Posted by: lee E. | November 12, 2012

Evolved devolution

Carr makes clear in Chapter 4 of The Shallows that we’re such a stimulus-based species it’s actually quite unnatural for us to expect to be good at “deep reading”—In fact, “to read a book was (is) to practice an unnatural process of thought”.   Since “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,” (64) we’re apparently to have learned the “mental discipline” required to focus on printed text.

Prior to writing Imagine, author Jonah Lehrer wrote the New York Times book review of The Shallows.  He summarizes Carr’s position—“The online world has merely exposed the feebleness of human attention, which is so weak that even the most minor temptations are all but impossible to resist,” and then proceeds to disagree—pointing out that the “preponderance of scientific evidence suggests that the Internet and related technologies are actually good for the mind.”   Lehrer cites studies about increased prefrontal cortex activity and improved visual attention from video games.

What do I care if my prefrontal cortex is firing like the Fourth of July if what’s represented is actually just the technologically evolved devolution of primal hunter/gatherer skills that are fast becoming obsolete?  While I understand that we may be naturally better at the skills Lehrer defends technology for, could it be Carr’s mental discipline that separates us from other species?

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