Saturday, June 19, 2010

The Tragedy Of The Shallow Mind

I recently read a very interesting book called "The Shallows." The book's message is about the various unforeseen cognitive downsides to the (over) use and (over) reliance on the internet. Downsides mainly have to do with an inability to concentrate, reflect and synthesize thoughts and information and a constant push towards a constantly distracted state of mind. If you have the free time, I encourage you to read it.

(A number of the thoughts presented in the book will form the basis for a few posts)

There was a very informative section on memory (I did not expect memory to be discussed in so much detail). I learned that as a short-term memory becomes a long-term memory, the number of synaptic connections grows by more than 100%. Therefore, each time you review and recall something you have already learned, it is as if you "relearn" the information, and you form newer connections with other (Previously not yet "connected") pieces of knowledge (Such knowledge becomes more "sticky"). Each time we learn something new or recall learned information, we are (slightly) modifying our brains to make it easier to learn more ideas and skills in the future.

As our "memory storehouse" becomes larger and larger, we are able to form more and more connections. This allows us to do something that the human brain is VERY good at: finding patterns. These patterns only will emerge from the deep and thoughtful consideration of a subject, not the shallow analysis that comes from a few superficial "bites" of knowledge that are glanced at and quickly forgotten (The internet encourages such actions).

That is why the overuse of the internet (And the flawed view of intelligence and study advocated by society) poses such a big problem for the intelligence of the masses. In the minds of most, memorizing things is a waste of time, perhaps being useful in memory contests or when trying to impress people at a party. "Why bother remembering information if I can access it in just a few clicks?" "Why should I read this long narrative and follow the line of logic and reasoning if I can simply get the bullet pointed summary on website xyz?" "Why remember if the internet will remember for me?"

But when we remember, and our brain makes connections with other things, this not only serves as an index for memory access, but this shapes the mind, our very consciousness. Connecting IS thinking. Connecting IS the self. If we stop connecting, in a way, we stop thinking.

Outsourcing certain jobs to technology has been a great help to the human race. But once we begin to outsource our memories to the machine, we risk losing part of what makes us human. As people become less and less able to think deeply and concentrate on a subject, they become satisfied with more shallow and superficial knowledge, which causes their intelligence becomes more and more artificial, like the very machines they use.

This helped me to realize that even though it can be said that Supermemo is only a tool to memorize (what one could argue as being 'seemingly static') information, provided one puts meaningful information into Supermemo, the cognitive benefits are far more than simply committing said information to memory.


  1. This book must indeed be a very interesting reading, I've just put it in my book-queue. If I'm understanding what you said, memorizing high-quality and well structured information enhances our ability to integrate new information -- simply put, it makes our brains more and more efficient by densifying our neural network.

    People tend to see memorization simply as saving information, just like a disk drive would. As you said (if I understood it correctly), this book shows that memorization plays a much more important role in the brain: it changes how we think.

  2. There is a creative process for engineers seeking to progress with understanding complex systems and making them work reliably. This involves first gathering information by reading manuals for the particular equipment, searching the internet for information and searching through documents on one's hard drive (documents with, for example, rules and regulations that apply). I find that this does indeed involve a certain amount of memorizing but mainly just feeding the brain and then sleeping on it a few times.

    Then some time later up will pop the result of a connection between different pieces of information that progresses the task.

    Can SuperMemo can help this process

  3. Great post! Pretty interesting...
    Reading your blog I understood that you studied japanese and now
    you can comprehend around 90% of jap material...
    I'm studying it but i really need advices...I want to became better and understand japanese television but for now i can only follow ,partially, anime-.-
    what you did for became so good? Its my dream to follow my favourites dramas but I'm so far from that...I already use an srs and did rtk...
    I'll be waiting your answer
    Francesco from Italy

  4. It seems like the book persuades against the use of supermemo in favor of traditional methods due to them allowing the user to focus completely
    on the task at hand instead of getting distracted by the internet. What do you think ? Is it still possible to live a "deep" and focused life while still using supermemo ? Also are physical books better when it comes to learning instead of using supermemo ? Because we would then be able to supposedly focus deeper on the text and represent it better in our memories.

    1. Yeah, one seemingly unfortunate thing about the author is that he seems to be of the mind that "new media is evil", which includes the internet. The internet is a great source for information, but it has many distractions. Carr seems to think that using the internet means that you HAVE TO fall victim to being distracted all the time. It is EASY to get distracted while using the internet, but with balance, you can learn a lot more using the internet easily than you could having access only to books, but this seems incompatible with his hate of new media. Deeply reading and thinking about something requires self discipline and being willing to say "no" to distractions. You get an e-mail, a text message, etc., but you don't let yourself get distracted. I use a 5 minute timer when I'm doing specific tasks and I don't read any text messages, notifications, etc. until that timer is up. If I am reading a book/article/etc., that is the only thing that has my attention for those five minutes.

      Also, physical books are nice because they FORCE you to only focus on the material. But reading material in a book and reading it on the internet (and not being distracted by it) should yield the same results. Although when reading a book on a computer it is easier to enter the information into SuperMemo, so it has that going for it... Either way, reading a book, thinking deeply about the thoughts presented and turning those thoughts into core principles that you memorize can be done with a physical book as well as a digital one, the digital one is slightly easier to manage, although it is more or less a matter of preference.

  5. Thanks for the reply LittleFish. Is it okay to ask if you have any plans on posting or creating something in the near future ?

    1. Yes, I do. The only problem has been Google taking away my ability to monetize this blog, which takes away a slight incentive. I want to get info out there, and I am likely going to use YouTube as an avenue to do that.