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July 30, 2012 | by  | in Features |
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A Brain For Browsing

Dial-up thought for the broadband age


It’s 1am on a Tuesday and, dimly aware that you were planning to go to sleep about an hour ago, instead you’re on a blog dedicated to cat cameos in porn.? You have no idea how you got here. Or why you’re still watching. 

We’ve all been here before: waking up cold and alone in the weird part of the internet. Only hazy memories of a giddy series of hyperlinks and Google searches remain. With its promise of a universe of information and entertainment just a mere click away, the internet is at once the most useful research tool and a student’s worst diversion.  

But cat porn and procrasti-Facebooking aside, is our love affair with the Internet doing more than just wasting our time? Some argue that the very structure and nature of the Internet is changing the way in which we think, by encouraging us to seek breadth, rather than depth of knowledge. Is it true that we’re beginning to skim and skip, rather than analyse and question? Could it be that our relationship with the Internet is not only changing the way we think, but even how our brains function? On a neural level at least, science seems to think so. Salient’s Molly McCarthy investigates. 

Tricks of the mind

Irked by the feeling that he was losing his ability to concentrate on long pieces of text, author Nicholas Carr became convinced that the internet was having an alarming impact on human intellect. In his article ‘Is Google Making Us Stupid?’, Carr argues that the internet, typified by its ability to offer immediate access to a wide range of information, is causing its users to behave and think in very different ways. In using this “universal medium”, we are encouraged to constantly seek and process information from a myriad of sources, as well as focussing on many tasks at once. “The result,” says Carr, “is to scatter our attention and diffuse our concentration.”

If you’ve ever tried to write an essay while checking your Facebook and tweeting at the same time, it is clear that one’s productivity is significantly hindered by important tasks like Facebook stalking. However, although our behaviour might be affected by the stimulation of constant notifications, is it fair to say that our actual thinking has changed too?

Well, possibly. A University College of London study showed that users of online research databases demonstrated very distinct reading habits, often skipping from one text to the next, rarely going back to texts they had already seen, and never reading more than one to two pages. The patterns were so clear, in fact, that it led researchers to conclude, “there are signs that new forms of ‘reading’ are emerging”.

New forms of reading? Surely merely using the internet wouldn’t alter a skill we developed in early childhood? Not so, says cognitive neuroscientist Maryanne Wolf. According to Wolf, because reading is a skill we must learn, and not one that is instinctive, the way in which our brains are arranged actually changes depending on the language we are learning to read, or indeed, the medium that we are learning to read from. In encouraging us to focus on efficiency and immediacy, Wolf argues, the internet is shifting our reading abilities from being used to interpret and analyse, to becoming “mere decoders of information.”

A 2007 UCLA study demonstrated just how quickly these cognitive adaptations take place. When asked to research something on the internet, experienced users displayed much higher levels of brain activity than non-experienced users, particularly in the areas of problem solving and decision-making. However, after just five hours of internet use, the novice group had already developed the necessary neural pathways to record the same higher levels of brain activity, showing that the technology was in fact “rapidly and profoundly altering our brains.”

Slaves to the machine

But the Internet’s effects may reach further than merely altering the way in which we seek and process information. As more aspects of society move online, the Internet could be affecting the type of information we produce as well. That is, in shifting our lives online, are we also re-shaping our thoughts and opinions to match the Internet’s structure?

Pointing to changes in the nature of news reporting in the Internet age, Carr thinks so, “When the Net absorbs a medium, that medium is recreated in the Net’s image.” As the number of news sources, and the speed at which they can break a story, increases, so too does the type of journalism these media outlets are producing. “The nature of news has always been immediacy, as much as the available technology allows,” explains Dr Megan Le Masurier, media lecturer at University of Sydney. “Online 24/7 news has dramatically sped up this process of instantaneity, with pressure on news journalists to produce content quickly rather than deeply… There is no question this pressure has intensified.” In an environment where quantity and timeliness is the goal, the headlines, rather than the story, are the focus.

This argument rings as true for the media as it does for individuals; there is a clear pattern of increasing simplicity in what the Internet demands from its users. Compare the vehicles available to users to publish their ideas throughout the internet’s brief history; from the blog, to the Facebook update, to the 140-character tweet, brevity of thought becomes the norm as immediacy becomes the order of the day.

Scroll through an average Facebook newsfeed, and it’s clear that not much thought has been put into the majority of the posts; “Dating is just a big bowl of stress and confusion lol”; on Twitter, even less; “who did the mona lisa”.

With the ever-present prompts, “What’s on your mind?” and “What’s happening?”, the emphasis is on staying connected and constantly updated, regardless of whether that comes at the cost of a researched or reasoned statement.

The way of the future?

But for all this commotion, even if the Internet really is changing our grey matter, is that necessarily a bad thing?

Not at all, says Steven Pinker, a professor of psychology at Harvard, and outspoken critic of Carr. In addition to rejecting the significance of much of the scientific evidence that Carr relies on, Pinker points out that the Internet is not only inherently useful to knowledge and research, but necessary.

“Knowledge is increasing exponentially; human brainpower and waking hours are not… Far from making us stupid, these technologies are the only things that will keep us smart.”

Even Carr himself has admitted that our Internet use aids hand-eye coordination, pattern recognition, and multitasking. As the Internet becomes a ubiquitous reality, maybe it’s a good thing that our brains are changing the way they seek and produce information in an effort to keep up.

While the jury’s still out on the extent to which the Internet is the mind-altering drug of our time, it’s clear that we are going to have to adapt – whether consciously or subconsciously – to life in the information age, with all its quirks and distractions.

So the next time you find yourself in the weird part of the Internet at 1 a.m., just go to bed. There’s nothing more to see here. Oh, but just before you do, there’s this great video—you’ll love it! Hang on, I’ll just get you the link… ▲

Actually a thing:

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