What is the Internet Doing to Your Brain? (Revised - links added!)

Is the internet your brain's friend?

I was asked a question by someone who was in a discussion about the internet and its influence on our brains. Specifically, they were talking about whether there is any truth to some recent work showing that the internet, and how we (you, your children) are using it, is making us dumber.

So the question posed to me was....

Wondering if you have any thoughts/insights on the changing nature of the brain, with increased internet commnunications, and the prevalence of tools like Google to locate information?

My answer was:

I'm not aware of much research showing this yet, although there is an increasing amount of speculation on how the internet AND our ways of working with it and other newer forms of information-delivery affect our own brain-based information processing patterns.

Let's start with the knowledge that the brain is plastic -- It changes based on what we think and feel and do. Do more of something --- it happens more easily and automatically; do less of something, it happens more slowly and with more effort.

So it certainly make sense that if we are changing our info-intake habits and info-use habits, we are indeed re-wiring our brains to absorb and deal with info differently.

Given that it has been demonstrated that people reading on the internet are largely skimming (or choosing Very Short Text), one could reasonably speculate that we teaching ourselves to have shorter "reading spans". Unless we are also continuing to read books and ponder content or imagine scenes, etc. -- in which case we are perhaps adding to our skill sets instead of replacing them.

Something similar happens with reading vs oral traditions. As more people become literate and Stories are written down, we become less able to create, remember, and reproduce oral narrative as precisely as oral cultures used to. Use it or lose it, applies to the brain's networking world.

There is a bit of a threat to sustained attention skills as well as "reading" in that we spend much of our time "practicing" moving from one event to another instead of focused activity on one thing. The same thing happens with multi-tasking -- jumping from one activity to another -- we are actually practicing not paying attention!

But again, this is a Practice issue, not a Creating Dumbness issue in my mind. (Perhaps this is why meditation is becoming more popular as we strive toward something focused and sustained to balance the speed and variety of day to day life????)

So, are we possibly weakening or losing some skills? Quite possibly. Especially our kids who may not have another way they practice much --

Are we gaining other skills? Again, quite possibly.

Are we getting dumber? I think this is a cultural statement -- to oral traditions, we are pretty "stupid" in our capacity to memorize texts; but in our culture, we are "stupid" if we can't read and write.

In neither case is it a measure of the "information-processing capacity" or "emotional intelligence" or "social intelligence" of the person (or many other intelligence forms) -- just a reflection of what and how we're practicing (or not).

Does that make sense? What do you think or notice about your own "information-processing skills" as you spend more time with email, the internet, or multi-tasking?

To read more, here are a couple of links about the issue:

Online Literacy is a Lesser Kind from the Chronicle of Higher Education about the differences in how we read online vs books and other off-line texts

From the New York Times: Technology Doesn’t Dumb Us Down. It Frees Our Minds.

And then the article that started my friend's conversation: Is Google Making Us Stupid? from the July-August 2008 Atlantic Times.