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Neuroscience: Browsing and the brain

Two books reach opposite verdicts on how the Internet affects us, find Daphne Bavelier and C. Shawn Green

The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains/How the Internet is Changing the Way We Think, Read and Remember

  • Nicholas Carr
W. W. Norton/Atlantic Books: 2010. 276 pp./384 pp. $26.95/£17.99 9781848872257 | ISBN: 978-1-8488-7225-7

Whenever a new technology reaches a tipping point of popularity, questions soon follow about its effects on society. The rise of the Internet has provoked two books probing its impact on the human brain. The fact that the authors reach opposite conclusions, despite relying on the same scientific evidence, underscores how little research has been done on this topic.

The mind's ability to adapt suggests that it can cope with our wired world — for better or worse. Credit: A. SAIZ/AP PHOTO

Nicholas Carr's The Shallows laments the possibility that long-term Internet exposure will sap us of our capacity for contemplation. At the base of his argument is the fact that the human brain is remarkably plastic. Carr makes this point compellingly using a mixture of historical anecdotes and interviews with experts in the neuroplasticity field, such as Michael Merzenich and Eric Kandel.

Having established that brains are constantly reshaped by experience, Carr argues that changes induced by Internet use, such as greater brain activation during web browsing, may not be in our best interests. If the brain adapts completely to the frenetic nature of the Internet, he warns, we may lose our capacity for absorbing practices such as reading a book. He worries that we may lose the very essence of what makes us human.

I Live in the Future & Here's How it Works: Why Your World, Work, and Brain are Being Creatively Disrupted

  • Nick Bilton
Crown: 2010. 304 pp. $25, £16.99 9780307591111 | ISBN: 978-0-3075-9111-1

Nick Bilton's I Live in the Future is much more optimistic. Humming with enthusiasm for the continuing Internet revolution, he argues that social and cognitive changes are an inevitable consequence of any major technological advance and that our new abilities cannot be put back in the box.

Such tension is to be expected whenever new forces enter society. By analogy, Carr discusses historical fears that the written word would act as a replacement for memory, resulting in humans that were 'shallower thinkers'. Bilton notes early worries that the freedom of travel offered by the railway would result in weakening moral standards. Both books review suspicions that most people would prefer to listen to a book than to read one, leading to concerns that the invention of the phonograph would kill the art of writing.

Is the Internet different? Bilton and Carr rely on the same scientific facts to argue persuasively for opposite positions. For example, functional magnetic resonance imaging studies show that Internet searches activate a larger network of brain areas than does simple text reading. Web browsing also requires additional types of mental processing — evaluating hyperlinks to make navigational decisions and filtering photos, videos and menus. As a result, brain activation is greater during Internet searches in people who are 'net savvy' than in those who are 'net naive'.

These findings cannot answer the question of whether such changes are good or bad. Conclusions are coloured by the authors' values. Bilton treats the adaption of the 'net savvy' as positive: “the brains were learning, benefiting from practice and experience”. Carr comes to the opposite conclusion: “When it comes to the firing of our neurons, it's a mistake to assume that more is better.”

Part of the problem is the paucity of scientific studies on the effects of modern technologies on the brain. It is a testament to both authors' skills that they were able to produce entire books on works so sparse. Unfortunately, to fill the pages, they lump information into categories that are too diverse to be useful. For example, both treat the use of all Internet technology — web browsing, web searching, texting, tweeting, video games and so on — as a single activity, despite the fact that such variety is unlikely to have one distinct effect. As with food, the effects of technology will depend on what type of technology is consumed, how much and for how long.

History suggests that technology does not change the brain's fundamental abilities. The general principles of brain organization have not changed for thousands of years — probably since the rise of language. Major technological advances do not create de novo brain structures. They do, however, take advantage of the cognitive flexibility of the human mind.

With each new technological development, we see a shift in the cognitive abilities and brain functions that society values most. The advent of writing systems, so celebrated by Carr, devalued the role of oral memorization through storytelling as cherished by the Greeks. Great orators such as Socrates would have lamented that Carr has lost the memory skills necessary for passing on knowledge through stories to future generations. Yet he has gained other skills by entraining alternate brain networks for reading and text analysis.

Just as it was difficult to say at the time whether the advent of writing was good or bad, a value judgement of the effect of the Internet is impossible. But it is a tribute to neural plasticity that, with each new technological development, our brains adapt — for better or for worse.

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Bavelier, D., Green, C. Neuroscience: Browsing and the brain. Nature 470, 37–38 (2011).

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