The mental consequences of our online
info-crunching are not universally bad.
Certain cognitive skills are strengthened by our use
of computers and the Net. These tend to involve
*5*more primitive mental functions, such as hand-eye
coordination, reflex response ,and the processing of
visual cues. One much-cited study of video gaming
revealed that after just 10 days of playing action
games on computers, a group of young people had
*10*significantly boosted the speed with which they could
shift their visual focus between various images and
It`s likely that Web browsing also strengthens
brain functions related to fast-paced problem
*15*solving, particularly when it requires spotting
patterns in a welter of data. A British study of the
way women search for medical information online
indicated that an experienced Internet user can, at
least in some cases, assess the trustworthiness and
*20*probable value of a Web page in a matter of seconds.
The more we practice surfing and scanning, the more
adept our brain becomes at those tasks.
But it would be a serious mistake to look narrowly
at such benefits and conclude that the Web is making
*25*us smarter. In a Science article published in early
2009, prominent developmental psychologist Patricia
Greenfield reviewed more than 40 studies of the
effects of various types of media on intelligence and
learning ability. She concluded that" every medium
*30*develops some cognitive skills at the expense of
others. "Our growing use of the Net and other
screen-based technologies, she wrote, has led to the
" widespread and sophisticated development of
visual-spatial skills . "But those gains go hand in hand
*35*with a weakening of our capacity for the kind of
" deep processing "that underpins" mindful
knowledge acquisition, inductive analysis, critical
thinking, imagination, and reflection."
We know that the human brain is highly
*40*plastic; neurons and synapses change as
circumstances change. When we adapt to a new
cultural phenomenon, including the use of a new
medium, we end up with a different brain, says
Michael Merzenich, a pioneer of the field of
*45*neuro plasticity. That means our online habits
continue to reverberate in the workings of our brain
25 cells even when we`re not at a computer. We`re
exercising the neural circuits devoted to skimming
and multitasking while ignoring those used for
*50*reading and thinking deeply.
Critics of new media sometimes use science itself
to press their case, citing research that shows how
" experience can change the brain ."But cognitive
neuroscientists roll their eyes at such talk. Yes, every
*55*time we learn a fact or skill the wiring of the brain
changes ; it`s not as if the information is stored in the
pancreas. But the existence of neural plasticity does
not mean the brain is a blob of clay pounded into
shape by experience.
*60* Experience does not revamp the basic
information-processing capacities of the brain.
Speed-reading programs have long claimed to do just
that, but the verdict was rendered by Woody Allen
after he read Leo Tolstoy`s famously long novel
*65*War and Peace in one sitting :"It was about Russia. "
Genuine multitasking, too, has been exposed as a
myth, not just by laboratory studies but by the
familiar sight of an SUV undulating between lanes as
the driver cuts deal son his cell phone.
*70* Moreover, the effects of experience are highly
specific to the experiences themselves. If you train
people to do one thing (recognize shapes, solve math
puzzles , find hidden words),they get better at doing
that thing, but almost nothing else. Music doesn`t
*75*make you better at math, conjugating Latin doesn`t
make you more logical, brain-training games don`t
make you smarter. Accomplished people don`t bulk
up their brains with intellectual calisthenics; they
immerse themselves in their fields. Novelists read
*80*lots of novels, scientists read lots of science.
The effects of consuming electronic media are
likely to be far more limited than the panic implies.
Media critics write as if the brain takes on the
qualities of whatever it consumes, the informational
*85*equivalent of" you are what you eat ."As with ancient
peoples who believed that eating fierce animals made
them fierce, they assume that watching quick cuts in
rock videos turns your mental life into quick cuts or
that reading bullet points and online postings turns
*90*your thoughts into bullet point sand on line postings.