The Shallows Book Review
The Internet is making everyone stupid and that's a good thing!
I just finished this book entitled; The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains
And you don't need to read this book because the title says it all - your suspicions are correct, the Internet is NOT very good for our minds.
- The Internet has a pretty dire effect on our powers of attention, it cuts our attention span down from hours to the length of the average Youtube video (4 minutes and 20 seconds)
- The Internet is also detrimental to our capacity to think deeply to solve complicated problems or make good decisions. The Internet tries to deliver us the solutions to our problems as quickly as IP packets can traverse cyberspace, sometimes in as little 1.5 seconds, the amount of time it takes to do a Google search.
- The Internet is especially bad for our focus, our ability to think about one thing to the exclusion of everything else. The Internet is bar-none the most effective distraction technology ever. It gives our brains the intermittent, unpredictable serotonin hits that that it craves. In the past you could just turn off your computer or shut your laptop but now that the Internet comes with you everywhere in your pocket; beeping, buzzing, vibrating and ringing to incessantly demand your attention.
- The Internet disrupts the formation of long term memory The Internet so overloads our short term, working memory that we're not able properly process information into our long term memory. Kind of like if you opened every software application on your computer while simultaneously trying to render a video.
The book charts the course of human cognitive development that parallels (and perhaps follows) the development of media technologies from Sumerian tablets to Facebook.
For the last five centuries , ever since Gutenberg’s printing press made book reading a popular pursuit , the linear , literary mind has been at the center of art , science , and society . As supple as it is subtle , it’s been the imaginative mind of the Renaissance , the rational mind of the Enlightenment , the inventive mind of the Industrial Revolution , even the subversive mind of Modernism . It may soon be yesterday’s mind.
Calm , focused , undistracted , the linear mind is being pushed aside by a new kind of mind that wants and needs to take in and dole out information in short , disjointed , often overlapping bursts — the faster , the better .
A lot of leading technologists and public intellectuals are deeply concerned with what kind of civilization we'll have in coming decades if the general population continues to use this technology that so voraciously consumes our attention and has an effect on our minds similar to chronic heroin use. Our civilizational apocalypse may not result from an errant asteroid, destruction of the environment, unfriendly AI or nuclear war - it maybe from extremely potent distraction technology.
The Web provides a convenient and compelling supplement to personal memory , but when we start using the Web as a substitute for personal memory , bypassing the inner processes of consolidation , we risk emptying our minds of their riches .
The “ frenziedness of technology , ” Heidegger wrote , threatens to “ entrench itself everywhere . ” It may be that we are now entering the final stage of that entrenchment . We are welcoming the frenziedness into our souls .
Perhaps you remember this ridiculous movie Swordfish that came out sometime ago, you'll remember in the beginning of the movie when the criminal boss recruits the hacker he tests his skills by having a girl give him a blowjob while he hacks into a mainframe. It's a pretty silly scene but it's really a quite apt metaphor for what this distraction technology is doing to our brains while we are trying to get meaningful work done on the Internet.
You have, of course, experienced this, you get on the computer with the ostensible purpose of getting some important task done yet you get drawn down the rabbit hole of Youtube videos, enticing thumbnail images and clickbaity links or headlines. Several hours later, you have 20 browser tabs open, you're frenetically jumping between windows, you can't seem to hold your attention on one thing for more than 30 seconds and you haven't even completed the original thing you got on the computer to do!
You've also surely had the experience of staying up late on your computer, tablet or smartphone surfing the web into the early morning hours. Finally you got to sleep but then you definitely woke up on the wrong side of the bed and proceeded to have a really mediocre day; being generally forgetful, unproductive and in a bad mood.
You're probably thinking, Yeah, Jonathan I know that chronic Internet use isn't very healthy for me, but the upsides are worth it! The Internet has profoundly improved the lives of many millions (if not billions) of people!
I have a very charmed life doing meaningful work that I really love thanks entirely to the Internet. But are we obligated to pay this steep biological cost for the convenience of our hybrid digital existence?
If there were a way to enjoy heroin as much as you wanted but experience none of it's self destructive effects on your mind and body or become a slave to addiction would you try it? I would!
The good news is that you can enjoy and take advantage of the tremendous upside of the Internet with none of the dire downside IF you habituate this working memory exercise routine...
Meditation is one of the best things you can do to counteract the negative effects of the Internet. In meditation you sit there for 15, 20, 30 minutes (or more) and focus on one simple none-stimulating thing. It's a long term Biohack for a stronger mind so it won't make that much of a difference to you tomorrow, but after 2 years of meditation, you'll be a significantly better version of yourself.
- It makes you more impervious to distraction.
- It improves your will power by increasing synaptic connections in the area of the brain in charge of emotions and decision making.
- It balances your reward-arousal system. Our brains get so stimulated by things like funny Youtube videos, Facebook Likes on a photo we just uploaded or porn that we aren't able to find happiness in the simple things like a conversation with a friend or eating dinner with family.
- It diminishes mind wandering which makes you unhappy.
This software brain training game upgrades the RAM of your conscious mind by exercising your working memory.
- It's the one brain game that is demonstrated to have transfer effects to general intelligence outside of the brain game.
- It improves attentional control noticeably, in fact it requires persistent laser-focused attention.
- It makes you a robust gangster at life (as I like to say), in more scientific terms it reduces emotional reactivity, especially from negative emotions.
- It's a neuroplasticity hack that improves density of grey matter within 20 days of training.
- This is quantified in a 10-15 point gain in IQ that is consistent amongst long term practitioners.
About 5 years ago I tried unsuccessfully to start meditating; I just could not stand being utterly unstimulated for 20 minutes. My inner dialog became extremely self critical. But then after some great conversations with Dr. Mark Ashton Smith (a very charming cognitive psychologist who created what I think is the best value commercial version of Dual N-Back for iPhone and Android) I took my Dual N-Back training seriously for several months.
I found that after training my mind to really focus with Dual N-Back I could actually meditate. Now I meditate very consistently, it's one of the cornerstone habits that makes me one dangerous dude.
Together a daily mindfulness practice and this mindfulness technology transforms your inner thoughts from a flock of squabbling chickens to a phalanx of roman legionaries.
One of the points that The Shallows makes repeatedly is that the past time of reading profoundly structures our minds.
- Reading is a mindfulness practice because (if you're reading properly) you focus 100% of your attention on the book. If you're multi-tasking while reading you're doing it wrong!
- Reading fiction actually improves empathy, because you have to place yourself in the heads and experiences of the fictional characters.
- Reading is kind of like carrying on a romance with the author. A way to think someone else's thoughts, feel their feelings and occupy someone else's mind.
- You can acquire a measure of knowledge about any given topic tantamount to a college degree for free from the Internet. I make $89/hourly thanks to my sophisticated web development skill set that I learned from watching tutorial videos on Youtube. But whenever you're trying to learn anything from the Internet you're subject to boundless distractions. Studies have shown that reading comprehension is much higher when subjects read from old fashioned books as opposed to web pages. If you actually want to master a subject, read the books on it.
- I usually read two books at a time; one that is light, entertaining reading and one that is deep, dense challenging material. Usually a fiction title and a none-fiction title, recently I just finished Nassim Taleb's massive manifesto on risk Antifragile and Graham Hancock's excellent historical fiction series War God. This way I avoid getting bored or intellectually fatigued and end up finishing a whole lot more of the books I start.
- As a young man I was a voracious reader of old fashioned books, today I do almost all my reading using the Kindle app. I put my phone into airplane mode so I don't get distracted by notifications while reading.
- I try to read for 30-60 minutes daily, it really is a sublime pleasure.
This is an app that I use everyday, it plays really cool algorithmic music optimized to improve focus and creativity.
- I use this everyday when I'm doing my writing and often while tackling a demanding web development task.
- Brain.FM plays music in 30 minute, 1 hour or 2 hour increments and has a count-down timer. This is great for time boxing crucial tasks that need to get done.
- If I have some crucial digital task I put on Brain.FM on in the background and for 30 minutes I'm NOT allowed to click on anything distracting or check notifications.
- It has a nearly instantaneous effect, after listening for 10-15 minutes you'll find yourself in a productive state of focused relaxed-arousal.
- I'm embarrassed to admit that sometimes there will be some task that I'm procrastinating doing but often when I put on Brain.FM I'll knock the task out in like 15 minutes!
Before writing this very article I was NOT meditating on a mountaintop or practicing tantric cultivation or any other mindfulness practice. To be honest, I checked email and was watching some Youtube videos about absurd things happening in the world and then I listened to a podcast while walking to my favorite cafe but then I switched on Brain.FM and focused for 2 hours straight to write this.
There's a number of places on the Internet where you can find free-focus promoting algorithmic music tracks but I paid full price for a lifetime Brain.FM membership because I knew that if I paid good money for it I would actually use it and the 1-2 hours of deep thought and true productivity that I get daily thanks to Brain.FM make it one the best software investments I've ever made!
Chronic Internet over use is really tantamount to old age diseases of cognitive decline, like Alzheimer's and the pharmacological purpose and effects demonstrated in clinical trials of Nootropics is treating and curing just such diseases.
- Cognitive enhancers, like Modafinil, improve your working memory and attentional control. Improving your problem solving abilities.
- The Racetams, particularly Oxiracetam, imbues a heightened degree of self control for 4-6 hours. It's not very stimulating but you just find yourself really focused on what you should be focused on while dosed on it. That's why I call it the discipline molecule.
- Pharmaceutical grade Nicotine stimulates the default network of the brain, which makes you more creative.
- Numerous Nootropics have myriad positive effects on the mind via different neurobiological mechanism so the smart strategy is cycling between different Nootropics on a daily and weekly basis.
The old fashioned way with ink and dead trees or word processing on your computer is pretty unmatched as an activity that requires you to think methodically and deeply.
- Writing is like a hiking staff for the learners on the path to mastery. Writing about a topic forces you to deeply internalize your understanding of it.
- Writing is deeply contemplative and really requires that you wrestle with the thoughts, theories and experiences in your head.
- Often I'll have a certain view on something related to health, politics, sex or whatever but when I sit down and write about it and I'll find that thinking deeply about it I end up actually changing my mind.
- I usually to write for 1 hour daily.
Brain Rehab Protocol
If years of excessive Internet use has robbed you of the capacity to think and concentrate deeply this is the protocol to follow.
- Start taking focus promoting smart drugs, they'll have an almost instantaneous effect on your ability to stay focused and productive.
- Download Dual N-Back Pro, it's not very fun like a video game but it is stimulating and challenging. Do your Dual N-Back training for 10-20 minutes daily while on the smart drugs.
- Pick a task you need to do that should take about 30 minutes or an hour to complete, go visit Brain.FM and listen to the cool music while doing that digital task.
- Make Brain.FM your browser homepage that loads first thing when you turn your computer on. Try to spend the first 30 minutes of the day on the computer listening to a Brain.FM track while focusing on getting the important things done!
- Download Headspace (or another meditation training app) AFTER 20 sessions of Dual N-Back training. Start by doing 10 minute meditation sessions, do at least ten of them.
- After a week or two Increase your meditation sessions to 15 - 20 minutes. It makes a substantial difference in the benefits to mood and focus that you get out of the meditation. Do your meditation while you're dosed on smart drugs, it's pretty cool!
- Buy a book that you think you'd like to read. Commit to reading 30-60 minutes daily. Don't try to read it in the evening. Read it in the middle of the day, while you're alert and awake. Read it while listening to Brain.FM or some other relaxing music (classical, electronica, etc).
- Start writing daily for 1 hour after you've finished the book. Perhaps you want to write about the book you just read. If your writing sucks it's ok. If it takes you forever just to write a little bit it's ok. You don't have to publish it. Don't worry about researching and citing in your writing just focus get your thoughts and feelings out. You're not writing for an audience, you're writing for yourself. Depending upon your personality the best time to write is either first thing in the morning or late in the evening, try both and see what works best for you. Of course doing your writing on smart drugs while listening to Brain.FM. Try writing on a computer and the old fashioned way with a pen and notebook.
Ideally your working memory exercise routine would go like this
10 minutes Dual N-Back training
20 minutes meditating
30 minutes reading
60 minutes writing
Maybe you're thinking; I don't have 2 hours a day to spend doing these working memory exercises!
The first three (Dual N-Back, meditation & reading) are the most important and I'm not suggesting that you do these everyday forever. I suggest doing them for an intensive period like 5-6 days a week for a month or two. This is will reinvigorate your working memory that has atrophied. The research on Dual N-Back indicates that it creates long term changes in your brain structure after just a month of consistent usage.
Doing at least the first three lifehacks will take about an hour a day and will powerfully exercise your working memory.
One particular type of short - term memory , called working memory , plays an instrumental role in the transfer of information into long - term memory and hence in the creation of our personal store of knowledge . Working memory forms , in a very real sense , the contents of our consciousness at any given moment . “ We are conscious of what is in working memory and not conscious of anything else , ” says Sweller.
Which in turn makes your long term memory all the more effective
how , exactly , does the brain transform fleeting short - term memories , such as the ones that enter and exit our working memory every waking moment , into the long - term memories that can last a lifetime?
The information flowing into our working memory at any given moment is called our “ cognitive load . ” When the load exceeds our mind’s ability to store and process the information — when the water overflows the thimble — we’re unable to retain the information or to draw connections with the information already stored in our long - term memory .
Once we bring an explicit long - term memory back into working memory , it becomes a short - term memory again . When we reconsolidate it , it gains a new set of connections — a new context .
There's an interesting software called SuperMemo that seems to directly address the issue of mediocre consolidation and reconsolidation of long term memory that is all to common in our era of distraction.
It has a very clever algorithm that learns when you're likely to forget something and prompts you to practice it just before then. The best application I found for this is learning foreign language vocabulary, the Supermemo language learning smart phone apps certainly helped me master Spanish. If you want to exercise your long term memory and are interested in learning a foreign language it a good option.
One of the points that the book drives home is that reading comprehension is worse when we read from hypertext web pages than from reading from an old fashioned book. Something I was quite dismayed to read because my livelihood is trying to educate people with my writing that appears almost exclusively on the web.
If you like to read articles to educate yourself I encourage you to read my articles on Medium.com using the Medium app.
- You want to do is avoid the frontpage of Medium, they do a really terrible job of curating the frontpage content they feature.
- Thankfully, their website has no annoying banner ads (or ads of any kind) but they have an awkward monetization scheme that their users seem to be resisting.
Despite these few issues Medium is a low distraction environment for reading, their free smart phone app even has a black background feature for reading at night.
A decision making lifehack that's yielded me much profit and pleasure is when facing a difficult decision
- Consider all evidence. Get a second or third opinion.
- Take a break from thinking about the decision. Do some meditation, go for a walk, sleep on it, take a vacation...
- Then after hours or days return to the decision and just go with your gut instinct.
Unfortunately, the Internet's distraction factor sabotages this lifehack. Blunting our working memory's capacity to transfer the decision making to the wiser faculty of our unconscious mind.
As most of us know from experience , if we concentrate too intensively on a tough problem , we can get stuck in a mental rut . Our thinking narrows , and we struggle vainly to come up with new ideas . But if we let the problem sit unattended for a time — if we “ sleep on it ” — we often return to it with a fresh perspective and a burst of creativity . Research by Ap Dijksterhuis , a Dutch psychologist who heads the Unconscious Lab at Radboud University in Nijmegen , indicates that such breaks in our attention give our unconscious mind time to grapple with a problem , bringing to bear information and cognitive processes unavailable to conscious deliberation . We usually make better decisions , his experiments reveal , if we shift our attention away from a difficult mental challenge for a time . But Dijksterhuis’s work also shows that our unconscious thought processes don’t engage with a problem until we’ve clearly and consciously defined the problem . 3 If we don’t have a particular intellectual goal in mind , Dijksterhuis writes , “ unconscious thought does not occur . ” 4
This is why often just before taking a break to do my mindfulness exercises, I will load up my working memory with everything that I want to figure out - which usually amounts to spending 30 seconds scrolling through my Gmail inbox.
Multi Tasking on the Web? Don't.
Navigating the Web requires a particularly intensive form of mental multitasking . In addition to flooding our working memory with information , the juggling imposes what brain scientists call “ switching costs ” on our cognition . Every time we shift our attention , our brain has to reorient itself , further taxing our mental resources. (pp. 132-133)
The Roman philosopher Seneca may have put it best two thousand years ago : “ To be everywhere is to be nowhere.” (p. 141)
Intensive multitaskers are “ suckers for irrelevancy,” (p. 142)
I use Brain.FM to avoid multitasking, it works pretty good. You'll be amazed at what you can accomplish in 1-3 hours when you're not multitasking.
Interestingly, video games may counter what the Internet does to our focus abilities. An engrossing video game compels you to focus intently for hours on slaying monsters or fighting battles in space.
The authors of the study concluded that “ although video - game playing may seem to be rather mindless , it is capable of radically altering visual attentional processing . ” (p. 139)
In the past I thought video games were a childish waste of time but maybe I'll try them!
<="font-family: arial, helvetica, sans-serif;">I rated The Shallows 4 stars...
...on Amazon because it's just a critique of the technological Absurdistan that is modernity. I like books that are critical and constructive. The Shallows leaves the reader no useful suggestions for protecting their minds against the damage the Internet does.
Now, I hate to dissuade you from reading this book because it's a pretty good book but if you're willing to accept that the Internet takes a high toll on your mind, you don't need to. You just need to habituate the working memory exercises I detail above.
The Shallows predicts an inevitable devolution of the mind, here's my sentiment about that...
The Internet is slowly, insidiously making the whole world retarded - and I say GOOD!
Which sounds crazy but here's why...
I don't care about the whole world, yes really, Here's why...
- A certain recipe for unhappiness and dysfunction is to care about people more than they care for themselves and collectively the world is choosing to indulge this vice to it's own downfall. It's so blatantly obvious that the Internet is bad for our minds yet only a tiny proportion of the population cares to do something about it.
- I have a rational in-group preference for my tribe, for those who share my values and support me. I want to see my tribe excel and be successful even if it's at the expense of others. My tribe is biohackers, who are the only people that will employ the strategies and technologies I outline above for protecting their minds from the deleterious effects of the Internet.
If you've spent as much time on the Internet as I have you've most certainly encountered some fringey conspiracy theories about The Jews - how the Jews are evil and they run the world.
Now I certainly don't think the Jews are evil but there's quantum of veracity to these conspiracy theories - Jews are proportionately quite influential.
- 27% of the students at Yale University are Jewish yet Jews only account for about 2% of the United State's population.
- There's only about 15 million Jews total, less than 1% of the total world population yet they yield tremendous influence in elite positions in finance, media, entertainment, technology, politics and science.
They are a remarkably accomplished race, there's three simple reasons for this
- Jews have a higher than average intelligence. The average IQ in the United States is right around 100, whereas the average American Jew has an IQ of 110-115.
- They have higher verbal intelligence. This is why so many Jews are successfully attorneys, writers or public intellectuals.
- Jews practice rational in-group preference.
Ask your Jewish friend and they will confirm these three things.
I predict that as the Internet dumbs down the whole world, Biohackers will become an increasingly dominate elite class because
- Biohacking markedly increases intelligence.
- Especially verbal intelligence, which is improved most notably by cognitive enhancers like Piracetam.
- Biohackers can and should practice in-group preference with other Biohackers
This will be good especially for Biohackers but in the long term also for the world in general because the current elites running the world are doing a pretty terrible job. We can and should aim to supplant them.
If you would like to practice in-group preference with other Biohackers, I've got a Secret Society for you to join...
Limitless Mindset Secret Society
INVEST at least $100 in your own mind via these credible sources of Nootropics and Biohacking products and get a Biohacking consultation with me along with invite to our exclusive Biohacker community.