Please visit Thinking Skills for the Digital Generation by Athreya and Mouza at

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Thinking Shallow, Thinking deep

Dear Asha, Ajay, Ravi and Ariana,

There is a whole new book on how the internet is changing the way our brain works. It is called The Shallows. (Nicholas Carr, Norton, New York. 2010)

Your generation is called “digital natives”, as opposed to us oldies who are called the “digital immigrants”. You are growing up in the information age. The volume of information available at your finger-tips, at the click of a "mouse" is truly mind-boggling. I do not think our human brain is capable of managing all of this information. It will adapt, but over time.

There are a few known facts about the brain. For example, the amount of information arriving at the retina (the actual image-capturing part of the eye) is estimated to be the equivalent of 10 billion bits per second. But, only 10,000 bits per second reach the area of the brain where vision is processed. The brain is made to survey the entire scene and make a quick decision and therefore it leaves out many details. It abstracts a manageable pattern without worrying about every particular.

It is also known that the brain cannot correlate and manipulate more than 7 bits of information at a time. Here also, the ability to abstract helps since that gives the brain less number of items to deal with. Indeed, the brain seems to do best when it groups individual items into categories and then compare them two at a time or smaller groups at a time. This is how physicians’ mind works in making a diagnosis, eliminating all the options except the one best answer.

It is essential that you learn how to get the most reliable, practical information from this vast amount of good, bad and outright wrong and harmful information. After you pick out the most reliable, relevant and useful information, you have to think carefully. When there is too much information, the brain is likely to get confused and be shallow in its analysis. It can either think deep with manageable amount of information or think shallow with vast amount of information. This is the theme of the book I mentioned at the beginning.

Collect all the information you want. But assign time to look at what you have collected. Discord useless, wrong and irrelevant information and make time to think on your own.

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