Nicholas Carr’s “The Shallows” Through a Bowen Systems Lens

The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains (2010, 2011 W. W. Norton & Co.) by Nicholas Carr is a thoughtful and well-documented study of how the negative side effects of the Internet encourage us to reassess the value of its advantages. Carr acknowledges the usefulness of the Internet, which provides us with an array of information as wide as the ocean, but he demonstrates that such access trades intellectual depth and contemplation, those things which most distinguish us as human, for “the shallows.” Carr quotes playwright Richard Foreman, who says we risk turning into “pancake people—spread wide and thin as we connect with that vast network of information accessed by the mere touch of a button” (p. 196).

You may or may not agree with Carr, but the book and its argument are worth your attention and response. Those of you who have been engaged by Bowen Family Systems Theory (BFST) may have some responses to the book related to your understanding of self-differentiation and emotional health. I will respond to two aspects of Carr’s work with some reflections on them that grow out of my understanding of BFST.

Please understand, what I share here does not cover the range and application of Carr’s argument, nor does it even do full justice to those parts that I address. Therefore, I encourage you to read the book and draw your own conclusions. I invite you to consider two important aspects of his argument that I think offer grist for the BFST mill.

Number one, Carr says that the Internet has returned us to our “natural state of distractedness,” i.e. the state we knew before the development of reading, writing, and books. Our human ancestors had to shift their attention all of the time in order to survive. Carr laments that the Internet presents us with far more distractions than our ancestors ever had to contend with, seizing our attention “only to scatter it” (p. 118).

Prolonged and solitary thought, Carr suggests, is an aberration in intellectual history that emerged with the technology of the printed page. “To read a book was to practice an unnatural process of thought, one that demanded sustained, unbroken attention to a single, static object….[People] 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” (p. 64). A book requires sustained thoughtfulness rather than simply emotional or physical reactivity. In addition, I propose, a book invites a reader to a thoughtful determination of who he/she is in relation to the text; it invites a reflective self-differentiation which then may get exercised beyond the pages of the book. The Internet, on the other hand, is a medium of distractions which invites us to react, and usually without much thought and to be all things to all people. It does not encourage thoughtful self-definition and emotional self-regulation.

At this point, some may suggest that the book-like digital technology of an e-reader would qualify as “book,” and in some regards that is so, at least for those who persevere with the text. But let me suggest that e-readers offer their own forms of distraction, i.e. digital tools that move one easily and enticingly away from the text and the flow of the book’s subject to the tool itself. In addition, e-readers do not provide the physical actions and sensory stimuli of holding and turning the pages of a book or magazine. Ample research has suggested that the cognitive act of reading a book draws on our sense of touch as well as sight. There is a link in our brains between the material sensory-motor experience and the cognitive processing of the text that influences the degree of attention we devote to the text and the degree to which we are immersed in it.

Number two, and in my mind more significant, Carr notes that the depth of our intelligence depends upon “our ability to transfer information from working memory to long-term memory and weave it into conceptual schemas” (p. 124). Typically working memory is able to process just two to four pieces of information at any given time. These information elements vanish from working memory if they are not rehearsed regularly. Information coming into working memory, i.e. cognitive load, is limited for us. And if not transferred into long-term memory information in working memory is lost and not available for drawing connections and new insights.

High cognitive load amplifies distractions, because our ability to maintain attention depends on working memory. When our working memory is overloaded, any distraction becomes more distracting. As we reach the limits of working memory it becomes harder to distinguish relevant information from the irrelevant, signal from noise. “We become mindless consumers of data” (p. 125). What determines what we remember and what we forget is attentiveness.

Storing explicit memories and, equally important, forming connections between them requires 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,’ writes [biologist Eric Kandel], ‘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” (p. 193).

“The influx of competing messages that we receive whenever we go online not only overloads our working memory; it also 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 once again 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. … Our brains become adept at forgetting, inept at remembering. Our growing dependence on the Web’s information stories may in fact be the product of a self-perpetuating, self-amplifying loop. As our use of the Web makes it harder for us to lock information into our biological memory, we’re forced to rely more and more on the Net’s capacious and easily searchable artificial memory, even if it makes us shallower thinkers.

“The changes in our brains happen automatically, outside the narrow compass of our consciousness, but that doesn’t absolve us from responsibility for the choices we make. One thing that sets us apart from other animals is the command we have been granted over our attention. ‘Learning how to think really means learning how to exercise some control over how and what you think,’ said the novelist David Foster Wallace … ‘It means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience.’ To give up that control is to be left with ‘the constant gnawing sense of having had and lost some infinite thing’”(p. 194).

Already in the 1950’s and ’60’s Marshall McLuhan observed technology’s numbing effect. Carr suggests we see it already in Psalm 115 of the Hebrew scriptures in terms of a much earlier “technology.”

      “Their idols are silver and gold, the work of human hands.  They have             mouths, but do not speak; eyes, but do not see.  They have ears, but do not     hear; noses, but do not smell.  They have hands, but do not feel; feet, but         do not walk; they make no sound in their throats.  Those who make them       are like them; so are all who trust in them.

The price we pay to assume technology’s power is alienation” (p. 211). Mechanical clocks compromised our sense of nature’s flow of time. Maps weakened our ability to comprehend a landscape and develop a mental perception of our surroundings, and GPS devices dramatically reduce our geographic knowledge base, not to mention our brains’ capacities. The toll can be particularly high with 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” (ibid). Technologies numb the very faculties they amplify, to the point even of “autoamputation” (McLuhan). Technologies change our relationship to the world—almost always alienating us from it.

There is no question that we are being molded by our new information environment and new technologies. Many of these adaptations are good and well-suited to our circumstances. However, we should consider the perils as well. Martin Heidegger warned of the “frenziedness of technology.” Carr wonders if “we are welcoming the frenziedness into our souls” (p. 222) “What matters in the end is not our becoming but what we become,” says Carr (ibid). He thinks Stanley Kubrick’s dark prophecy in 2001 Space Odyssey might have been spot on: “… as we come to rely on computers to mediate our understanding of the world, it is our own intelligence that flattens into artificial intelligence” (p. 224).

In reading Carr I was reminded of Dr. Edwin Friedman‘s thoughts on how the proliferation of information can paralyze one in making decisions. He suggested that the search for information has become something like an addiction, or “a form of substance abuse.” In A Failure of Nerve (1999, 2007, The Friedman Trust) Friedman said:

As long as leaders … base their confidence on how much data they have acquired, they are doomed to feeling inadequate, forever. … data gathering in a society oriented toward pathology [rather than strength – WTS] eventually winds up, like the very nature of pathology, as a process that is unable to set limits on itself. In contrast, … the categories of strength are well defined [by EF in this book – WTS], and the pursuit of information in this area promotes the self-differentiation necessary for harnessing the data deluge.

“Developing new criteria for judging the importance of information, therefore, is not a matter of changing one’s ‘database.’ What is required is a fundamental reorientation of our thinking processes, one that allows leaders to evaluate information in the context of emotional variables, along with the leader’s self-differentiation. Ultimately, the capacity of leaders to distinguish what information is important depends less on the development of new techniques for sorting data [or for accumulating more of it – WTS] than on a leader’s ability to avoid being driven by the regressive anxiety that is often the source of the unregulated data proliferation to begin with” (p. 97).

Subsequently Friedman asks,

Could contemporary American society’s ‘fix’ on data and technique in the denial of emotional process and personal being actually affect the way the pathways of our brains will evolve? And is it too far-fetched to assume that a civilization that teaches its leaders to rely on data rather than maturity would also produce a similar evolutionary change that is transmitted to the next generation? … What will be the effect on the brains or nervous systems of succeeding generations who have been nurtured in a civilization where its leaders have become addicted to data as a way of avoiding the problems of maturing?” (pp. 116-17).

And we might add: What will be the effect on the brains of individuals for whom distraction is the modus operandi for information gathering? And ultimately what will be their effect on their culture and society? New technologies have always shaped our culture both positively and negatively. It is important for us to consider both sides of the changes.

In BFST “differentiation” refers to the ability to be in emotional contact with others and yet maintain ones individuality, i.e. be autonomous in one’s emotional functioning (Kerr and Bowen, “Family Evaluation,” 1988, p. 145n). It is the capacity for a person to be self-defined and emotionally self-regulated in relationship with others and to be thoughtful and calm in the face of anxiety, particularly the anxiety which arises from the demands of close (most often family) relationships. I suggest that the Internet discourages–not prevents, but discourages and undermines–self-differentiation. It promotes and values a flood of information and a glut of the opinions and values of others. It encourages us either to adopt its propositions and values (speed, exposure, self-disclosure) or to react to them without much thought. We tend to become one of a largely mindless crowd or dedicated reactionaries. Both betray a lack of self-differentiation.

I understand that to suggest a relationship between Carr’s concerns about the Internet and its relationship to Bowen’s central concept of self-differentiation raises as many questions as it answers. The questions are likely the most valuable contributions for those who use the BFST lens on life and relationships. In what ways does the Internet and its distractions impact ones efforts at self-differentiation? Would the Internet’s use differ for a well-differentiated person as compared with its use by one who was not well-differentiated? Does the Internet’s focus on information facilitate or hamper wise decision-making? Does the Internet make us more, or less, human? What effect should we expect on relationships within families, and ultimately within societies, when the usual mode of communication is tweeting, texting, and Facebook posting?

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