – the more sophisticated mental process of empathizing with psychological suffering unfolds much more slowly. It takes time for the brain to transcend immediate involvement of the body and begin to understand and to feel the psychological and moral dimensions of a situation. The experiment indicates that the more distracted we become, the less able we are to experience the subtlest, most distinctively human forms of empathy, compassion and other emotions. Mary Helen Immordino-Yang: For some kinds of thoughts, especially moral decision-making about other people’s social and psychological situations, we need to allow for adequate time and reflection. If things are happening too fast, you may not ever fully experience emotions about other people’s psychological states. The Net re-routs our vital paths and diminishes our capacity for contemplation, it is altering the depth of our emotions as well as our thoughts.