The Shallows, Chapter 2- The Vital Paths (and a digression)

Some Ethical Implications of the Malleable Mind

What is neuroplasticity? Chapter 2 is largely devoted to explaining two conceptions of the mind- one of fixed rigidity, and one of malleability. Carr gives us insight into the nature of the human mind that has profound (and at times kind of scary) implications…

Neuroplasticity: Ability of the brain to modify its own structure and function following changes within the body or external environment 

So in other words: your actions and your thoughts create habits by changing the structure of your brain. 

In the digression, Carr brings up the idea that because we don’t have any physical perception of our brains existing, it’s hard to believe that they suffer consequences. The brain seems to be this ethereal thing that exists beyond our control, and we want to believe that’s the truth. But what plasticity means for us is that we have far more accountability for our brains than we think, because we choose our actions, and, to some degree, what we think about, and that affects our wiring. We actually have a degree of control over our thought patterns and feelings. But we typically conceive of these things as beyond our control. Think about it for a second- have you ever been in a difficult situation where you have expressed the sentiment “I can’t help how I feel?” or “That’s just what I believe?”

Neuroplasticity appears to challenge that. Because to some degree, it implies that you can change how you think.

Neuroplasticity is challenging because it has implications for responsibility. We have social obligations to control our behavior, for both our own good and the good of those around us. We’re used the idea that we need to control our actions. But thoughts and reflexes, associations and habits, ultimately control our actions- and we can shape our thoughts and reflexes. So do we have a responsibility to conscientiously engineer how we think? Carr seems to be suggesting that we have to take responsibility for our own minds, if we want to preserve skills and ways of thinking that are replaced by digital adaptation. But what about our duties to others? What can neuroplasticity teach us about social responsibility? 

“I’m Not Racist, But…” 


You can actually take an association test to see how prejudiced you are.
(Try it! And yes, you probably are a little bit horrible, deep down. Everyone is.)

Would you be surprised to learn that you unconsciously favor one gender or racial group over another? People don’t like to take responsibility for that kind of thinking. They don’t want to admit that they believe detrimental things. When asked whether or not they are racist, sexist or otherwise prejudiced, many take the option to reply otherwise, that they don’t feel that way. Yet when placed in a situation like “who am I afraid of on the sidewalk at night”, your unconscious mind thinks otherwise.

Unconscious bias is a bit like McLuhan’s “watchdog” scenario. Media sneak changes into your brain that you don’t notice. Society sneaks prejudices into your brain that you don’t notice.


Is there evidence of plasticity and learned behaviors in this talk? “That’s my default” (~5:00) sounds a bit like neurological “paths of least resistance” (Carr, pp. 35). According to Vernā, bias is something we’ve been invisibly trained to think. We learn biases and embed them by repeating them over and over again. Sounds like brain circuits that “…want to keep exercising…”  (Carr, pp. 34)

Unlike ideological racism, behavior driven by conditioned racism is not necessarily based on conscious beliefs about supposed racial differences. While factors such as skin tone or culture or accent can act as ‘triggers’ for conditioned racism, it is largely our brains’ automated response to anything and anyone perceived as a possible threat or enemy. And our society has insidious ways of teaching us that some people are dangerous, when they are not. 

Unintended Consequences 

You can discuss neuroplasticity and ethics in a different direction. Unconscious bias is somewhat related to the idea that our societal structure, thoughts and actions can have unintended consequences. In racial bias, our own plastic minds are trained to have unintended, undesired prejudices. Our impressionability makes our brains vulnerable. It would seem true of any detrimental thought pattern. 

So our brains are not always predictable. (See the Greenburg quote on pg. 34 of the Shallows.) But what about computers? We’ve been talking about how digital technology shapes us- but how do we shape digital technology? Norman Doidge points out that biological and digital networks are very similar: 

“Electronic media are so effective at altering the nervous system because they both work in similar ways and are basically compatible and thus easily linked. Both involve the instantaneous transmission of electric signals to make linkages. Because our nervous system is plastic, it can take advantage of this compatibility and merge with the electronic media, making a single, larger system. Indeed, it is the nature of such systems to merge whether they are biological or man-made.” – Doidge, The Brain that Changes Itself, pp. 311

And keep in mind Carr’s point as well:

“Monkeys, for instance, were taught how to use rakes and pliers to take hold of pieces of food that would otherwise have been out of reach….the rakes and pliers actually came to be incorporated into the brain maps of the animals’ hands. The tools, so far as the animals’ brains were concerned, had become part of their bodies.” – Carr, The Shallows, pp. 32

Some further examples of brain/tool integration:

Circuits in your skin

Hacking into your brain???

You’d have to really love your smartphone…

(A documentary about ‘the singularity’- the fusion of humans with machines. For a particularly interesting example, go to 56:30.)

And of course, more wisdom from McLuhan:

“His first law of media is that all the media are extensions of aspects of man….the computer extends the processing capacities of our central nervous system. He argued that the process of extending our nervous system also alters it.” -Doige, on McLuhan. The Brain that Changes Itself, pp.310

“Now man is beginning to wear his brain outside his skull, and his nerves outside his skin….Today, after more than a century of electric technology, we have extended our central nervous system itself in a global embrace….” McLuhan, quoted in Doige, The Brain that Changes Itself, pp. 311

So the question is, if we can develop intimate relationships with digital systems, based on feedback, can our plasticity manifest in a digital system as well? Carr explains how the brain was once thought to be rigid, fixed, and with each component serving a predictable function, and that computers are generally conceived of the same way. But then, the machine metaphor is broken down for the brain, thanks to the discovery of plasticity- it’s organic and adaptive, and reacts to its environment in ways we do not expect. So could that understanding be incorrect for a computer too?


Essentially what this guy is saying is that we have written code we can no longer control, with effects we cannot predict. And that code is changing its environment to facilitate itself. The technology is a positive feedback loop, just like the “vital paths”. Perhaps we have designed something that is more like ourselves than we realize. We should be responsible for how our technologies behaveBecause they ultimately come back to shape us. 

Can you think of any situations where your use of digital technology has changed how it behaved? Has your usage had unintended consequences? 

In Conclusion…

Both of these discussions show the changing nature of our mind; your actions have unintended consequences on how you think, and how you think has unintended consequences on your actions. Those consequences are unintended because we aren’t used to the idea of shaping our brains to perform to what we think we believe. We don’t think about the psychological consequences for what we do, feel or experience. We’re not used to paying attention. 

And we probably should, because as racial bias and thieving algorithms show us, not all unintended consequences are harmless. As Pascual-Leone says, “…plastic changes may not necessarily represent a behavioral gain for a given subject.” (Carr, pp.34)

We become so addicted to our devices, unknowingly. Just like we become programmed to fear. Our hearts race a when we see the police, and our palms may sweat when we walk down a dark alley with someone of a different racial group. The plasticity that is embedded in us not only changes the way we view the people around us, but also the technologies we have created and unknowingly become so accustomed to. And can’t live without.

So if you recognize a bad thought pattern, how to go about changing it? How do you take advantage of your plasticity to shape your mind for the better?
Have you ever deliberately tried to change how you think? Undo a reflex? Eliminate a bias?  Quell an irrational fear? 

Vernā has a few strategies in her TED talk, linked earlier.

And so does Jiro.


It’s like Carr says:

“That doesn’t mean that we can’t, with concerted effort, once again redirect our neural signals and rebuild the skills we’ve lost.” (pp.35)

Building neural structures takes work. You can’t unseat a bias in a day. You can’t become a master sushi maker in a day. Changing a “vital path”can be a fairly simple exercise, (see pg. 30 of The Shallows, regarding stroke recovery) but all three of these people iterate that it takes discipline and patience. After all “Plastic does not mean elastic…” (The Shallows, pp.34)


So we leave you with a challenge: identify a thought pattern, an association, a bias- anything that’s been trained into your mind- and see if you can change it. Seek new experience. Imagine what it would be like to feel differently in a given situation. Fire new neurons together. Do it for the rest of the semester and work at it and see what happens. Try engineering your mind.

And the sooner the better, because plasticity doesn’t last uncompromised:

“As we age and plasticity declines, it becomes increasingly difficult for us to change in response to the world, even if we want to. We find familiar types of stimulation pleasurable; we seek out like-minded individuals to associate with, and research shows we tend to ignore or forget, or attempt to discredit, information that does not match our beliefs, or perception of the world, because it is very distressing and difficult to think and perceive in unfamiliar ways. Increasingly, the aging individual acts to preserve the structures within, and when there is a mismatch between his internal neurocognitive structures and the world, he seeks to change the world. In small ways he begins to micromanage his environment, to control it and make it familiar. But this process, writ large, often leads whole cultural groups to try to impose their view of the world on other cultures….” -Doige, The Brain that Changes Itself, on the work of Bruce Wexler (pp. 304-305). 

So can you set yourself on a trajectory of thought you might get stuck in? Yikes. If intolerance and colonialism are the product of an inability to neurologically adapt to other people, then teach yourself tolerance, full speed ahead!

Take advantage of your flexible mind. And if you can, bend it into positions that cause more good than harm to those around you, and yourself.


 (Did any of you have this poster in a classroom in elementary school? That’s neuroplasticity. Pay attention to your brain.) 

As we tread deeper into “The Shallows”

Our first discussion about The Shallows generated some thought provoking responses. Take a look at the following links to learn a few more things about how cool our brains are, why we have a hard time remembering information and what the internet is doing to kids these days.

Did you know that the Gutenberg press was the first technology responsible for moveable text? Check it out!


We also learned about Nietzsche’s Malling-Hansen Writing Ball Typewriter! Check out the video of how it works!


Neuroplasticity!!!!!! *fire crackers exploding* Are our brains cool or what?

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Google has become our external hard drive.

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Neurons that fire together wire together. We are training our brains every single day! Believe it or not, we are even training our brains to stop retaining information. WHAT??!! So that article you were trying to make sense of, or that definition you were trying to remember – your brain has decided to let that information go straight out the window.  Watch this video to learn more about why you’ve stopped retaining information.

Take control of your brain!

Fact or fiction? It’s okay for children to watch more than three hours of television per day.


With all the information on the internet its easy to get lost and confused. Before you get too distressed here is an Internet 101.

Neurotechnology and neuroethics

I’ve found this great document about neurotechnology and neuroethics. I didn’t have the time to read it completely, but I find that points 5, 6, and 7 are very interesting. The ‘Case study’ provides an hipotetical frame where you are a scientist with a difficult case. If you click on the tiny red question marks, you will find some difficult questions to answer regarding to ethics (they also provide a ‘correct’ answer).

By the way… have you watched the movie ‘Eternal sunshine of the spotless mind’ (with Jim Carrey)?

Click here for the Neurotechnology/Neuroethics document

How brain works. Makram, Bayes, Friston, deCharms, Ramachandran.

In the next link you will find the work of Henry Markram, who is building (with the help of 10.000 IBM laptops) a brain. Each of the laptops simulates the way one single neuron works.

Jeff Hawkins explains how neuroscience cannot be studied the way other areas are studied, and that there is no theory about how brain works. And that’s what he’s investigating.

…But the truth is that there is a theory, based on Thomas Bayes’ theories (release after he died… in 1761!!!) that are currently used for stadistic areas. This theories are trying to PREDICT the thinking of the brain, by introducing stadistic rules (based on our experience) and perception data (based on our senses). Karl Friston is working on that (

Christopher deCharms is developing a technique so they can explore what happens into our heads. This way, they can stop chronic pain by controlling  the brain.  It’s an investigational technology, but they have been successful in 44% to 64%. They hope that they will be able to do this with another areas (anger, addiction, depression…).

And… saving the best for last… Mr. Ramachandran (named in The Shallows, page 29, about the guy with the phantom limb) gives us 3 examples of how brain works (or doesn’t work).