Notes on Nicholas Carr’s book “The Shallows”

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As I read through Nicholas Carr’s book The Shallows—What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains, I took a few notes centered on where the information Carr presents dovetails with the information John Bowlby presents in his trilogy on attachment theory. Here are my notes. The page numbers refer to pages in The Shallows.

P. 25 – Carr is talking about “scrambled brain maps.” This ties to Bowlby’s idea of Inner Working Cognitive Models, an idea Bowlby pulled principally from cognitive researcher Jean Piaget (who Bowlby did collaborate with).

P. 41 – History of maps. Carr states: “The map is a medium that not only stores and transmits information but also embodies a particular mode of seeing and thinking.” In my opinion, this is a great way of describing Bowlby’s Inner Working Cognitive Models. Bowlby suggested that attachment patterns are passed along from generation to generation via Inner Working Cognitive Models or Maps. If you are open to the idea that attachment patterns are passed along transgenerationally via Inner Working Cognitive Maps, then you should also be open to the idea that cultural artifacts—like maps—hold or embody mind. For more on the idea that mind might be held by or offloaded onto the environment, see Edwin Hutchins’ book Cognition in the Wild.

P. 49 – Carr states: “We hand down our habits of thought to our children, through the examples we set….” Again, this speaks to Bowlby’s idea that Inner Working Cognitive Models are passed down transgenerationally.

P. 65 – Deep reading. Carr tells us that as people became comfortable with reading printed text, “readers disengaged their attention from the outward flow of passing stimuli in order to engage more deeply with an inward flow of words, ideas, and emotions.” I would suggest that this is true of the attachment relationship between a young child and his/her attachment figure, typically the mother. The mother “reads” the child. And the child “reads” that s/he is being read by the mother. The child “reads the mother’s reading” if you will. If the mother only reads outside stimuli with a high degree of anxiety, that will be how the child “reads the mother’s reading” of him- or herself. This type of “intersubjective reading pattern” may lead to insecure attachment and rigid Inner Working Cognitive Models. As attachment researcher Peter Fonagy puts it, the child internalizes (models or maps) a self that hypervigilantly scans outside stimuli to the exclusion of an inner world, not unlike how we typically interact with the Internet with its abundance of links, buttons, and hypertexts.

P. 75 – Carr mentions the “intimacy of deep reading.” I think this points out that there needs to be a lot of trust for a person to disengage from the outer and attend to the inner. Evolutionarily speaking, attending to the inner world would put one in a vulnerable position. It’s amazing that enough has happened in societies around the world to let us access the inner.

P. 108 – Carr mentions “intimate intellectual attachment.” Just saying.

P. 112 – Carr makes a rather startling but probably true connection. He suggests that there is a connection between a postmodern attitude and hypertext, and that both have a focus on liberation from old authoritarian, patriarchal structures.

P. 117 – Carr talks about the idea that the Internet reflects and embodies a S-R (stimulus and response) worldview. This ties to the respective work of Bowlby and Ludwig Bertalanffy in that both rejected a strict Skinnerian S-R worldview. Both Bowlby and Bertalanffy advocated for a systems worldview. Bowlby was very much influenced by Bertalanffy’s work in the area of naturalistic systems theory.

P. 124 – Carr talks about schemas or patterns of knowledge. Again, Bowlby’s idea of an Inner Working Model ties to the idea that we think using schemas or patterns of knowledge.

P. 126 – Again, Carr mentions the connection between a postmodern attitude and hypertext, and how postmodernists wish to use hypertext to overthrow the oppression of the Patriarchy. I would suggest that this ties to the idea that postmodernists wish to overthrow the oppression they see contained within Bowlbian theory (e.g., only mothers can be primary attachment figures, attachment processes should take place privately, and attachment processes should not be a part of socialized child care systems).

P. 143 – Carr suggests that the Internet is reducing our sense of self. By extension, this would mean that Bowlby’s idea of an autonomous self is also being reduced. Pulling from above, the Internet may be forcing us to internalize (map or model) a self that is hypervigilantly focused on outside stimuli (i.e., a mid-brain position) to the exclusion of an inwardly directed reflective self (i.e., an upper-brain, executive position).

P. 176 – Carr mentions a systems frame of brain organization. Again, Bowlby used systems theory to frame attachment processes.

P. 188 – Mentions “systems consolidation.” Just saying.

P. 193 – More on schemas.

P. 195 – Carr proposes a fascinating idea: the Internet is about “outsourcing the self.” Again, if this is true—the Internet is a surrogate for the self—then this means that Bowlby’s autonomous self is being reduced, outsourced even. But, if we accept the idea that mind is in the environment, then there’s nothing to say that mind cannot be in the Internet. The question becomes, “How much of and what type of mind does the Internet hold?” On the surface of things, I would suggest that the Internet encourages and holds a mind arising out of a mid-brain position (again, a position focused on outside stimuli). Such a mid-brain position tends to exclude an upper-brain position with its focus on such Executive Functions as modeling, planning, delayed gratification, attention, time travel, what if scenarios, etc.

P. 207 – Carr mentions empathy development. Bowlby’s theory of attachment is also considered by many to be a theory of empathy development.

P. 213 – Carr talks about neuronal mirroring. Researchers point to mirror neurons as forming the biological basis for empathy or “minds knowing other minds,” or “minds reading other minds.” See my note for page 65 above.

P. 214 – Carr mentions cybernetic blurring. Bowlby was aware of cybernetic systems but argued in favor of organismic or naturalistic systems a la Bertalanffy. Suffice it to say that the Internet is full of cybernetic systems. Here are just a few examples: TiVo, smartphones, Google, eReaders,, iTunes, and on the list goes. Cybernetic or mechanical systems are about imposing order and organization from without. In contrast, organismic or naturalistic systems (the ones Bowlby advocated for) are about achieving order and organization from within. Taking up an Internet or mid-brain position may seem like liberation because it does throw of the executive plans of old, but it opens up a vulnerability: executive planning has to come from somewhere. With tongue firmly planted in cheek, social commentator William Powers—writing in his book Hamlet’s BlackBerry—A Practical Philosophy for Building A Good Life in the Digital Age—suggests that once all humans have taken up a distracted mid-brain position, aliens from outer space will be able to overthrow us unopposed. OK, I’m not so sure about an alien invasion, but what about an elite group of executive thinkers, a priestly group of executive thinkers if you will? Wouldn’t they be able to take us over essentially unopposed?

P. 216 – More on schemas. Again, Bowlby talked a lot about mental schemas or models in his work.

I hope the above notes help you to draw a connection between the information Carr presents in The Shallows and the work of John Bowlby in the area of attachment theory.