CAE Reading and Use of English Part 7
You are going to read an article about the impact of the Internet on our lives. Six paragraphs have been removed from the article. Choose from the paragraphs A – G the one which fits each gap (41-46). There is one extra paragraph which you do not need to use.
How the Internet is altering your mind
Like most newspapers’ content, what you are about to read was written using a computer connected to the Internet. Obviously, this had no end of benefits, mostly pertaining to the relative ease of my research and the simplicity of contacting the people whose thoughts and opinions you are about to read.
It often feels as if all this frantic activity creates a constant state of twitchy anxiety. Moreover, having read a hotly controversial book about the effect of digital media on the human mind, I may have very good reason to feel scared. Its thesis is simple enough: not only that the modern world’s relentless informational overload is killing our capacity for reflection, contemplation and patience but that our online habits are also altering the very structure of our brains.
The writer then argues that the Internet’s ‘cacophony of stimuli’ and ‘crazy quilt’ of information have given rise to ‘cursory reading, hurried and distracted thinking, and superficial learning’ – in contrast to the age of the book, when intelligent humans were encouraged to be contemplative and imaginative.
Dr Small, the director of the Memory and Ageing Research Centre at the University of California, Los Angeles, is a specialist in the effects on the brain of the ageing process. ‘Even an old brain can be quite malleable and responsive to what’s going on with technology,’ he tells me.
When I ask him how I might stop the Internet’s more malign effects on my own brain, he sounds slightly more optimistic than Carr: ‘Try to balance online time with offline time,’ he tells me. ‘What’s happening is, we’re losing the circadian rhythms we’re used to; you go to work, you come home, you spend time talking with your kids.’
‘His argument privileges activities of the skimming and browsing kind. But if you look at research on kids doing this, or exploring virtual worlds such as Second Life,the argument there is about immersion and engagement.’
This all sounds both comforting and convincing, until I return to The Shallows and read a particularly sobering sentence: ‘We are welcoming the frenziedness into our souls.’ There’s something chilling about those words and even twenty stupid minutes on YouTube and an impulse buy from Amazon cannot quite remove them from my brain.
But here is the really important thing. Carr writes: ‘If, knowing what we know today about the brain’s plasticity, you were to set out to invent a medium that would rewire our mental circuits as quickly and thoroughly as possible, you would probably end up designing something that looks and works a lot like the Internet.’
The Shallows is a book by Nicholas Carr. It is an elegantly written cry of anguish about what one admirer calls ‘the uneducating of Homo sapiens’ and a rewiring of neural pathways and networks that may yet deprive the human race of the talents that, ironically enough, drove our journey from caves to PC terminals.
‘The point is, to play successfully, you have to pay an incredible amount of attention to what your team-mates are doing, to the mechanics of the game. You can set up a thesis for The Depths, just as much as The Shallows. And it seems to me that to say that some neural pathways are good and some are bad – well, how can you possibly say that?’
‘It’s a basic principle that the brain is very sensitive to any kind of stimulation. If you have repeated stimuli, your neural circuits will be excited. But if you neglect other stimuli, other neural circuits will be weakened.’ Carr argues that the online world so taxes the parts of the brain that deal with fleeting and temporary stuff that deep thinking becomes increasingly impossible. As he sees it: ‘Our ability to learn suffers and our understanding remains shallow.’
Among the people with walk-on roles in The Shallows is Scott Karp, the editor of a renowned American digital media blog called Publish2, whose reading habits are held up as proof of the fact that plenty of people’s brains have long since been rewired by their enthusiastic use of the Internet.
I get a more convincing antidote to the Carr thesis from Professor Andrew Burn of the University of London’s Institute of Education. Equating the Internet with distraction and shallowness, he tells me, is a fundamental mistake, possibly bound up with Carr’s age (he is fifty). ‘Is there anything in his book about online role-playing games?’
But then there is the downside. The tool I use to write can also double as many other things. Thus, while writing this, I was entertained by no end of distractions. I watched YouTube videos, bought something on Amazon and at downright stupid hours of the day – 6 a.m. or almost midnight – I once again checked my email on either my phone or computer.