Your Brain Online

By Begley, Sharon | Newsweek, January 18, 2010 | Go to article overview

Your Brain Online


Begley, Sharon, Newsweek


Byline: Sharon Begley

Does the Web change how we think?

Shortened attention span. Less interest in reflection and introspection. Inability to engage in in-depth thought. Fragmented, distracted thinking.

The ways the Internet supposedly affects thought are as apocalyptic as they are speculative, since all the above are supported by anecdote, not empirical data. So it is refreshing to hear how 109 philosophers, neurobiologists, and other scholars answered, "How is the Internet changing the way you think?" That is the "annual question" at the online salon edge.org, where every year science impresario, author, and literary agent John Brockman poses a puzzler for his flock of scientists and other thinkers.

Although a number of contributors drivel on about, say, how much time they waste on e-mail, the most striking thing about the 50-plus answers is that scholars who study the mind and the brain, and who therefore seem best equipped to figure out how the Internet alters thought, shoot down the very idea. "The Internet hasn't changed the way we think," argues neuroscientist Joshua Greene of Harvard. It "has provided us with unprecedented access to information, but it hasn't changed what [our brains] do with it." Cognitive psychologist Steven Pinker of Harvard is also skeptical. "Electronic media aren't going to revamp the brain's mechanisms of information processing," he writes. "Texters, surfers, and twitterers" have not trained their brains "to process multiple streams of novel information in parallel," as is commonly asserted but refuted by research, and claims to the contrary "are propelled by?.?.?.?the pressure on pundits to announce that this or that 'changes everything.' "

And yet. Many scholars do believe the Internet alters thinking, and offer provocative examples of how--many of them surprisingly dystopian. Communications scholar Howard Rheingold believes the Internet fosters "shallowness, credulity, distraction," with the result that our minds struggle "to discipline and deploy attention in an always-on milieu." (Though having to make a decision every time a link appears--to click or not to click?--may train the mind's decision-making networks.) The Internet is also causing the "disappearance of retrospection and reminiscence," argues Evgeny Morozov, an expert on the Internet and politics. …

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