Nicholas Carr: The Internet is Hurting Our Brains

The man who famously asked if IT matters is back with a loaded question: Is the Internet, and especially Google, physically hurting your brain functions such as memory? His new book, The Shallows, is no Luddite rant, but it raises some interesting questions.

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Experts Disagree On Carr's Thesis

To be sure, there is experimental work that points in a different direction. In a rather unfriendly piece in the New York Times Book Review last month, Jonah Lehrer cited a different set of experts from UCLA who "found that performing Google searches led to increased activity in the [brain], at least when compared with reading a book-like text."

Lehrer, a contributing editor at Wired, then went on to contradict Carr's major thesis, saying: "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."

But does it?

Carr argues that our brains are "plastic," that is they are modified by the tasks we undertake. "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."

Even the use of links that give readers access to useful information not in the text has a downside, Carr believes. Erping Zhu, a researcher at the University of Michigan, tested reading comprehension by having people read the same online article, but she varied the number of links included in the passage. She then tested the subjects, and found that comprehension declined as the number of links increased. Readers were forced to devote more and more of their attention and brain power to evaluating the links and deciding whether to click on them

As a nation, Americans are prone to believe that technology can fix almost anything, and that the downsides of technology can always be managed. And there's no doubt, at least in my mind, that we've benefited tremendously from the use of digital technology. I'll never want to drive to the library to look up the odd fact when I can find it on Google in seconds.

I'm certainly in no position to weigh the contradictory scientific evidence about the relationship of digital technology and cognitive development. But my own experience as a heavy (and often heavily distracted) user of Web-based technology tells me Carr is on the right track. At the very least, his book is worth reading with your iPhone turned off and your Tweets on hold.

San Francisco journalist Bill Snyder writes frequently about business and technology. He welcomes your comments and suggestions. Reach him at bill.snyder@sbcglobal.net.

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Copyright © 2010 IDG Communications, Inc.

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