The brain is like any other muscle — if you don't stretch it, it gets both stiff and flabby. But if you exercise it regularly, and cross-train, your brain will be flexible, quick, strong and versatile. In one sense, the internet is analogous to a weight-training machine for the brain, as compared with the free weights provided by libraries and books.
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Weight machines are directive and enabling: The internet can be the same: It can substitute surface for depth, imitation for originality, and its passion for recycling would surpass the most committed environmentalist. In 10 years, I've seen students' thinking habits change dramatically: But of course what a Google search provides is not the best, wisest or most accurate answer, but the most popular one. But knowledge is not the same thing as information, and there is no question to my mind that the access to raw information provided by the internet is unparalleled and democratising.
Admittance to elite private university libraries and archives is no longer required, as they increasingly digitise their archives. We've all read the jeremiads that the internet sounds the death knell of reading, but people read online constantly — we just call it surfing now. In the end, the medium is not the message, and the internet is just a medium, a repository and an archive. Its greatest virtue is also its greatest weakness: This means that it is undiscriminating, in both senses of the word.
It is indiscriminate in its principles of inclusion: But it also — at least so far — doesn't discriminate against anyone with access to it. This is changing rapidly, of course, as corporations and governments seek to exert control over it. Knowledge may not be the same thing as power, but it is unquestionably a means to power.
The question is, will we use the internet's power for good, or for evil? The jury is very much out. The internet itself is disinterested: If I were a cow, nothing much would change my brain. I might learn new locations for feeding, but I wouldn't be able to read an essay and decide to change the way I lived my life.
But I'm not a cow, I'm a person, and therefore pretty much everything I come into contact with can change my brain. It's both a strength and a weakness. We can choose to seek out brilliant thinking and be challenged and inspired by it. Or we can find our energy sapped by an evening with a "poor me" friend, or become faintly disgusted by our own thinking if we've read too many romance novels in one go.
As our bodies are shaped by the food we eat, our brains are shaped by what we put into them. So of course the internet is changing our brains. How could it not?
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It's not surprising that we're now more accustomed to reading short-form pieces, to accepting a Wikipedia summary, rather than reading a whole book. The claim that we're now thinking less well is much more suspect. But since we're not going to dismantle the world wide web any time soon, the more important question is: I suspect the answer is as simple as making time for reading. No single medium will ever give our brains all possible forms of nourishment.
We may be dazzled by the flashing lights of the web, but we can still just step away. Sink into the world of a single person's concentrated thoughts. Time was when we didn't need to be reminded to read. Well, time was when we didn't need to be encouraged to cook. None the less, cook. We can decide to change our own brains — that's the most astonishing thing of all.
Whether or not the internet has made a difference to how we use our brains, it has certainly begun to make a difference to how we think about our brains. The internet is a vast and complex network of interconnected computers, hosting an equally complex network — the web — of images, documents and data. The rapid growth of this huge, manmade, information-processing system has been a major factor stimulating scientists to take a fresh look at the organisation of biological information-processing systems like the brain.
It turns out that the human brain and the internet have quite a lot in common. They are both highly non-random networks with a "small world" architecture, meaning that there is both dense clustering of connections between neighbouring nodes and enough long-range short cuts to facilitate communication between distant nodes. Both the internet and the brain have a wiring diagram dominated by a relatively few, very highly connected nodes or hubs; and both can be subdivided into a number of functionally specialised families or modules of nodes.
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It may seem remarkable, given the obvious differences between the internet and the brain in many ways, that they should share so many high-level design features. Why should this be? One possibility is that the brain and the internet have evolved to satisfy the same general fitness criteria. They may both have been selected for high efficiency of information transfer, economical wiring cost, rapid adaptivity or evolvability of function and robustness to physical damage. Networks that grow or evolve to satisfy some or all of these conditions tend to end up looking the same.
Sometimes I think my ability to concentrate is being nibbled away by the internet; other times I think it's being gulped down in huge, Jaws-shaped chunks. In those quaint days before the internet, once you made it to your desk there wasn't much to distract you. You could sit there working or you could just sit there. Now you sit down and there's a universe of possibilities — many of them obscurely relevant to the work you should be getting on with — to tempt you. To think that I can be sitting here, trying to write something about Ingmar Bergman and, a moment later, on the merest whim, can be watching a clip from a Swedish documentary about Don Cherry — that is a miracle albeit one with a very potent side-effect, namely that it's unlikely I'll ever have the patience to sit through an entire Bergman film again.
Then there's the outsourcing of memory. From the age of 16, I got into the habit of memorising passages of poetry and compiling detailed indexes in the backs of books of prose. So if there was a passage I couldn't remember, I would spend hours going through my books, seeking it out. Now, in what TS Eliot, with great prescience, called "this twittering world", I just google the key phrase of the half-remembered quote. Which is great, but it's drained some of the purpose from my life. Exactly the same thing has happened now that it's possible to get hold of out-of-print books instantly on the web.
But one of the side incentives to travel was the hope that, in a bookstore in Oregon, I might finally track down a book I'd been wanting for years. It's curious that some of the most vociferous critics of the internet — those who predict that it will produce generations of couch potatoes, with minds of mush — are the very sorts of people who are benefiting most from this wonderful, liberating, organic extension of the human mind.
They are academics, scientists, scholars and writers, who fear that the extraordinary technology that they use every day is a danger to the unsophisticated. They underestimate the capacity of the human mind — or rather the brain that makes the mind — to capture and capitalise on new ways of storing and transmitting information.
When I was at school I learned by heart great swathes of poetry and chunks of the Bible, not to mention page after page of science textbooks. And I spent years at a desk learning how to do long division in pounds, shillings and pence. What a waste of my neurons, all clogged up with knowledge and rules that I can now obtain with the click of a mouse. I have little doubt that the printing press changed the way that humans used their memories.
It must have put out of business thousands of masters of oral history and storytelling. But our brains are so remarkably adept at putting unused neurons and virgin synaptic connections to other uses. The basic genetic make-up of Homo sapiens has been essentially unchanged for a quarter of a million years. Yet 5, years ago humans discovered how to write and read; 3, years ago they discovered logic; years ago, science. These revolutionary advances in the capacity of the human mind occurred without genetic change. They were products of the "plastic" potential of human brains to learn from their experience and reinvent themselves.
At its best, the internet is no threat to our minds. It is another liberating extension of them, as significant as books, the abacus, the pocket calculator or the Sinclair Z Just as each of those leaps of technology could be and were put to bad use, we should be concerned about the potentially addictive, corrupting and radicalising influence of the internet. But let's not burn our PCs or stomp on our iPads.
Let's not throw away the liberating baby with the bathwater of censorship. The key contextual point here is that the brain is a social organ and is responsive to the environment. All environments are processed by the brain, whether it's the internet or the weather — it doesn't matter. Do these environments change the brain? Well, they could and probably do in evolutionary time.
The internet is just one of a whole range of characteristics that could change the brain and it would do so by altering the speed of learning. But the evidence that the internet has a deleterious effect on the brain is zero. In fact, by looking at the way human beings learn in general, you would probably argue the opposite. If anything, the opportunity to have multiple sources of information provides a very efficient way of learning and certainly as successful as learning through other means. It is being argued that the information coming into the brain from the internet is the wrong kind of information.
But now it makes us twig helplessly to Facebook notifications and the buzz of incoming e-mail. That's why social media apps nag you to turn notifications on. They know that once the icons start flashing onto your lock screen, you won't be able to ignore them. App designers know that nagging works.
In Persuasive Technology , one of the most quietly influential books to come out of Silicon Valley in the past two decades, the Stanford psychologist B. Fogg predicted that computers could and would take massive advantage of our susceptibility to prodding. Published in , Prof. Fogg's book now seems eerily prescient. The makers of smartphone apps rightly believe that part of the reason we're so curious about those notifications is that people are desperately insecure and crave positive feedback with a kneejerk desperation.
Matt Mayberry, who works at a California startup called Dopamine Labs, says it's common knowledge in the industry that Instagram exploits this craving by strategically withholding "likes" from certain users. If the photo-sharing app decides you need to use the service more often, it'll show only a fraction of the likes you've received on a given post at first, hoping you'll be disappointed with your haul and check back again in a minute or two.
Some of the mental quirks smartphones exploit are obvious, others counterintuitive. The principle of "variable rewards" falls into the second camp. Discovered by the psychologist B. Skinner and his acolytes in a series of experiments on rats and pigeons, it predicts that creatures are likelier to seek out a reward if they aren't sure how often it will be doled out. Pigeons, for example, were found to peck a button for food more frequently if the food was dispensed inconsistently rather than reliably each time, the Columbia University law professor Tim Wu recounts in his recent book The Attention Merchants.
So it is with social media apps: Though four out of five Facebook posts may be inane, the "bottomless," automatically refreshing feed always promises a good quip or bit of telling gossip just below the threshold of the screen, accessible with the rhythmic flick of thumb on glass. Apple has made a point of presenting the dopamine dispensers of the mobile internet in the most alluring possible package, one that people would want to and be able to use non-stop — even behind the wheel of a car. Weeks before the iPhone's launch, Apple gave out devices for senior staff to test in the real world.
One engineer took the prototype on a test run to make sure it wasn't overly difficult to text and drive with, according to tech journalist Brian Merchant, who wrote a history of the iPhone. The phone's most seductive quality was its screen. Throughout the iPhone's development, Mr. Jobs fought to proceed without a keyboard, making the screen larger and more immersive. As the product was about to ship , he slammed on the brakes and demanded the case recede infinitesimally so the screen could be made larger still. This was a jarring innovation.
Time magazine's technology writer Lev Grossman was one of the first people outside Apple to see the iPhone, when he was sent to Cupertino, Calif. The screen's unique power to absorb attention quickly became clear, though. In his first piece about the iPhone after its launch, Mr. Grossman gave the iPhone some of its earliest rave reviews, that power to absorb that once seemed so dazzling, has come to trouble him.
O n some level, we know that smartphones are designed to be addictive. The way we talk about them is steeped in the language of dependence, albeit playfully: But the best minds who have studied these devices are saying it's not really a joke. Consider the effect smartphones have on our ability to focus.
In , Microsoft Canada published a report indicating that the average human attention span had shrunk from 12 to eight seconds between and But John Ratey, an associate professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and an expert on attention-deficit disorder, said the problem is actually getting worse. Ratey has noticed a convergence between his ADD patients and the rest of the world. A recent study of Chinese middle schoolers found something similar. Maybe studies like these have gotten so little attention because we already know, vaguely, that smartphones dent concentration — how could a buzzing, flashing computer in our pocket have any other effect?
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Valuable as it is, attention is also easy to squander. When taking in information, our minds are terrible at discerning between the significant and the trivial. So if we're trying to work out a dense mental problem in our heads and our phone pings, we will pay attention to the ping automatically and stop focusing on the mental problem. The average American in was absorbing the equivalent of newspapers a day, via sources as wide-ranging as TV, texting and the internet — five times the amount of information they took in about two decades earlier.
In the smartphone era, that figure can only have grown. Our brains just aren't built for the geysers of information our devices train at them. All that distraction adds up to a loss of raw brain power. The devices exert such a magnetic pull on our minds that just the effort of resisting the temptation to look at them seems to take a toll on our mental performance. That's what Adrian Ward and his colleagues at the University of Texas business school found in an experiment last year.
They had three groups of people take a test that required their full concentration. One group had their phones face down on the table, one had them in their bags or pockets and the last group left them in another room. None of the test-takers were allowed to check their devices during the test.
Some people might be willing to trade 10 IQ points for the pleasures of their smartphone — especially the social pleasures. But 10 years into this age of connectedness, we have learned something troubling: Being connected to everyone all the time makes us less attentive to the people we care about most. Nowhere is the alienating power of smartphones more troubling than in the relationship between parents and children. Put simply, smartphones are making mothers and fathers pay less attention to their kids and it could be causing emotional harm. Researchers at Cambridge University showed recently that eye contact synchronizes the brainwaves of infant and parent, which helps with communication and learning.
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Meeting each other's gaze, Ms. Sandink says, amounts to "a silent language between the baby and the mom. Is the mother losing the hormonal interaction or interplay that baby signals to her? Sandink said in an e-mail. Maybe it's best for children to learn young that their parents frequently find their phone more absorbing than them, because they will learn sooner or later.
Catherine Steiner-Adair, a clinical psychologist and research associate in psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, interviewed 1, kids between the ages of 4 and 18 for her book The Big Disconnect. And it gets worse once they're through the door. One of the smartphone's terrible, mysterious powers, from a child's perspective, is its ability "to pull you away instantly, anywhere, anytime," Dr.
The internet: is it changing the way we think?
Because what's happening on the smartphone screen is inscrutable to others, parents often seem to have simply gotten sucked into another dimension, leaving their kid behind. The digital drift affecting families shows up in national statistics. Distracted parents may even be putting their children at risk of physical harm, Dr. Centers for Disease Control found a per-cent spike in injuries to children under 5 between and , after a long decline. The years coincide with the crash of the American economy, but also with the infancy of the iPhone.
If there's a silver lining to all of this grim evidence, it's that the wages of smartphone addiction are beginning to take hold in people's minds. We're changing our family's MO as of today,'" she said. She's not the only person to notice the beginning of a turning point in the way people relate to their mobile computers.
The belief that smartphones can be socially and mentally harmful — and that their overuse should be stigmatized — is spreading into the culture in little ways. A recent Dilbert cartoon showed a doctor looking wide-eyed at a medical chart and telling his patient, "The MRI shows that your brain has been hijacked by dopamine pirates.
Even comedian Will Ferrell has joined the struggle. In a series of videos produced by Common Sense Media for the U. In one clip, Mr. Ferrell's wife and kids persuade him to place his phone in a basket on the dinner table, but the father finds a loophole: A culture shift is happening in Silicon Valley too. Still, for all the hints of change in the air, Mr. Harris remains on high alert.
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