Friday, February 23rd, 2018

Don’t mess with my head!


When I suspect someone is trying to play mind games with me, messing with my head, I don’t like it. Nicholas Carr, author of What The Internet Is Doing To Our Brains: The Shallows, believes it is far worse than just mind games. The digital world can actually cause organic changes in the structure of our brains. He cites some pretty convincing neurological research to back up his assertion.

The Internet is the latest medium to spur [the debate over whether the effect of the digital age is good or bad]. The clash between Net enthusiasts and Net skeptics, carried out over the last two decades through dozens of books and articles and thousands of blog posts, video clips, and podcasts, has become as polarized as ever, with the former heralding a new golden age of access and participation and the latter bemoaning a new dark age of mediocrity and narcissism. The debate has been important–content does matter–but because it hinges on personal ideology and taste, it has gone down a cul-de-sac. The views have become extreme, the attacks personal. “Philistine!” scoffs the skeptic. “Cassandra!” “Pollyanna!”

Well, I don’t know about that. Maybe both sides are off the mark, and that is what Carr is trying to show, not with anecdotal evidence but with hard medical evidence. Whether he succeeds or not I’m not sure, but he cites the work of a research outfit called nGenera who studied six thousand kids who have grown up using the Web. “They don’t necessarily read a page from left to right and from top to bottom. They might instead skip around, scanning for pertinent information of interest.” (Sound familiar?)

This is one example of changes in the way we think and study. Such changes may not be “good” or “bad,” but just different.

I read along with such thoughts, mildly interested but not particularly impressed, until I came to the following description of “deep reading.”

Wallace Stevens, in the exquisite couplets of “The House Was Quiet and the World Was Calm,” provides a particularly memorable and moving portrayal of [deep reading]:

The house was quiet and the world was calm.
The reader became the book; and the summer night

Was like the conscious being of the book.
The house was quiet and the world was calm.

The words were spoken as if there was no book,
Except that the reader leaned above the page,

Wanting to lean, wanted much most to be
The scholar to whom his book is true, to whom

The summer night is like a perfection of thought.
The house was quiet because it had to be.

The quiet was part of the meaning, part of the mind:
The access of perfection to the page.

Stevens’ poem not only describes deep reading. It demands deep reading. The apprehension of the poem requires the mind the poem describes. The “quiet” and the “calm” of the deep reader’s attentiveness becomes “part of the meaning of the poem, forming the pathway through which “perfection” of thought and expression reaches the page. In the metaphorical “summer night” of the wholly engaged intellect, the writer and the reader merge, together creating and sharing “the conscious being of the book.”

As one who has many times experienced getting lost in a book, the passage resonated. If, because of the impact of the Net and the “information explosion” our brains become no longer capable of such reading experiences, does it matter? The author suggests that it does, and I think it not hard to find living examples of persons in which such a change has already taken place, and I think not to the better.

But then, what do I know? Read the book for yourself, if you are able, and form your own opinion.

Good luck.

Dave, not much liking to think about brain changes.


2 Responses to “Don’t mess with my head!”
  1. Linda says:

    I will take any opportunity to share some great quotes about books! Groucho Marx of all people has a couple of my favorites!

    “I find television to be very educating. Every time someone turns on the set I go in the other room and read a book” Groucho Marx

    “Outside of a dog, a book is a man’s best friend. Inside of a dog, it’s too dark to read”
    Groucho Marx

  2. Larry Ayers says:

    That second Marxist quote, with its shifting word meanings, reminds me of this anonymous classic:

    “Time flies like an arrow — fruit flies like bananas.”

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