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DEEP READING: MY REFLECTIONS ON
What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brain
by Nicholas Carr
(New York: Norton, 2010)
One of the most interesting nonfiction books that I have read that addresses reading is The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brain. by Nicholas Carr. While it’s ironic to discuss, in a laudatory way, a print book that decries to effect of the Internet on our ability to not only go deep but be deep human beings on a website, I am hoping that the entirety of my website has helped bring you to a place of depth within yourself (or at least, not skate over or otherwise interfere with your already existing depth).
The author’s premise is that with each innovation in mass communication — beginning with cuneiform writing on clay tablets in Sumeria, and moving into recording hieroglyphics on papyrus scrolls in Egypt around 2500 BC, which then were taken up by the Romans as parchment around the time of Christ — there have been gains (and sometimes, some losses). “As the Middle Ages progressed, the number of literate people . . . grew steadily, and the availability of books expanded.“
One of the fascinating things about this book, to me, is that it charts the internal, attentional development of the human brain — and, inferentially, the human attention span, our ability for depth — through the changes in the communication formats of the time(s). It seems that when words were first written down on scrolls, all the conventions we are now used to (and an editor’s stock-in-trade) — including having spaces between the words (ratherthanhavingtoreadlikethis) — did not yet exist. And it was because spoken language was still the reference point, and the music — and inflections — of spoken language were the touchstone. The ears were prominent (hearing), not the eyes (seeing in reading).
"Silent reading was largely unknown in the ancient world. The new codices, like the tablets and scrolls that preceded them, were almost always read aloud, whether the reader was in a group or alone. . . . The first writers . . . were simply transcribing speech, writing what their ears told them to write. . . . In spoken language, meaning had always been conveyed mainly through inflection, the pattern of stresses a speaker places on syllables, and that oral tradition continued to govern writing…. The rules hadn’t been invented yet.” (pp. 60-61)
“By the thirteenth century [the author writes], scriptura continua [words run in without spaces between them, as was the way before this time since the invention of written “books”] was largely obsolete, for Latin texts as well as those written in the vernacular. Punctuation marks, which further eased the work of the reader, began to become common too. Writing, for the first time, was aimed as much at the eye as the ear.”
“The emergence of word order standards sparked a revolution in the structure of language—one that . . . ‘was inherently antithetical to the ancient quest for metrical and rhythmical eloquence.’ . . . The placing of spaces between words alleviated the cognitive strain involved in deciphering text, making it possible for people to read quickly, silently, and with greater comprehension. Such fluency had to be learned. It required complex changes in the circuitry of the brain, as contemporary studies of young readers reveal. The accomplished reader , . . develops specialized brain regions geared to the rapid deciphering of text. . . . As the brain becomes more adept at decoding text, turning what had been a demanding problem-solving exercise into a process that is essentially automatic, it can dedicate more resources to the interpretation of meaning. What we today call ‘deep reading’ becomes possible. . . .
“Readers didn’t just become more efficient. They also became 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.”
“Even the earliest silent readers recognized the striking change in their consciousness that took place as they immersed themselves in the pages of a book. The medieval bishop Isaac of Syria described how, whenever he read to himself, ‘as in a dream, I enter a state when my sense and thoughts are concentrated. Then, when with prolonging of this silence the turmoil of memories is stilled in my heart, ceaseless waves of joy are sent me by inner thoughts, beyond expectation suddenly arising to delight my heart.’”
“To read a book was to practice an unnatural process of thought, one that demanded sustained, unbroken attention to a single, static object. It required readers to place themselves at what T. S. Eliot, in Four Quartets, would call ‘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.”
And these were still handwritten codices of the late middle ages. Nevertheless, it had profound consequences socially as well as individually. It wasn’t only that silent reading spawned libraries, universities, reference codes and books. It changed the paradigm from the more public, tribal orientation of oral culture to the individualism that we all have been brought up with (and that some are hoping to tame and adjust in favor of a paradigm of interdependence). In the process, some structural changes took place, both internally within the reader and between the reader and the author [see sidebar].
“For centuries, the technology of writing had reflected, and reinforced, the intellectual ethic of the oral culture in which it arose. The writing and reading of tablets, scrolls, and early codices had stressed the communal development and propagation of knowledge. Individual creativity had remained subordinate to the needs of the group. Writing had remained more a means of recording than a method of composition. Now, writing began to take on, and to disseminate, a new intellectual ethic: the ethic of the book.
“The development of knowledge became an increasingly private act, with each reader creating, in his own mind, a personal synthesis of the ideas and information passed down through the writings of other thinkers. The sense of individualism strengthened. ‘Silent reading,’ the novelist and historian James Carroll has noted, is ‘both the sign of and a means to self-awareness, with the knower taking responsibility for what is known.’ Quiet, solitary research became a prerequisite for intellectual achievement. Originality of thought and creativity of expression became the hallmarks of the model mind.” (p. 67)
Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press in the mid-15th century radically radically influenced the shift to deep, internalized reading:
“By the start of the seventeenth century, letterpresses were everywhere, producing not only books but newspapers, scientific journals, and a variety of other periodicals. The first great flowering of printed literature arrived, with works by such masters as Shakespeare, Cervantes, Moliere, and Milton, not to mention Bacon and Descartes, entering the inventories of booksellers and the libraries of readers.” (p. 70)
“Even among the most avid of the book-reading public, many of the old oral practices of information exchange remained popular. people continued to chat and to argue, to attend lectures, speeches, debates, and sermons. . . . The literary mind, once confined to the cloisters of the monastery and the towers of the university , had become the general mind. The world, as Bacon recognized, had been remade.
“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.”
Not only were books made available to the educated elite, but it went much further. “Along with the high-minded came the low-minded,” Carr writes. “The famed Spanish dramatist Lope de Vega expressed the feelings of many a grandee when, in . . . 1612, he wrote: ‘So many books—so much confusion! All around us an ocean of print, and most of it covered in froth.’” But, says the author, this “froth” increased the intellectual transformation brought about by printed books.
“By accelerating the spread of books into popular culture and making them a mainstay of leisure time, the cruder, crasser, and more trifling works also helped spread the book’s ethic of deep, attentive reading. ‘The same silence, solitude, and contemplative attitudes associated formerly with pure spiritual devotion,’ writes Eisenstein, ‘also accompanies the perusal of scandal sheets, “lewd Ballads,” “merry bookes of Italie,” and other “corrupted tales in Inke.”’
“The changes in written language liberated the writer as well as the reader.” (p. 65)
“Authors,” Carr writes, “also began to revise and edit their works heavily, something that dictation had often precluded. That, too, altered the form and the content of writing.
“For the first time . . . a writer ‘could see his manuscript as a whole and by means of cross-references develop internal relationships and eliminate the redundancies common to the dictated literature’ of the earlier Middle Ages. The arguments in books became longer and clearer, as well as more complex and more challenging, as writers strived self-consciously to refine their ideas and their logic.
“The bond between book reader and book writer has always been a tightly symbiotic one, a means of intellectual and artistic cross-fertilization. The words of the writer act as a catalyst in the mind of the reader, inspiring new insights, associations, and perceptions, sometimes even epiphanies.
“And the very existence of the attentive, critical reader provides the spur for the writer’s work. It gives the author the confidence to explore new forms of expression, to blaze difficult and demanding paths of thought, to venture into uncharted and sometimes hazardous territory.
“‘All great men have written proudly, nor cared to explain,’ said Emerson. ‘They knew that the intelligent reader would come at last, and would thank them.’
“Our rich literary tradition is unthinkable without the intimate exchanges that take place between reader and writer within the crucible of a book. . . . The literary ethic was not only expressed in what we normally think of as literature. It became the ethic of the historian…the philosopher…and the scientist. . . . None of these momentous intellectual achievements [such diverse books as Einstein’s Relativity, Keynes’s General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money, Thomas Kuhn’s Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring] would have been possible without the changes in reading and writing — and in perceiving and thinking — spurred by the efficient reproduction of long forms of writing on printed pages.”
Carr believes that in a similar but more dysfunctional, costly way, our dependence on online reading is compromising our ability to be deep human beings, to have deep relationships, deep reflections, and so on, in a way that a book-in-hand (feeling the tactility of the pages, turning the pages, taking one’s time with the reading experience instead of leaping from one link to another) does not.
“In one fascinating study, conducted at Washington University’s Dynamic Cognition Laboratory and published in the journal Psychological Science in 2009, researchers used brain scans to examine what happens inside people’s heads as they read fiction. They found that ‘readers mentally simulate each new situation encountered in a narrative. Details about actions and sensation are captured from the text and integrated with personal knowledge from past experiences.’ The brain regions that are activated often ‘mirror those involved when people perform, imagine, or observe similar real-world activities.’ Deep reading, says the study’s lead researcher, Nicole Speer, ‘is by no means a passive exercise.’ The reader becomes the book.
“The bond between book reader and book writer has always been a tightly symbiotic one, a means of intellectual and artistic cross-fertilization. The words of the writer act as a catalyst in the mind of the reader, inspiring new insights, associations, and perceptions, sometimes even epiphanies. And the very existence of the attentive, critical reader provides the spur for the writer’s work. It gives the author the confidence to explore new forms of expression, to blaze difficult and demanding paths of thought, to venture into uncharted and sometimes hazardous territory. ‘All great men have written proudly, nor cared to explain,’ said Emerson. ‘They knew that the intelligent reader would come at last, and would thank them.’
“Our rich literary tradition is unthinkable without the intimate exchanges that take place between reader and writer within the crucible of a book.
“In one fascinating study . . . published in the journal Psychological Science in 2009, researchers used brain scans to examine what happens inside people’s heads as they read fiction. They found that ‘readers mentally simulate each new situation encountered in a narrative. Details about actions and sensation are captured from the text and integrated with personal knowledge from past experiences.’ The brain regions that are activated often ‘mirror those involved when people perform, imagine, or observe similar real-world activities.’ Deep reading, says the study’s lead researcher, Nicole Speer, ‘is by no means a passive exercise.’ The reader becomes the book.” (pp. 74-75)
What does this suggest for deep readers and deep writers? We can’t not use the Internet: it’s by now an integral part of human life. You wouldn’t even be reading this if there were no “virtual reality” of this kind. That said, how do we maintain, sustain, and enrich our depth through reading?
Well, despite all this, print-book sales have not flagged, even though at the beginning of ebook fervor it was predicted that print books might go the way of the dinosaur (or even what has, periodically, been predicted for the novel . . . which keeps on ticking, nevertheless). We like the physicality of print books: to look at them, to hold them in our hands. In the old days of actual typesetting (hand-set letter by letter, rather than — as now — on computer), some people took a special pleasure in the smell of the ink wafting from the page! So giving ourselves the — not luxury, but nourishment — of printed books can keep alive the entirety of us, as we give our minds, and hearts, and even bodies (ever feel your heart race while reading about something that’s not actually happening to you in physical reality at that moment?) to the experience of reading.
Another way is to slow ourselves down while online. To be aware of its grabbing, even sometimes devouring capability — its quick-change aspect, commandeering our attention without our even realizing it, as we click away from one subject to another, entranced in gaining something but often lost to ourselves. This “Slow Reading” (I don’t know if I read the term or just invented it — probably the latter), similar to the “Slow Food” movement and other “Slow” movements, is not just an idle philosophy: it can save our sanity; give us back our heartbeat; connect us to what’s real in us instead of distracting us into giving credence and power to the skipping/hopping virtuality of the online world.
Another way is to connect one’s reading with human contact. This may mean joining a book club, or a writing group — both excellent ways to encounter the written word — but it doesn’t have to. Connecting your reading (or writing) with real-live human contact can be as simple as having a conversation with a friend, in which what you have read (or written) somehow comes into play. Perhaps it suggests a conversational road to travel together. Or, in conversation about a more integral topic, perhaps something you have read (or written) may illuminate or undergird what’s being said. The point is that all this reading (and writing) can be meant to enhance the lived human experience. We can inspire each other by sharing our own inspirations and reflections. And our reading (and writing) can be a source of inspiration and reflection.
One way of regaining the contemplative and connective power of books is to include them in our meetings and conversations with other people. Let the books deliver the medicine they are capable of. It’s a form of bibliophilic bibliotherapy! (And perhaps this enlivening, deepening experience may inspire you to write, and share, your own book at some point. . . .)
So whether you become the reading-equivalent of a vegan (no online books, print only — or does that translate into no online anything?. . . ), or you become an omnivore (online and print), it is the wish, intention, ability to center in yourself in the deepest way — and from there, to connect with other people in their depths — that makes the difference. Since you are reading this now — and it is online that you are reading it — the difference will be made by the likes of you.
Thank you! For all of us. It will make a difference to the larger world, as well as your own, intimate one.
And if you’d like to read the full text for yourself of The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains, click below.
The House Was Quiet and the World Was Calm
The house was quiet and the world was calm.
The reader became the book; and summer night
Was like the conscious being of the book.
The house was quiet and the world was calm.
The words were spoken as if there was no book,
Except that the reader leaned above the page,
Wanted to lean, wanted much most to be
The scholar to whom his book is true, to whom
The summer night is like a perfection of thought.
The house was quiet because it had to be.
The quiet was part of the meaning, part of the mind:
The access of perfection to the page.
— Wallace Stevens