Monday, August 16, 2010

Is the Internet Changing the Way We Think?

This question is not about ideological shifts in the "I changed my mind about ____" sense. It is about neuroplasticity, the morphing of the physical brain into something different and therefore capable of certain new tasks and incapable of certain old, familiar tasks. Nicholas Carr's The Shallows is the book a lot of the discussion is now orbiting around. At some people were asked their opinion of Carr's thesis, in the form of the question: Is the Internet changing the way we think? Here are the central points from each response.

Sarah Churchwell, academic and critic
  • It seems unlikely that the Internet is changing our brains. [Maybe it should be said this way: Our brains are morphing so as to wield the Internet.]
  • Changing our habits of thinking is not the same as changing our brains. (I think Churchwell does not understand Carr's point. This is not about thinking differently. With my brain in the current shape it is in I can think differently about things. But in the acquiring of a different skill set my brain is physically morphed in the process of acquisition.]
  • The following quote shows me that Churchwell misses Carr's point. She writes: "We've all read the jeremiads that the internet sounds the death knell of reading, but people read online constantly – we just call it surfing now. [Carr's point here is that different neural skills are needed to "read online constantly.] What they are reading is changing, often for the worse; but it is also true that the internet increasingly provides a treasure trove of rare books, documents and images, and as long as we have free access to it, then the internet can certainly be a force for education and wisdom, and not just for lies, damned lies, and false statistics."
Naomi Alderman, novelist
  • If we were cows our brains would not change very much, if at all. "But I'm not a cow, I'm a person, and therefore pretty much everything I come into contact with can change my brain."
  • Alderman misses what Carr is saying big-time. She writes: "No single medium will ever give our brains all possible forms of nourishment." She says more about what we take in to the brain. But that's not at all what Carr's book is about. It's not an issue of the brain being "nourished." It's about the brain being morphed, not by what it's being fed, but by the "medium" it's being dished out in.
Ed Bullmore, psychiatrist

  • Bullmore does not critique Carr but rather claims that the physical brain and the internet are quite alike. "Both the internet and the brain have a wiring diagram dominated by a relatively few, very highly connected nodes or hubs; and both can be subdivided into a number of functionally specialised families or modules of nodes. It may seem remarkable, given the obvious differences between the internet and the brain in many ways, that they should share so many high-level design features." [But which brain, at what point of history, in what culture?]
Geoff Dyer, writer

  • Dyer doesn't respond to the question, but simply praises the Internet for its ability to hunt down data that previously would have consumed hours.
Colin Blakemore, neurobiologist
  • I'm disappointed that a neurobiologist would not get at the heart of our question. Blakemore writes: "At its best, the internet is no threat to our minds. It is another liberating extension of them, as significant as books, the abacus, the pocket calculator or the Sinclair Z80. Just as each of those leaps of technology could be (and were) put to bad use, we should be concerned about the potentially addictive, corrupting and radicalising influence of the internet." [The issue is not whether the Internet is an extension of our mind, but whether or not it is morphing our minds.]
Ian Goodyer, psychiatrist
  • Goodyer writes: "Do [various] environments change the brain? Well, they could and probably do in evolutionary time." Yay! Goodyer is going after the question. Bravo!
  • "The evidence that the internet has a deleterious effect on the brain is zero." WAAA! The question is about change and neuroplasticity, not morality. Carr's text is remarkably non-judgmental re. the Internet's effect on the brain. (Although the title, The "Shallows," sends off vibes of badness.)
  • Read the rest of what Goodyer says, and you'll see he doesn't go fort the question, though his first sentences looked promising. 
Maryanne Wolf, cognitive neuroscientist
  • Wolf has a handle on the question.
  • Her answer is: Yes.
  • She writes: "For me, the essential question has become: how well will we preserve the critical capacities of the present expert reading brain as we move to the digital reading brain of the next generation? Will the youngest members of our species develop their capacities for the deepest forms of thought while reading or will they become a culture of very different readers – with some children so inured to a surfeit of information that they have neither the time nor the motivation to go beyond superficial decoding?" [Wolf thus shows herself in sync with Carr's concerns.]