Expert Series

Your Brain in “The Shallows”: 5 Tricks For Learning In The Internet Age

Written by Lenny DeFranco

The Internet is doing strange things to the way you think. You’ve probably felt some of them already. Don’t be alarmed if you start to have fewer moments of deep, tranquil thought, or if your attention darts constantly when you’re trying to read a book. It’s not just you. Your brain is reeling from the influence of the digital technology that’s taken over our world, and increasingly, our thinking.

Carr in 2008

Carr in 2008

Journalist Nicholas Carr felt his own mind changing under the strain of technology and decided to investigate why. The outcome was his 2010 book The Shallows, an insightful and jarring look at the profound impact that digital technology exerts on the way we think. He found that the Internet demands an exhausting amount of mental resources from users. It overburdens our cognitive loads and prevents us from holding onto thoughts, essentially precluding the consolidation of short-term memories into long-term knowledge. In Carr’s words, “the Net seizes our attention only to scatter it.”

The story is not encouraging for L&D. What is a learning professional supposed to do under these circumstances? It’s hard enough to develop training that can keep up with technology’s rapid pace of change. Having to reach through to overworked brains makes the challenge even harder.

But it is possible. The key to effective learning in the 21st century is to create and deploy training that leans into the digital-age difficulties that otherwise make our thoughts fitful and shallow.

Here are six tips to help you build a learning solution that’s effective in the face of tired brains and short attention spans.

  1. Short content cuts through distraction. According to Carr, the Internet is a “distraction machine,” which makes it a prohibitively bad environment for learning. That’s one of the reasons microlearning should be the backbone of your approach. Learners may not be willing or able to sit through a twenty minute-long lecture, but everyone has time for 60-second video lessons.
  2. Embrace a lighter cognitive load with learning moments. Cognitive load is the amount of processing that your working memory has to do at any given moment. Internet use demands a high cognitive load: you’re making constant decisions about which links to click, pictures to look at, and so on. Today’s most effective learning programs include simple, intuitive-to-use platforms and easy-to-find content. Your brain should be thinking, not trying to strain for your next step.
  3. Keep the flow going. One of Carr’s recurring themes is the difference between the flow-like state of deeply reading a printed page and the frenzied cognition of digital usage. Book reading is a “meditative act” in which readers “disengage their attention from passing stimuli in order to engage it more deeply with an inward flow of words, ideas, and emotions.”We believe that something similar is possible with digital learning. Maybe it’s not quite as meditative as book reading, but digital learning gets close by smoothing out the workflow. If you’re working ‘in the zone’ and you encounter a blocker, you become distracted. The sooner you solve the distracting issue, the faster you can return to your productive frame of mind. A powerful way to address this need is by providing performance support on demand. Technology should facilitate mindful flow instead of inhibiting it.
    The meditative state of deep reading is impossible when the brain is overstimulated.

    The meditative state of deep reading is impossible when the brain is overstimulated.

  4. Make forgetting productive. “Our brains are becoming adept at forgetting, inept at remembering,” writes Carr. “As our use of the Web makes it harder for us to lock information into our biological memory, we’re forced to rely more and more on the Net’s capacious and easily searchable artificial memory, even if it makes us shallower thinkers.”You say that like it’s a bad thing, Nicholas! Sometimes a short memory is beneficial. For example, the golfer who just missed a shot is best off forgetting his failure, so that his confidence isn’t shaken for the next shot. The same goes for digital usership, a realm in which no one can get too attached to a skill or piece of information. The tools and processes just move too fast. Futurist Alvin Toffler states as much in his book Rethinking the Future: “The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn.”Or, to put it in the sunnier words of Stephen Colbert, “the old saying [at Second City, where he studied improv] is ‘wear your character as lightly as a cap.’ You can take him on and off as you need.” Digital skills work the same way—use them until you don’t, then let them go.
    A hippo campus in the shallows.

    A hippo campus in the shallows.

  5. Empower learning with practice. Memory formation is an extremely delicate process. Carr describes at length how physiologically difficult the process of learning is in an environment of constant stimulation. “Any disruption, whether a jab to the head or a simple distraction, can sweep nascent memories from the mind.”The best way to counter this sandcastle effect is to learn using a system that enables practice. “Repetition encourages consolidation” is how Carr terms it. Microlearning enables practice by making learning moments that are modular enough to permit spaced repetition, which is a method of practice that reinforces material no matter how much your cognitive load is burning out.

Learning is possible in the digital world; it just looks different than it did before. There are even ways in which technology helps learning, thinking, and mindful work take place. Carr talks about the difference between helpful technology and the kind that makes your hippocampus do backflips. On one end of the spectrum is a dizzyingly animated PowerPoint slide that distracts you beyond any hope of retaining what’s actually on the slide. But on the other end of the spectrum is a calculator, a simple and unobtrusive piece of technology that actually removes the distracting work of having to do manual math, letting your mind stay fixed on the complex problem you’re trying to solve.

That’s how good performance support works. It delivers answers when you need them so that you can stay focused on what you’re doing while still getting the skills training you need. Without digital skills, using the Internet gets even harder. You may be in the shallows, but in a rapidly evolving environment, you still have to learn how to swim.

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Photo credits: “Silky Shark” by Johan Lantz, “Telecosm conference, Nicholas Carr” by Sandy Fleischmann, “Reading by the ocean” by Kamil Porembiński, and “Hippopotamus pod” by Paul Maritz are licensed under CC BY 2.0.