Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Our brains on the internet - smarter, dumber, neither?

As part of my re-entry catching up with accumulated articles, I want to point out some contrasting takes on how gadgets, the internet, our modern pace, multi-tasking and attention span, etc. are influencing our brains:
Richtel describes a number of experiments demonstrating how multitasking can diminish the ability to focus on or switch between tasks
While many people say multitasking makes them more productive, research shows otherwise. Heavy multitaskers actually have more trouble focusing and shutting out irrelevant information...and they experience more stress...even after the multitasking ends, fractured thinking and lack of focus persist.
Jonah Lehrer reviews "The Shallows," a new book by Nicholas Carr on the internet and the brain. Carr takes a dire view of what the internet is doing to our brains, but Lehrer counters:
There is little doubt that the Internet is changing our brain. Everything changes our brain. What Carr neglects to mention, however, is that the preponderance of scientific evidence suggests that the Internet and related technologies are actually good for the mind. For instance, a comprehensive 2009 review of studies published on the cognitive effects of video games found that gaming led to significant improvements in performance on various cognitive tasks,...Carr's argument also breaks down when it comes to idle Web surfing. A 2009 study by neuroscientists at the University of California, Los Angeles, found that performing Google searches led to increased activity in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, at least when compared with reading a "book-like text." Interestingly, this brain area underlies the precise talents, like selective attention and deliberate analysis, that Carr says have vanished in the age of the Internet. Google, in other words, isn't making us stupid -- it's exercising the very mental muscles that make us smarter.
Pinker offers a sanguine and sane assessment:
New forms of media have always caused moral panics...such panics often fail basic reality checks...If electronic media were hazardous to intelligence, the quality of science would be plummeting. Yet discoveries are multiplying like fruit flies, and progress is dizzying. Other activities in the life of the mind, like philosophy, history and cultural criticism, are likewise flourishing.

...the effects of experience are highly specific to the experiences themselves. If you train people to do one thing (recognize shapes, solve math puzzles, find hidden words), they get better at doing that thing, but almost nothing else. Music doesn’t make you better at math, conjugating Latin doesn’t make you more logical, brain-training games don’t make you smarter...The effects of consuming electronic media are also likely to be far more limited than the panic implies. Media critics write as if the brain takes on the qualities of whatever it consumes, the informational equivalent of “you are what you eat.” As with primitive peoples who believe that eating fierce animals will make them fierce, they assume that watching quick cuts in rock videos turns your mental life into quick cuts or that reading bullet points and Twitter postings turns your thoughts into bullet points and Twitter postings. encourage intellectual depth, don’t rail at PowerPoint or Google. It’s not as if habits of deep reflection, thorough research and rigorous reasoning ever came naturally to people. They must be acquired in special institutions, which we call universities, and maintained with constant upkeep, which we call analysis, criticism and debate. They are not granted by propping a heavy encyclopedia on your lap, nor are they taken away by efficient access to information on the Internet.
The new media have caught on for a reason. Knowledge is increasing exponentially; human brainpower and waking hours are not. Fortunately, the Internet and information technologies are helping us manage, search and retrieve our collective intellectual output at different scales, from Twitter and previews to e-books and online encyclopedias. Far from making us stupid, these technologies are the only things that will keep us smart.


  1. Anonymous7:16 PM

    Pinker - seems like he is always the voice of reason.

  2. I disagree, why

    Increasing brain activity in certain reagions can not be corelatted with improved performance.

    they are quite different things.

    Also, there is no measurment of how the internet affects how well we chase our dreams - set goals - and move forward in life.

    that level of output is what ultimetly matters for us - as improved performance makes no difference if in fact we are meerly using that improved performance to serch for more websites and play more games.