This month in the magazine we probe the way in which our digitally connected age is affecting our brains. In the second part of our exploration into what’s become known as Divided Attention Disorder (DAD), we learn why rich media makes us poorer, courtesy of Nicholas Carr…
Thirty years ago, hip literary critics celebrated the arrival of what they termed “rich media.” By serving up a smorgasbord of digital content—words, pictures, sounds—personal computers would, they predicted, liberate knowledge from the static pages of books, and inspire people to think more critically and creatively.
It was a cool theory. But it hasn’t panned out. Recent psychological and neurological studies indicate that the hyperlinked multimedia that flows so abundantly through our computer screens actually gets in the way of deep thinking. It obstructs understanding, impedes the formation of memories, and makes learning more difficult.
The source of the problem can be traced to a fundamental bottleneck in the human brain: the narrow pathway from working memory to long-term memory. Working memory is where we hold the contents of our consciousness at any given moment—all the information and sensory stimuli that comes at us during our waking hours.
Unlike long-term memory, which has an enormous capacity, working memory can hold only a few items at a time. It’s a thimble-sized cache. When we take in too much data too quickly, as we tend to do when skipping between links online, our working memory gets swamped.
We suffer from what neuroscientists call cognitive overload. Information flies into and out of our minds so fast that we end up retaining very little of it. Worse yet, we’re unable to connect the new information to all the facts and experiences stored in our long-term memory. Rather than cohering into knowledge, our thoughts remain thin and scattered.
The Shallows: What The Internet Is Doing To Our Brains is published by Atlantic.