Friday, June 11, 2010

The Cost of Machines That Think = People Who Don't?

As I marvel at the new iPhone 4 – and hope to get one of my very own, very soon – I can't help but notice the flurry of recent articles on the mind-altering impacts of technology. The half-empty: irreversible, fundamental changes to the brain caused by the deluge of incoming information, from e-mail to video games to tweets to newsfeeds. Essentially, this digital multitasking is rewiring us to be shallow. The half-full: those same changes could actually be pretty useful – even making us smarter.

From the NY Times article: Hooked on Gadgets, and Paying a Mental Price
Scientists say juggling e-mail, phone calls and other incoming information can change how people think and behave. They say our ability to focus is being undermined by bursts of information.vThese play to a primitive impulse to respond to immediate opportunities and threats. The stimulation provokes excitement — a dopamine squirt — that researchers say can be addictive. In its absence, people feel bored...
While many people say multitasking makes them more productive, research shows otherwise. Heavy multitaskers actually have more trouble focusing and shutting out irrelevant information, scientists say, and they experience more stress. And scientists are discovering that even after the multitasking ends, fractured thinking and lack of focus persist. In other words, this is also your brain off computers.
“The technology is rewiring our brains,” said Nora Volkow, director of the National Institute of Drug Abuse and one of the world’s leading brain scientists. She and other researchers compare the lure of digital stimulation less to that of drugs and alcohol than to food and sex, which are essential but counterproductive in excess.

From the WSJ article: Does the Internet Make You Dumber?
The picture emerging from the research is deeply troubling, at least to anyone who values the depth, rather than just the velocity, of human thought. People who read text studded with links, the studies show, comprehend less than those who read traditional linear text. People who watch busy multimedia presentations remember less than those who take in information in a more sedate and focused manner. People who are continually distracted by emails, alerts and other messages understand less than those who are able to concentrate. And people who juggle many tasks are less creative and less productive than those who do one thing at a time.
The common thread in these disabilities is the division of attention. The richness of our thoughts, our memories and even our personalities hinges on our ability to focus the mind and sustain concentration. Only when we pay deep attention to a new piece of information are we able to associate it "meaningfully and systematically with knowledge already well established in memory," writes the Nobel Prize-winning neuroscientist Eric Kandel. Such associations are essential to mastering complex concepts.
When we're constantly distracted and interrupted, as we tend to be online, our brains are unable to forge the strong and expansive neural connections that give depth and distinctiveness to our thinking. We become mere signal-processing units, quickly shepherding disjointed bits of information into and then out of short-term memory.

From the NY Times book review: Our Cluttered Minds
There is little doubt that the Internet is changing our brain. Everything changes our brain. What Carr neglects to mention, however, is that the preponderance of scientific evidence suggests that the Internet and related technologies are actually good for the mind. For instance, a comprehensive 2009 review of studies published on the cognitive effects of video games found that gaming led to significant improvements in performance on various cognitive tasks, from visual perception to sustained attention. This surprising result led the scientists to propose that even simple computer games like Tetris can lead to “marked increases in the speed of information processing.” One particularly influential study, published in Nature in 2003, demonstrated that after just 10 days of playing Medal of Honor, a violent first-person shooter game, subjects showed dramatic increases in ­visual attention and memory.
Carr’s argument also breaks down when it comes to idle Web surfing. A 2009 study by neuroscientists at the University of California, Los Angeles, found that performing Google searches led to increased activity in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, at least when compared with reading a “book-like text.” Interestingly, this brain area underlies the precise talents, like selective attention and deliberate analysis, that Carr says have vanished in the age of the Internet. Google, in other words, isn’t making us stupid — it’s exercising the very mental muscles that make us smarter.

Related Link: The Edge Question 2010: How is the Internet Changing the Way You Think?

1 comment:

  1. Lehrer brings up a couple good points in his critique of Carr, but I think he's also missing the main point. Carr's trying to address one issue and Lehrer, another.

    In the review, Lehrer says that Carr overlooks the research that show technology as good for the brain, however to support that, he mentions video games and google searching--two tasks that don't require multi-tasking and are highly focused and would indeed be good for developing attention, coordination, etc. But I think what Carr is trying to get at is the broader aspect of technology where we find ourselves 'plugged in' to a number of different things at once, leading to the cluttered mind effect and a.d.d. like behavior in our daily lives. Both writers are right in their own perspective but I don't think they really addressed the middle ground...

    I have no idea, that's just what I got from it.