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Monday, September 20, 2010

Internet Intellects?

We know the internet is changing our way of life in many ways, but do we ever consider how the net is actually changing our minds? Earlier intellectual technologies -- television, radio, the printed page -- have had a tremendous effect on the scope and richness of our intellects. But, the net is a unique multimedia system in its early stages of evaluation. Researchers are currently looking at how using the net relates to cognitive processing and altering the way the brain encodes new information.

Most research acknowledges that the internet strengthens certain cognitive functions but weakens others. And because the neural pathways in our brain adapt readily to experience, the changes occur in the actual cellular wiring of our brains.

Baroness Greenfield, the Oxford University researcher and former head of the UK's Royal Institution, called on the British government and private companies to investigate the effects on our brains of computer games, the internet and social networking. "We should acknowledge that it is bringing an unprecedented change in our lives and we have to work out whether it is for good or bad," she told reporters. (Matt Ford, "Mind Control: Is the Internet Changing How We Think?" CNN, September 17 2010)

Greenfield calls the effect of too much time in front of the computer "mind change." As the internet becomes more and more a part of our work lives, social lives, and education she believes we need to start thinking about where this is leading, now.

According to Nicholas Carr, author of new book, The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to our Brains, "This was true of the map, the alphabet, the clock, and the printing press, and it's true as well of the internet. The net encourages the mental skills associated with the rapid gathering of small bits of information from many sources, but it discourages the kind of deeply attentive thinking that leads to the building of knowledge, conceptual thinking, reflection, and contemplativeness."

What price the internet? While Greenfield acknowledges possible benefits of modern technology including higher IQ and faster processing of information. Questions still loom. Yet does using internet search engines to find facts affect people's ability to learn, to concentrate, and to think? How about the effect of the internet on the brain circuits honed by reading books and thinking about their content?

Sarah-Jayne Blakemore, a cognitive neuroscientist at University College London and co-author of the book The Learning Brain, believes more research is needed to know whether technology is causing significant changes, good or bad, in the brain. "We know nothing at all about how the developing brain is being influenced by video games or social networking and so on... So far, most of the research on how video games affect the brain has been done with adult participants and, perhaps surprisingly, has mostly shown positive effects of gaming on many cognitive abilities." (Ian Sample, "Oxford Scientist Calls For Research On Technology 'Mind Change,'", September 14 2010)

Another study has shown some encouraging results for older adults. Principal investigator Dr. Gary Small, a professor at the Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior at UCLA,  found that for computer-savvy middle-aged and older adults, searching the internet triggers key centers in the brain that control decision-making and complex reasoning. The findings demonstrate that web search activity may help stimulate and possibly improve brain function. (Gary Small, "Your Brain on Google..." American Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry, February 2009)

Small and his colleagues asked Google rookies to go home and train by searching the internet for an hour a day for five days. When the test subjects came back and were rescanned, the researchers found that the net-naive had already increased activation in the frontal areas where they had previously lagged behind the net-savvy.

But, Small also says in digital natives (young people who typically spend too much time online), he has repeatedly seen a lack of human contact skills – "maintaining eye contact, or noticing non-verbal cues in a conversation."

Small also fears that texting and instant messaging may already be dampening human creativity because "we're not thinking outside the box, by ourselves – we're constantly vetting all our new ideas with our friends." He warns that multitasking is "not an efficient way to do things: we make far more errors, and there's a tendency to do things faster, but sloppier." (John Harris, "How the Internet Is Altering Your Mind,", August 20, 2010)

It is evident more study is required to see the long-term effects of the internet on the brain. Surprisingly little research has looked into the effect of the internet on the brain. One thing is certain. People are using the net in increasingly large doses to access information. In 2008, people consumed three times as much information each day as they did in 1960. And they are constantly shifting their attention. Computer users at work change windows or check e-mail or other programs nearly 37 times an hour, new research shows. (Matt Richtel, "Attached To Technology and Paying a Price," The New York Times, June 6 2010)

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