Is the Internet changing the way our brains work?


According to an article in Newsweek (Monday Jan 18th 2010) the answer is no. But, it may be altering the way we think.

Shortened attention span. Less interest in reflection and introspection. Inability to engage in in-depth thought. Fragmented, distracted thinking. These are all ways that the Internet supposedly affects thought. 109 philosophers, neurobiologists, and other scholars were asked “How is the Internet changing the way you think”.

The general consensus of scholars who study the mind and the brain is that the Internet hasn’t changed the way we think. Neuroscientist, Joshua Greene of Harvard, argues that it has provided us with unprecedented access to information, but hasn’t changed what our brains actually do with it. Cognitive psychologist, Steven Pinker of Harvard, is equally uncertain that any fundamental changes have happened. “Texters, surfers, and twitterers have not trained their brains to process multiple streams of novel information in parallel, as is commonly asserted but refuted by research”.

And yet, many scholars do believe the Internet alters thinking. Howard Rheingold (a Communications expert) believes the Internet fosters shallowness and distraction, with the result that our minds struggle to discipline and deploy attention in any concerted way. It is also argued that the Internet is causing the disappearance of retrospection and reminiscence. Evgeny Morozov, an expert on the Internet and politics, claims that our lives are increasingly lived in the present, completely detached even from the most recent of the pasts.

Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (the author of the work on Flow – referenced and discussed elsewhere in this Blog) argues that since online information is often decontextualized it satisfies immediate needs at the expense of deeper understanding, resulting in more superficial thought. With facts (whether true or false) only a click away, the Internet allows us to know fewer facts, reducing their importance as a component of thought. But that increases the importance of other components such as correlating facts, distinguishing between important and secondary matters, knowing when to prefer pure logic and when to let common sense dominate.

In other words, more than ever, we need to apply judgement to what is important and what is not. I don’t believe this is fundamentally different to what has gone before (apart from in terms of volume). All sources of information are subject to interpretation, and are conveyed through the filter of someone’s brain. Judgement will become an ever more critical skill; but our brains, our thinking, and the way we process information, is tried and trusted and will serve us well.

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