“Outsource memory, and culture withers.”
Thus concludes Nicholas Carr as he wraps up one of the most fascinating chapters in The Shallows, “Search, Memory.” Upon completing the book, I found myself going back to this particular chapter which had spoken to me on such a personal level, as I struggle daily with my own memory. I’ve often thought about how strong my memory used to be when I was a college student. Words on a page appeared in their entirety to me, as if I were looking at a painting—my memory was so powerful then. Now, I struggle to recall the simplest bits of information–a phone number, my Social Security number, the title of a book I read last week. My memory has atrophied, like the muscles of a retired athlete, even though it feels like my brain is constantly working in overdrive.
The conclusions in this chapter are supported by current research but also by historical findings as well—which all point to the fact that the past centuries of technological improvements—such as the move from oral to written traditions, the advent of the printing press, access to greater amounts of information via computers, and of course the hyperlinked universe of the World Wide Web—have resulted in biological rewiring within our brains which have helped us accommodate the changes, but at a cost—to our memories. The creation and storage of personal memories, both short-term and long-term, is the equivalent to the most complex type of intellectual supply chain imaginable. Each time we click on a hyperlink, or view an e-mail, or answer an instant message, or check Twitter, we’re interrupting that supply chain, interfering with those memory-oriented processes that happen at the cellular level in our brains. This constant interference is having detrimental effects. For example, our working memory is being overloaded so that memories can’t be moved to proper areas within the brain for long-term storage, and recollection processes don’t work right
To me, The Shallows is a cautionary tale for the brain. For instance, regarding my own memory, now that I know what is happening, I can take meaningful steps to mitigate the negative effects technology has on my brain. I can develop a new personal process for managing my e-mail load at work—perhaps only checking once every two hours, as opposed to checking every two minutes. I can disconnect entirely from the computer and my devices, sitting down for a period each night to read print books–something which I recommitted to recently, as I wrote about in my first entry regarding this book. The act of “deep reading,” is critical to maintaining a healthy memory, according to multiple research findings cited by Mr. Carr so I’m heartened to know that my literary exercise will be highly beneficial to my brain function. I can work on paying greater “attention” to information that I do access through long works. Being attentive actually triggers biological processes in the brain that aid memory and consciousness—even compassion and emotion. I can actively memorize new vocabulary words—the old-fashioned way—by writing the words down along with their definitions several times and studying them. None of these actions sound extreme, but they demand a change in my behavior which I am willing to try—because as I have learned in this wonderful book, one can rewire one’s brain at any point in one’s life.