It used to be thought that the adult human brain was pretty much wired, or rather soldered, into place; that the enormous task of creating neural routes for data consumption and assimilation was accomplished during youth. Yet recent studies of the brain — which areas are active and which lay dormant — show that dynamic changes in specific brain areas can be changed — are being changed — by using Google and the Internet.
The basic question comes down to: is the Internet making us dumber or smarter? Or are there some more subtle, ambiguous changes taking place?
Rewiring vs Rerouting
Our brains are composed of hundred of billions of neurons, most with specialized tasks such as keeping us breathing, our hearts beating etc. But the cells used for cognition and learning are more flexible, and what was once considered hardwired has been found to be nearly infinitely malleable. Yes, Googling and skimming the results do change neural pathways, that is not disputed. The argument arises as to whether the rewiring benefits us or reduces our cognitive abilities.
Several experiments have employed the new technology of MRIs, which allow us to see which part of the brain is firing when exposed to certain stimulation, and it appears that searching the net and skimming the results can produce the same results in about a week for older, new first time users, as it already has with experienced users.
Think about all the possible combinations of interaction those billions of brain cells can form. I’ve learned from first-hand experience that the brain can be rewired at its most basic level. The sense of smell is located in an ancient area of the brain known as the limbic system, which unlike the other senses has immediate access to the brain. It is located near the center of the brain linked to the central nervous system. The structures of the limbic system and the CNS work together to produce a wide variety of behaviors including memory, emotions and motivation.
One would think that these ancient structures would be the hardest wired of them all. It used to be thought that brain cells, neurons, do not get replaced if they are damaged by accident or illness. They do, albeit in very small and singular cases. But the brain has other ways of coping in such situations. Pathways in the brain are capable of rerouting in the event of damage.
My Own Brain Damage
When I was in my forties I had a severe case of flu. I stood up too quickly and fainted, smacking the back of my head square against the wall. The force of the blow was transmitted to my olfactory receptors and I immediately lost my sense of smell.
“Damn, just what I needed — brain damage.”
I saw a neurologist who told me sorry but there was nothing he could do. As you know the sense of smell is what gives food its flavor, and just as one loses that sense during a bad cold, I apparently lost it forever.
But in this case the neurologist was wrong. After a year or so I began to notice the scent of perfume and deodorant, fleetingly but with increasing frequency. Food, which had tasted like sand for a year, would throw out subtle hints of flavor. Within a few months I regained my sense of smell completely. The doctors told me that the damaged part of my brain had not been repaired, but rather had rewired new pathways to restore what had been lost.
That is why I’m fascinated by the new research into the effect of the Internet on the brain.
About five years ago a technologist named Nicholas Carr wrote a controversial article for The Atlantic titled “Is Google Making Us Stupid?”
He has since expanded the article into a book.
“Over the past few years I’ve had an uncomfortable sense that someone, or something, has been tinkering with my brain, remapping the neural circuitry, reprogramming the memory.
“My mind isn’t going — so far as I can tell — but it is changing. I am not thinking the way I used to think.”
He noticed, specifically, among his friends, a similar trend. They can’t seem to concentrate on any one article or long form story for more than a few minutes at a time. Some can no longer read books. A doctor said he could no longer read and retain a long article. Another said he could no longer read War and Peace.
So Carr interviewed linguists, psychiatrists and psychologists who almost unanimously agreed that the Internet is indeed rewiring our brains.
Win some, lose some
But every new media technology is condemned by some very bright people. Plato recorded Socrates’ complaint that reading and writing, which would subsume the oral tradition, would result in making us dumber, since reading would replace memory. The printing press was also the subject of much controversy, with its critics claiming it would give voice to the ignorant and the foolish, thereby debasing the level of discourse among common men.
The same was said about radio and TV. Interestingly nobody condemned encyclopedias, for some unknown reason.
But the difference between the Internet and these other media is that it combines most forms of them all. Along with books, music, movies, art and news the net also contains the whole of human knowledge, if one knows where to look. Google is conducting thousands of experiments trying to determine the best way to collect, collate, and make this vast trove accessible to everyone, regardless of their computer proficiency.
But as we spend more time with our Internet-connected devices, we are forced into thinking in new ways. Hyperlinks in articles are not digitally analogous to footnotes. They propel us, rather than guide us, to new articles, often to the point where we never return to the source.
Paul Croke, former newspaper editor and longtime Washington DC area freelance writer, has loved gadgets and consumer electronics since he saw his first Dick Tracy watch. He writes about consumer technology.