This Is Your Brain on Facebook?
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: