Friday, July 2, 2010

The Web Rewires Your Brain: Ain't That Great?

"Author Nicholas Carr: The Web Shatters Focus, Rewires Brains"
Nicholas Carr, Wired Magazine (May 24, 2010)

"During the winter of 2007, a UCLA professor of psychiatry named Gary Small recruited six volunteers—three experienced Web surfers and three novices—for a study on brain activity. He gave each a pair of goggles onto which Web pages could be projected. Then he slid his subjects, one by one, into the cylinder of a whole-brain magnetic resonance imager and told them to start searching the Internet. As they used a handheld keypad to Google various preselected topics—the nutritional benefits of chocolate, vacationing in the Galapagos Islands, buying a new car—the MRI scanned their brains for areas of high activation, indicated by increases in blood flow.

"The two groups showed marked differences. Brain activity of the experienced surfers was far more extensive than that of the newbies, particularly in areas of the prefrontal cortex associated with problem-solving and decisionmaking. Small then had his subjects read normal blocks of text projected onto their goggles; in this case, scans revealed no significant difference in areas of brain activation between the two groups. The evidence suggested, then, that the distinctive neural pathways of experienced Web users had developed because of their Internet use.

"The most remarkable result of the experiment emerged when Small repeated the tests six days later. In the interim, the novices had agreed to spend an hour a day online, searching the Internet. The new scans revealed that their brain activity had changed dramatically; it now resembled that of the veteran surfers. 'Five hours on the Internet and the naive subjects had already rewired their brains,' Small wrote. He later repeated all the tests with 18 more volunteers and got the same results...."

Sounds Good So Far: But Keep Reading

Using the Web isn't just like reading a book. It's different. And, as usual, different people see change in different ways.

Back to the Wired Magazine article.

"...When first publicized, the findings were greeted with cheers. By keeping lots of brain cells buzzing, Google seemed to be making people smarter. But as Small was careful to point out, more brain activity is not necessarily better brain activity. The real revelation was how quickly and extensively Internet use reroutes people’s neural pathways. 'The current explosion of digital technology not only is changing the way we live and communicate,' Small concluded, 'but is rapidly and profoundly altering our brains.'..."

Good News: Change Happens - Bad News: Same Thing

I don't doubt for a moment that frequent use of the Web changes the way our brains are wired. According to what we know about our brains, almost any activity that involves the brain, like solving calculus equations in your head, composing a symphony, or riding a bicycle, should change the way our brains work. If it didn't, we'd never learn anything.

However, I don't see change as a problem.

Particularly since we've been through something very much like this before. A little shy of two dozen centuries ago, a radical new information storage and retrieval technology was revolutionizing the culture of ancient Greece. And some of the Greeks didn't like it. (Drifting at the Edge of Time and Space (August 23, 2009))

The Wired article points out that people who have learned to use the Web tend to read short excerpts of pages they visit, read many pages from many websites, and remember relatively little of what they read in any given page.

In contrast, people who engage in good old-fashioned reading words recorded in ink on paper tend to read everything on the page they're on, then turn the page and read the next one. After a while, they've read several pages - and can remember quite a bit of what they read on those pages.

The article says, accurately enough: "...The depth of our intelligence hinges on our ability to transfer information from working memory, the scratch pad of consciousness, to long-term memory, the mind’s filing system...." That sort of thing happens more readily when we read passages slowly and carefully: savoring each paragraph.

There's a time and place for that sort of reading, I think.

But I wouldn't get much of my sort of research done, if I tried working that way.

Old-School Information Tech: the Codex

Being born during the Truman administration, I learned to read and use books that were stored in codex format. We're so accustomed to dealing with that particular information storage and retrieval technology that when they see "book," they think of a codex.

In this context a "codex" is many pages bound together on one side, and usually with a front and back cover: a "book." In even older "good old days," books were also recorded on scrolls - and a few other media.

I like the codex form of books. There's something very satisfying to feeling one in my hands: and there are some practical advantages as well.

I also like being able to get at information efficiently. A codex with a good index lets me find the data it contains rather well - but I can find more data, faster, by using Google.

It's the End of Civilization As We Know It - ca. 360 BC

Socrates discussed the impact of writing on civilized society, in Phaedrus. I've written about that before. (Drifting at the Edge of Time and Space (August 23, 2009)) The bottom line was that there was, about 2,350 or so years ago, a real concern that writing words down would result in people losing the ability to memorize and deeply understand ideas.

And, would result in people who could give "a show of wisdom without the reality."

I think it's worth noting that we wouldn't know about these concerns today, if someone hadn't recorded the ideas in written form - which could be passed along as the centuries rolled by.

The Information Age isn't Just Like Ancient Greece

Just as civilization rode out writing's growth from a method of recording commercial transactions to the primary medium for recording and distributing ideas ranging from philosophy to the content of Harlequin Romances, I think we'll survive the Web.

Even if people do learn to go through more information, faster, than they did when I was a boy.

I take concerns about how people handle information online seriously, just as I take the concerns recorded in Phaedrus.

I'm a living example of what some ancient Greeks warned of. For one thing, I find it moderately difficult to memorize long sequences of words. That isn't the handicap it might be, though, because I know how to look up information that's not stored - in detailed form - in my head.

The Wired article's concern over the lack of memorization that occurs during most Web use is, I think, somewhat justified. When I'm going after information online, I often can't remember just what I read and where I read it.

That's why I keep a text editor open while I jump from website to website. When I find something useful, I copy and paste the URL into the text editor, often keying in a few notes - and sometimes a bit of text from the page itself.

Later, if I think I'll need the information at a later time, I either save the text file I've been recording data in, or load the data into another program.

Sure, I might be able to memorize all those URLs and what was on each of the pages I visited: but I've found it more useful to recall the gist of what I found - and have the detailed information available if, and only if, I actually need it.

I'm sure that isn't the way Plato and Socrates worked: but it works for me.

But then, I may be a little less bothered by change than some folks.

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AgapiStudios said...

wait until the zillion books are written in a 100 years or so about the great movement to return to nature. Or the sound of peace and where to find it ... or something like that. Great article

Brian, aka Aluwir, aka Norski said...



About books: what I've been impressed at is how many pre-Information Age books are now available online. With proper attention to intellectual property rights. Using an online resource, I was able to find a particular quote in Twain's "Huckleberry Finn" in a few minutes - that would have taken me hours to days to find using old-school methods.

As to what will be written during the coming century? I'm rather looking forward to what I'll see.

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