Here’s to Sharper Attention and Greater Depth (Update)


I first came across Nicholas Carr’s book, The Shallows, nearly two-and-a-half years ago, in June of 2010, as I was piecing together the last chapter of my own book.  When I say “came across,” I mean that I learned about Carr’s book via online publicity, scanned some of its content, and skimmed a few early reviews.  Within a few computer clicks, I had grasped the book’s message (I thought) so confidently that I referenced it in Chapter 8 of my book, right there on page 186:

“And in The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains, journalist Nicholas Carr offers the well-formulated thesis that our 24/7 information age is robbing us of nothing less than our ability to think deeply.”

I knew at the time that Carr was on to something tremendously important. At an intuitive level, his core premise resonated with my experience almost perfectly.  Of course, I didn’t actually read his book. I was too busy finishing my own. And I certainly didn’t understand, at the time, the comic irony of my quickly and shallowly dipping a spoonful of content from the deep well of his synthesized work.

On Saturday afternoon, I finally picked up the new paperback edition of The Shallows and immersed myself in it over two days.  It’s been at least 20 years since a non-fiction book gripped me with such force, and I can’t think of one I would recommend more highly. Carr isn’t formulating academic theory, but instead, through his synthesis of a wide array of historical observations and neurological research, he’s telling a tale about how the human mind interacts with the forces of technology, for better and worse.  For all the incredible advances and conveniences offered by networked computing, we humans are riding a technological wave that might be returning us back to the viscerally-directed attention patterns of our pre-literate ancestors.

The book’s insights not only hit home for me at a personal level. Most of my professional work involves supporting and improving the performance of executives and entrepreneurs.  Many of them are harried, distracted, and drowning in torrential streams of unfiltered data. They reflexively snap their heads back and forth in hopes of capturing a few key bits and bytes of information. When they move with speed it’s usually toward unclear destinations, but more often they feel as if they’re running in quicksand.  Our ongoing joke about adult ADD has become so common that it just tires us even more.

Plenty of controversy has flown back and forth about Carr’s conclusions, with valid viewpoints on both sides, as he points out. But, when it comes to understanding the stuff of which we are made — how we think, choose, and act — and the direction in which we are moving as a species, this debate might be the most fruitful of our time.

Here’s wishing you, your families, and your firms a wonderful 2013, full of clear thinking, deep attention, appropriate velocity, and the joy of engaging in all the right challenges!


Two notes: (1) The absence of hyper-links in this post is intentional — read Carr’s book to find out why (not a permanent practice, just a nod on my part). (2) This is not a PR-driven post. I don’t know the author or his publicists.

UPDATE – click on ‘comments’ below to get a broader perspective and more detailed response from Elizabeth Helfant (@ehelfant). Elizabeth’s expertise is in instructional technology (check out her bio here) and she’s more deeply versed than most of us.  Please add your thoughts as well… Thanks – JB.


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3 Responses to Here’s to Sharper Attention and Greater Depth (Update)

  1. ehelfant says:

    This is an unlikely spot for me to respond but what the heck. Carr makes interesting propositions and does point out both good and bad. Another book that does some justice to the impact modern day culture/technology (I find them to be somewhat inseparable as one is currently so heavily defined by the other) has on the wiring of our brains is Gary Small’s iBrain: Surviving the Technological Alteration of the Modern Mind. Small is less focused on the internet. One other read that puts a much more optimistic spin on it all is Cathy Davidson’s Now You See It. Davidson points out that human’s have never had the ability to monotask- If you close your eyes for 5 minutes and try to “unplug” but remain conscious of where your mind goes, you can get a sense of this. It is an activity she takes from Harold Rheingold author of Netsmart: How to Thrive Online. Two interesting studies certainly don’t affirm miultitasking but, at least in my mind, dispel some of the negativity around technological distractions. Marcus Raichle has found that more of an individual’s brain lights up when daydreaming than when doing a focused task – The brain loves its own backchannels. (I haven’t found a definitive link but I have to believe this is related to the fact that the brain needs sleep to move things in working memory to long term memory.) Raichle found that when we are engaged in task switching, the brain is actually more energy efficient. Malia Mason’s work suggests that the brain is always cross-training or creating interconnected neural networks that help us with minimizing attention blindness. Attention blindness is Davidson’s term for the fact that we in education teach subjects in silos and in ways that result in student’s failure to make connections- a downside of the TWADDY (tats the way we’ve always done it) that new pedagogies seem to be offsetting somewhat. (Can’t help but let the education slant surface.) Mix in Willingham(Why Students don’t Like School-A Cognitive Scientist…) points out the brain wasn’t really meant to think at all-whcih brings me to a point of sorts- We are at a time of rapid and exciting change. This argument about distraction and multitasking and google making us dumber is akin to Socrates indictment of written language and his belief that it would weaken the human capacity to remember or to stay flexible in our thinking – We would write everything down and forget it and force it to become static and unchanging. We probably did take a hit in our capacity for memorizing but we gained in other dimensions. Socrates fear that wisdom was in jeopardy was not only unfounded but, because the ability to share written knowledge was more far-reaching, was opposite of the outcome that wisdom was cultivated among a greater number. There is a need for us to be thoughtful about what we introduce to our brains and to be intentional in cultivating the skills we need. For me that means putting together a curriculum that teaches a wider range of skills- from critical reading during internet searches to deep dives with complex texts. It isn’t either or. MaryAnne Wolf’s Proust and the Squid: The story of the Reading Brain discusses the differences in reading with the efficiency and immediacy that the web requires and with the focus and discernment that a primary source or work of literature might require. We have to engage in both as well as in decoding multimodal media messages. Deep reading on the web can also be accomplished if we leverage tools like the Clearly add on for Evernote. And the social and collaborative nature of learning that the internet facilitates should not be taken lightly either. While twitter is a distraction at worst, at its best it is a curator and filter of lots of good learning opportunities- but I need to learn how to manage that (Rheingold’s Netsmart)

    The good news is that using technology with an awareness of the downside inevitably offers us greater gains just as the written word did long ago. As a teacher in a 1-to-1 tablet school, we believe that technology and the internet as a subset, afford us the ability to force students into higher order thinking activities more of the time. We look at technology tools and we look at the multimedia resources and try to put them in play as a cognitive toolkit. We need to understand understand balance -when to use technology and when to engage in f2f communication or being outside in nature or playing sports. It has also made us more intentional about teaching thinking, developing global connections, and fostering independent learners. If you want to look at some schooliness stuff – Using tech to redefine. and Focus Redefinition The second link gives you historical perspective and future trends to contend with so we don’t hurt our brains.

    I’d also offer that while we know more about how the brain works then we ever have, we still know very little. I’d reference Bruer’s article A Bridge too Far and Tokuhama Espinosa’sThe New Science of Teaching and Learning for that position.

    Now that I’ve thrown together a few thoughts as a response- and probably a bit off topic- I think I’ll go work on a blog post of my own- New Year’s resolution has me working on focusing my reading and thinking by blogging again. Happy New Years!

  2. John Bradberry says:

    Elizabeth – thanks for the perspective and the resources you offer. I especially agree with your points about the velocity of the change, and that we don’t (can’t) know where these technological-neurological shifts will take us. History has proven this over and over again. There’s plenty of room for debate and I don’t view it as something that will ever be ‘settled.’ Fascinating and important, though.

    My personal takeaway is being reminded of the seductive lure of interruption and distraction and how various technologies coax our minds/brains in that direction (or in many directions at once). From an evolutionary standpoint, I can get behind the argument that the brain developed not for thinking but for surviving (in fact a lot of our current thinking would have gotten us quickly eaten on the ol’ savannah). I think part of Carr’s argument is that the totality of technological forces may be moving (at least nudging) us back toward the brain’s natural, pre-writing state.

    Thankfully, we have deep minds like yours focused on these issues where it matters most: in the education of the next generation.

    I look forward to checking out the additional sources you mention. Thanks again and Happy New Year.

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