Nicholas Carr’s new book The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brain has not officially been released, but snippets of Carr’s ideas are showing up around the web, and they are worth talking about.
If you’re not familiar with Carr, he created quite a stir back in 2007 when he asked the question “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” in an article in the Atlantic. Since then he’s spent a good deal of time collecting research into how using the Internet – from twitter to blogs to wikipedia to video – changes the way our brain works.
The major premise of Carr’s work is that brain adapts to repetitive actions just like a muscle. If you go jogging frequently, your leg muscles lengthen and elongate. If you lift heavy weight over and over, your muscles get bigger and more dense.
Theoretically, when you do certain mental tasks (reading, memorizing, etc.) your mind also adapts. If you read a lot of books, your ability to grasp large concepts tends to improve as does your vocabulary. If you read a lot of tweets, your ability to consume lots and lots of small sentences increases.
But each new task brings with it a set of trade offs. Just as marathon runners can’t bench 300 pounds, and dead lifters can’t run marathons, literature professors don’t tend to enjoy reading 1000s of tweets, and twitter junkies don’t have usually have Dostoevsky next to their iPhone.
How to Our Brains Adapt to Internet Links?
As he considers the trade-offs of various reading technology, Carr contends that reading text with a lot of links embedded changes how we process information and the results are mostly bad:
Links are wonderful conveniences, as we all know (from clicking on them compulsively day in and day out). But they’re also distractions. Sometimes, they’re big distractions – we click on a link, then another, then another, and pretty soon we’ve forgotten what we’d started out to do or to read. Other times, they’re tiny distractions, little textual gnats buzzing around your head. Even if you don’t click on a link, your eyes notice it, and your frontal cortex has to fire up a bunch of neurons to decide whether to click or not. You may not notice the little extra cognitive load placed on your brain, but it’s there and it matters. People who read hypertext comprehend and learn less, studies show, than those who read the same material in printed form. The more links in a piece of writing, the bigger the hit on comprehension.
Wow, not too positive, eh?
However, I would think that the same thing could be said of footnotes28 and endnotes29 in print. Although academics seem to do just fine wading through seas of superscripted numbers, when I read dense academic works with lots of footnotes, I constantly wonder, “Should I check the note or continue?”
What about Bible Verses?
Do the chapter and verse numbers in the Bible add a similar “cognitive load” to our reading of the Scriptures?
I haven’t seen any cognitive studies on Bible reading with and without verse numbers, but history suggests that they have made a difference. Today, the Bible is almost unrecognizable without chapters and verse numbers, but it wasn’t until the 1550s that Robert Estienne standardized verse numbers for his Greek lexicon. That means that from Moses (1500 B.C.) to Luther (A.D. 1500), believers had no concept of memorizing a “verse” or debates about the “red letters.”
As helpful as they are, these are technological tools that we’ve added to the Bible, and now these tools shape the way we approach the words of God. This is even more pronounced with study Bibles where the Biblical text is less than 50% of the words of every page.
Following Nicholas Carr’s suggestion, here are the links that would normally have been embedded in the text above:
- The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains
- Carr’s article “Is Google Making us Stupid?”
- Carr’s post “Experiments in Delinkification”
- Chapters & Verses: Who Needs Them? by Christopher R. Smith
- The Books of Bible – printed Bible without notes or numbers
Notice how different this post is without those links embedded throughout the text.
If you try reading a Bible without chapters and verses, you might find that the change is even more drastic. It’s quite different to read Acts without the chapter divisions dictating the narrative pace or to study Romans without the verse numbers splitting up Paul’s arguments.
Does that mean chapter/verse numbers are bad? Are study Bibles and red letter editions evil plots by the Devil? No, of course not. In fact, they are incredibly helpful study and reference aids.
But we still need to be aware that every time we open a printed Bible and every time we fire up the Scriptures on our computer and phones (or use one of my fancy tools http://biblewebapp.com), there is a lot of extra “stuff” that can be quite distracting and which might influence the way we encounter the God’s word.
So if you’re interested in trying a Bible free from the technology of numbers, links, colors, and cross references, check out the “Books of the Bible” project where you can download entire sample books and buy printed copies.
Try reading Genesis or Philippians and let me know what you think…