6 November 2012
Carr's Argument in Vital Paths
Vital Paths is the title of the second chapter in Nicolas G. Carr's book, The Shallows. This chapter continues Carr's argument, posed in chapter one, in highlighting the dangers of the internet, regarding our cognitive abilities. Specifically on format, this chapter argues for our brains neurological flexibility through an array of examples, ranging from historical observations to scientific experiments, and ends cautioning that with malleability negative neurological effects are plausible.
Carr introduces the argument for neurological flexibility with the tangible effects noted by Nietzsche, where the use of the mechanical typewriter changed Nietzsche's writing style and choice of words. Following Nietzsche, Carr discusses the conceptualization of neurological flexibility through the examples of Freud, J.Z. Young, and William James. Freud, J.Z. Young, and William James, each theorized a brain which could be changed, in time periods when such theories were absurd. Carr then writes on minor stories where adaptations occur physically with Bernstein, and neurologically in musicians. Lastly, Carr writes on various scientific experiences, from nerve adaptations, to brain matter transformations, all detailing changes within the brain or nervous system as a result of the environment. After the chapter, Carr digresses and explicitly states his view of how our brains are constantly changing based on our actions, surroundings, and thoughts without regards to whether or not we approve or know of the changes occurring.
Vital Paths opens with the story of Friedrich Nietzsche and the use of his typewriter. Carr describes the tangible effects which the type writer had on Nietzsche's writings and quotes, "Our writing equipment takes part in the forming of our thoughts". With the typewriter Nietzsche had a different medium in which he now conveyed his thoughts of text. This medium ultimately caused him to become unified with the writing ball itself, changing the way he wrote. This example of Nietzsche conforming to the machine's style prefaces Carr's argument on how we are molding to the properties of the internet, and not for the better.
While Nietzsche acknowledges the external changes one undergoes, Carr continues his argument, extending that there are not solely behavioral changes, but also neurological changes which occur. Carr introduces and discusses the topic of neurological flexibility chronologically. Carr begins with stories on Freud, discussing how he postulated the brain being made of smaller particles, rather than a single part, and even got into the particles connecting and sharing information. Freud is later mentioned in the chapter on writing how "contact barriers...could change in response to a person's experiences". J.Z. Young, a British biologist, was another one of a few "heretics" who held the view that the adult brain was "plastic". Carr digresses in time, and talks about American psychologist William James who noted that things could change, specifically writing on the "nervous tissue". Carr progresses through time illustrates just how unorthodox the views which Freud, J.Z. Young, and William James had, writing how "Descartes' idea of the brain as a machine...being 'hardwired'" became dogma. It wouldn't be until the 1900's, with various scientific breakthroughs, when the view of a fixed adult brain, would slowly change into a malleable adult brain.
Carr begins detailing these scientific experiments which changed the public view of the adult brain with Michael Merzenich's experiment, which Carr summarizes as the first concrete scientific illustration of the brain's plasticity. The experiment involved cutting the nerves and then testing the monkeys nervous system. Initially the monkeys had confused nerve signals however, when Merzenich tested the same monkeys a few months...