Ed. Note: this article originally appeared on Dr. Merzenich’s blog On The Brain on August 11, 2008. It references an article by Nicholas Carr, who has recently tackled the topic in greater depth in a new book The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains. In light of the recent book release, we thought it would be interesting to revisit Dr. Merzenich’s response to Mr. Carr’s original article.
In the July-August 2008 issue of the Atlantic Monthly, Nicolas Carr asks us the interesting question: “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” The article appeared at an interesting time for me, because I had been invited to deliver a lecture at Google about 2 weeks before its publication, and I had already asked Google employees the same question. My way of phrasing it: “There is absolutely no question that modern search engines and cross-referenced websites have powerfully enabled research and communication efficiencies. There is also absolutely no question that our brains are engaged less directly and more shallowly in the synthesis of information, when we use research strategies that are all about “efficiency”, “secondary (and out-of-context) referencing”, and “once over, lightly”.”
We know that brains grow and elaborate and strengthen when they are challenged, and that they change little when solutions are easy to come by. We know that brains differentially strengthen specific heavily-exercised processes. The hippocampus of a trained London taxi driver, we know as an example, is highly developed, relatively to a typical London citizen. What do you suppose happens to that hippocampus when we mount a GPS unit in the taxi, or in the typical London citizen’s vehicle? ‘Tis not a pretty picture, brain-wise!
When culture drives changes in the ways that we engage our brains, it creates different brains. Mr. Carr records a beautiful statement from the psychologist Maryanne Wolf (a reading expert from Tufts University) that sums it all up: “We are not only what we read. We are how we read.” For “we”, you can substitute “our brains”, because they (they meaning “you” and “your brain”) are synonymous.
“Hey, wait a minute”, you holler. “Aren’t Google and the Internet a tremendous positive advance, for incredibly richly supporting our personal education and research?”
Yes, they are. Personally, it is difficult imagining living without them, or without modern technology in general. But at the same time, their heavy use has neurological consequences. No one yet knows exactly what those consequences are.