Wednesday, 1 September 2010

This Is Your Brain on A Series Of Tubes

I was going to call this post "OMG The Intertubes Are Ruining Everything Forever: The Nicholas Carr Story", but I dialed down the snark a little. Just a wee bit. Hardly any at all, now that I think about it, given that I included that other title regardless. Hm. Oh well.

The reason for this post is this article over at New Scientist. It's a brief interview with Nicholas Carr, author of a new book called The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains.

The basic tenet of this book seems to be that the internet is ruining our capacity for extended concentration. As the article at New Scientist says, "by reshaping our minds, the internet is robbing us of the ability to think critically and creatively."

The problem seems to be that the majority of his evidence is either anecdotal or nonspecific.

Anecdotal: "A few years ago I noticed I was having trouble concentrating. When I sat down to read a lengthy article or book, I'd find it difficult to maintain focus for more than a few minutes. My mind wanted to behave the way it did when I was online: juggling lots of things and digging around for bits of information instead of focusing on one thing. The book is an attempt to get to the bottom of this."

Nonspecific: "Unfortunately, there's not a lot of physiological evidence to show how the net affects the brain - but there's some, and it is compelling. One study from the University of California, Los Angeles, for instance, shows fairly extensive changes in patterns of brain activation from moderate use of search engines."

I can only believe that the UCLA study he is referring to this one (reported about here), as there aren't likely to be two groups of people at UCLA studying the effects of search engine use on the brain.

Basically, the idea of the study was to scan the brains of two groups of people: "net-naive" (people who hadn't had much previous use of search engines) and "net-savvy" (people who had). First they scanned their brains while they were reading text, then they scanned them while using search engines. Then they did the scans a week later, after the "net-naive" folks had been using the internet for a week.

What they found was that the brains lit up the same way when they were reading text, and it was in the search engine task that things differed. During the first scan, the "net-naive" subjects' brains lit up the same way as if they were reading text. The "net-savvy" subjects' brains had those areas lit up plus other areas. After a week, both groups had the same readings, as the "net-naive" subjects had, in effect, become "net-savvy".

According to the study: "the Net Savvy group demonstrated significant increases in signal intensity in additional regions controlling decision making, complex reasoning, and vision".

So back to Nicholas Carr. He calls this evidence "compelling" and implies very strongly that it supports his theory that the internet is ruining our ability to "focus on one thing". What it says to me is that not only is your brain focusing while using the net (to the same degree as when reading text), it's also making decisions, reasoning, and making visual distinctions (ones presumably not being done during the reading of text alone).

Does this mean we're more distracted? I don't think so. Think about it this way, as two different skill sets, say, fixing a watch and juggling. If you can fix a watch or juggle, that's great. If you can fix a watch while juggling, that's something else. But I have a hard time understanding how being able to fix a watch while juggling would negatively impact your ability to do either on its own. In fact, your brain would probably find it easier to do each alone, without the distraction of the other.

If he wanted a study that backed up his claims, he'd need one that showed that after internet use, the parts of the brain associated with focusing on a single task were activated to a lesser extent than they were before. And this study doesn't do that.

In fact, what this study does is the following:

It shows that "internet searching may engage a greater extent of neural circuitry not activated while reading text pages but only in people with prior computer and Internet search experience. These observations suggest that in middle-aged and older adults, prior experience with Internet searching may alter the brain's responsiveness [read: increase the speed of the brain's responses] in neural circuits controlling decision making and complex reasoning."

What the study doesn't do: shows that the internet is ruining our attention spans.
What the study does do: shows that the internet is helping us make decisions faster.
These are not the same.

Enter me, editorializing:

Every now and then someone trots out another article or book talking about how technology is ruining everything forever. TV is rotting our brains; video games are making us violent; the internet is giving us ADHD. But like all things, it's a matter of circumstance and degree. Just as some tv shows are mind-rotting garbage, some video games look as though they were designed by Ted Bundy, and some parts of the internet are, well, "goatse", by the same token some tv shows are edifying, some video games can stimulate the imagination, and some parts of the internet are actually about the spread of intelligent discourse (not here so much, but some parts).

I guess what I'm saying is, if the internet were really ruining our ability to focus, then as someone who spends a stupid amount of time on it, I should be a prime candidate.

And I just wrote a thousand-word response to an article I stumbled upon this morning. How's that for focus?


Vaulting said...

"...some parts of the internet are actually about the spread of intelligent discourse (not here so much, but some parts)."

Speak for yourself! I'll have you know that I'm working on an extremely illuminating post about medieval games you can play for free online. The spread of intelligent knowledge is indeed alive and well!

PS - nice post ^__^

Anonymous said...

Links to some actual data on this, statistically significant sort of data, and my lengthy waffle on the subject, here, if you're interested.

Vellum said...

A very interesting study. Like you, I was surprised by the idea that anyone would try a web search in a non-boolean form. Why on earth would you type a whole question? go to wolframalpha if that's what you want.

I'll make it a point of teaching any future students a brief lesson in "how to use the internet for good (not evil)" starting with how to properly write a search string. Vaulting's searches always reveal more interesting things than mine. Her google-fu is strong.