Monthly Archives: November 2017

Book Review — The Shallows

Framing:

The Shallows by Nicholas Carr is an argumentative essay that uses the personal experiences of Carr with scientific data to make a point about what the internet is doing to our brains. Nicholas Carr is a journalist who has written for The Atlantic, The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, and more. He is also an author who write predominantly on technology and our modern culture. He has written several books on the impact of technology on our society and our brains — including The Shallows. In The Shallows, he aims this book to a specific audience who would have an interest in the science of technology and how it influences humans.

Summary:

Carr begins The Shallows with a prologue in which he introduces his thesis: “a medium’s content matters less than the media itself in influencing how we think and act…eventually, if we use it enough, it changes who we are, as individuals and as a society” (Carr 3). He then launches into the book by discussing the idea of neuroplasticity. He argues that though it gives a loophole for free thought and free will, it locks us up in rigid behaviors. Maybe, then, the brain is not so much plastic as it is elastic. Instead of any part of the brain making up for anything that is lost, the brain has a specificity about it which makes it unable to do that but instead it adapts to changes. With our brain being highly adaptable, it matters what tools we use in everyday life because they will influence how our brains develop. The medium matters because it is the thing that people actually interact with. Carr then goes into an analysis of how the mediums of getting out a message. First there was parchment or papyrus, then the printing press. Books and the printing press changed the game because people were able to mass produce a message cheaply. Then came the triode transistor, the television, and the phonograph — but these were all one-way means of communication.

The introduction of the internet was monumental because it allowed for there to be fast access to information. It has the capability to search by a single word, switch between multiple things quickly, and contain hyper-texts. However, with the invention of the internet, Carr argues that there is something that is lost. We are unable to retain information as well because there is so much information available to us. Our working memories are overloaded by such an influx of information. There is so much information available to us that we become “pancake people–spread wide and thin as we connect with that vast network of information accessed by the mere touch of a button” (Carr 196). With the ability to switch so quickly between things, and with so much at our fingertips, it crowds out our mind and we aren’t able to focus our energy on one thing long enough in order to retain it and process it. We are unable to have uncluttered thinking. Without a calm mind, there’s is a loss of deep thinking, and “it’s not only deep thinking that requires a calm, attentive mind. It’s also empathy and compassion” (Carr 220).

Analysis:

Carr makes a lot of observations about what the internet is doing to our brains and our society. He doesn’t try to shame or shy us away from using the internet. Rather, Carr writes with passion for the topic. He is describing what is going on in our culture and how the internet is influencing the way that we live. It is apparent that he is writing from some kind of experience, and in the last portion of that book that is quite evident. I appreciated his honesty. He talked about how it was rather ironic to write a book about the internet and didn’t try to hide his personal struggles with reliance on technology. This authenticity made me more receptive to read what he had to say.

I liked his argument that our minds are being compromised because with so much information that is coming into our brains all at once, our brains are overloaded. There is so much information at our fingertips that we almost don’t need to remember because we can look everything up. Carr asserts that the internet is changing us and I agree with Carr, to a point. He is correct that we are losing a lot through the sheer amount of information available to us. However, I think that it is dehumanizing to give the internet the power that he is allowing it to have. It is not the computer that is changing me, I allow the change to happen and choose what media I consume. It is not the computer’s fault for allowing us a vast ocean of knowledge. It is in the hands of the humans to notice and counteract the harmful effects of the internet. The book was fascinating and it was offered a lot of observations but it focuses a lot on what the internet is doing to us but I think it downplayed that we are the ones with the control of the media. I think overall Carr did a great job presenting his argument and making it relatable. However, I think that he could have landed on a more concrete method to counteract the effects of technology and driven home the point that if we want change, it is up to us. Technology won’t fix itself.

Book Review — Who’s In Charge

Framing:

Who’s in Charge by Dr. Michael Gazzaniga is an analysis of how free will and the biology of our brains intersect. The book doesn’t necessarily have an identified audience, however by nature of how it is constructed, it is geared towards intellectuals. In it, he seeks to “explain the route and some of the detours that we have taken to reach our current knowledge of the brain and review what we currently know about how it works… these wanderings are going to show us that the physical world has a different set of laws depending on what organizational layer one is looking at, and we will discover what that has to do with human behavior. We are going to end up, of all places, in the courtroom,” (Gazzaniga 5). The angle from which Gazzaniga tackles the topic is much like a study. He analyzes the brain and its impact on freewill from multiple angles, drawing conclusions from his findings.

Summary:

Gazzaniga’s argument is to convince us that we are responsible agents and “the mind, which is somehow generated by the physical processes of the brain, constrains the brain,” (Gazzaniga 4). The book is divided up into 7 chapters. The first three chapters lay a foundation of psychology studies and theories related to the brain and mind. In this beginning segment, he takes the reader through past ideologies that show the evolution of brain science and the brain/mind.

In the second segment of the book, chapters four through the end, he launches into the idea of free will and morals. He looks at how free will doesn’t come from the brain, but that even though on an anatomical level people may be able to “predict” what someone will do, there is much more that goes into decision-making. He talks about the “social mind” and how our communities will influence the decisions that we make because “with all our automatic processes, there is a whole living environment changing and impacting our behavior, thinking, and perhaps our genome,” (Gazzaniga 152). Even though we are individuals, “the social group constrains the individual behavior…[and] individual’s behavior is not solely the product of an isolated, deterministic brain but [is] affected by the social group,” (Gazzaniga 157).

Gazzaniga is also continually fighting against the “deterministic brain” which is a widely-held viewpoint in the scientific community. He wraps up the book looking at how neuroscience is seeping into the courtrooms and why the determinist view (which shaped many aspects of our court system) is harmful because it assumes that since our neurons are the same, we can all be treated identically — regardless of how our brains have become differentiated from the “norm” or what social atmosphere we have been immersed in.

Analysis:

I found this book to be very fascinating. Gazzaniga did an excellent job using scientific studies as a platform for his arguments. He was able to present them in a way that was simple enough to understand for those who have no experience in neuroscience but also that was interesting enough that readers wanted to keep reading. The topic is difficult to tackle, especially because in the scientific world he is carrying a very unpopular belief by arguing against determinism. There are entire societal systems that are constructed around the idea that people are basically the same, that we are “vehicles for the physically determined forces of the universe” (Gazzaniga 218). Yet Gazzaniga was able to argue that though we are, on a neurological level, the same, that is not where it ends. From that basic level, we all grow and are shaped by our society. We are responsible for our actions because we have made choices. “Human nature remains constant, but out in the social world behavior can change…[we] have made choices based on [our] experience. This is what makes us responsible agents, or not” (Gazzaniga 215). He tactfully refutes the popular belief, offering an alternative way of thinking about how our minds interact with our brains.

Conclusion:

Overall, I enjoyed this book thoroughly. It is a relevant topic that offers an explanation for how the mind and body intersect in the decision-making process. Gazzaniga laid out thorough, thoughtful arguments that challenged the scientific status quo while allowing room for future growth because “the facts don’t change. What changes…are the ideas on how to understand the ever-accumulating facts of Mother Nature” (Gazzaniga 219). Who’s in Charge is a written by a true scientist, who humbly offers his truth while maintaining respect for the ever-changing life of science.