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This Is Your Brain on Facebook?

October 7, 2010

Pay attention.  There is going to be a test.

The Neurological Foundation of New Zealand newsletter recently featured an interesting forum discussing a new book:  The Shallows:  What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains by Nicholas Carr.  The book grew out of an Atlantic article in which Carr said that although he used to be an avid reader, now “. . . after two or three pages, I get fidgety, lose the thread, begin looking for something else to do.” 

What alarmed Carr was that he felt that his mind wasn’t “going;” rather it was “changing.”   

He blames the internet and he’s particularly worried because according to the latest statistics, kids aged 8 to 18 spend an average of 7.5 hours per day interacting with digital devices (e.g., the internet, TV, cell phones or video games).

The Neurological Foundation is very interested in this sort of thing because for years there has been a lot of research around what is referred to as the plasticity of the human brain.  They have found that the brains of accident and stroke victims actually relearn how to do certain things and the research has exciting implications for things like Alzheimer’s disease, head injuries and other things that damage the brain. 

The research is fairly incontrovertible.  It has been shown, for example, that the brains of people who cannot read are structurally different from the brains of people who read.  It’s the same with multilingual people.  For example, people who read Chinese use parts of their brains differently while reading because of the huge number of pictorial characters—more of the visual cortex is involved in reading.

The idea is that if innovations in printing, which have resulted in increased reading, can modify our brain wiring it is very likely that other technologies like Facebook also have an impact on the functioning and maybe even the structure of our brains.

Just watch a kid texting or playing video games if you aren’t convinced.

Carr’s book has unleashed the usual firestorm of violent agreement and disagreement. 

The pro-techno people are saying that each new technological advance (e.g., printing, telephone) brings out people convinced that the apocalypse is at hand.  The article I read had the delightful, if unverifiable, assertion that Plato himself was disturbed by the invention of writing because he feared that if people could write things down, the art of remembering things would be lost.

Plato’s exaggeration is cited as a main reason to not fear technology.

 I don’t feel particularly fundamentalist about this issue one way or the other.  Both sides have arguments that make sense and for every negative one side puts up, you can think of a positive to counterbalance it.

But there is one aspect of the whole situation that does make me stop and think. 

Some neurologists have looked into the various ways that different activities impact the development of the brain and in particular, the development of the brain’s cognitive functioning.   One of the most important parts of cognitive functioning is the ability to connect the dots of experience and to reason from general to specific and vice versa. Research has shown that you develop those skills by deep reading (i.e., slowly reading and thinking and using your imagination).

The other kind of reading which involves rapid information gathering (i.e., skimming an article on Wikipedia or scanning your Tweets) is known as superficial decoding.  It basically doesn’t involve any filtering or processing against experience or logic.  In other words, there is no reality check.   

I’m no neurologist, but it sounds to me as if someone who hasn’t developed deep reading cognitive skills might be overly susceptible to sound bites.  Or that if their interaction with the world is limited to skimming everything in search of instant gratification, they might not be able to put together all of the pieces of the puzzles life throws at them.  And that could lead to mistakes.  For example, if all you do is superficial decoding of visual and audio cues, you might end up wearing the wrong clothes:

Eating the wrong candy:

Drinking the wrong beer:

Or worst of all, relying on the wrong superhero:

If you’ve been doing more than superficial decoding, you may be thinking that it’s about time for the test.  Oh yeah, I almost forgot.  Here it is.  See if you notice anything peculiar about this globalized superhero’s ears:

17 Comments leave one →
  1. October 8, 2010 1:50 am

    I have to agree with at least some of this assessment. I feel that while technology does improve and streamline learning and education, the overuse of the internet in particular causes negative effects. I notice it myself when I’m forced to spend too much time online. I eventually lose my ability to concentrate and focus and become much more irritable. I think I am extra sensitive to this kind of thing though.

    Still, it wouldn’t surprise me at all if there is a dramatic rise in ADD and ADHD over the next several generations.

  2. October 8, 2010 2:03 am

    As the mother of four teenagers still at home, I can attest to the fact that very few of them read anything beside what they have to read for school, and what they see on their computer/cellphone screens. Consequently, their analytical skills are shockingly lacking…I find myself explaining basic things to them that I just “knew” at their age, because I’d read so much. Frustrating…but I have no solution…


  3. October 8, 2010 2:15 am

    How I respond depends on what the article is telling me. If it stays with the thought of the headline and what I am interested in I will go on reading. On the other hand , if the aricle strays to non related items I lose track and interest.

  4. October 8, 2010 5:32 am

    What the Internet is doing to my brain is that these days the most efficient way for me to tackle a piece of writing that exceeds 140 characters in length is to think of it as a succession of tweets.

  5. October 8, 2010 8:00 pm

    OMGosh!!! that is scary indeed. so whilst we are unable to stop technology and yes it is good in many respects….I know exactly what they mean by getting fidgety and unable to concentrate on a book for any length of time. That is exactly what I have experienced in the last few months. I spend about 6-7 hours a day on the internet and noticed lately that I cant concentrate for any length of time when reading a regular book. I put it down to being tired…… wow! So I guess that is a note to self! Thanks for this information.

  6. dafna permalink
    October 9, 2010 5:14 pm

    there is some irony in the fact that mr. carr is such a prolific publisher on the ill effects of the internet given that he is also a prolific user of the internet as stated in your introduction.

    nicholas carr’s blog
    the internet does not seem to have dulled his writing abilities 😉

    why does a guy with super-hero hearing need antennas?

  7. October 9, 2010 7:42 pm

    I wouldn’t mind trying those S&M’s

  8. October 11, 2010 8:40 am

    On behalf of comics fans everywhere, thanks for reminding everyone about Superman’s cousin, Specialman, who might not be as strong as Superman, and might not be able to fly like Superman, but that’s OK, because he’s still a good person.

  9. October 12, 2010 1:16 pm

    This simply verifies everything that I, as an English teacher, have noticed about the death of “active reading,” what the article calls “deep reading.” I’m not ready to blame technology, but it is all a part of the “give it to me now, no waiting” mindset, in which answers are more valued in the school system than the thinking process that led to the answers.

  10. October 12, 2010 1:20 pm

    RE: Super Bat
    There really is a hero with those exact ears who skates through the air. His name is Air Wave and he is, believe it or not, Green Lantern’s cousin.
    You’ll find him here:
    Just scroll to the bottom.

    • October 12, 2010 1:55 pm

      Thanks! I never knew about Air Wave. I assumed that Super Bat was Batman with an iPod. But definitely he’s an Air Wave clone.

  11. April 11, 2011 1:24 am

    Going through your archives….This one was good, loved the graphics at the end. they drove home the point.


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