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Sunday, 15 August 2010

The internet: is it changing the way we think?

According to the American writer Nicholas Carr, the internet is not only shaping our lives but physically altering our brains. This topic has sparked a lively and ongoing debate among denizens of the web and the more well-read literati.

"Over the past few years," Carr writes, "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's changing. I'm not thinking the way I used to think. I can feel it most strongly when I'm reading. Immersing myself in a book or a lengthy article used to be easy. My mind would get caught up in the narrative or the turns of the argument and I'd spend hours strolling through long stretches of prose. That's rarely the case anymore. Now my concentration often starts to drift after two or three pages. I get fidgety, lose the thread, begin looking for something else to do. I feel as if I'm always dragging my wayward brain back to the text. The deep reading that used to come naturally has become a struggle."

I'm sure we are all to some extent aware of this situation. I too remember times when I would have to unpick dense, complex words on a page but can't remember the last time I did that. So what is happening?

According to the writer of the article "The internet: is it changing the way we think?" - "The title of the essay is misleading, because Carr's target was not really the world's leading search engine, but the impact that ubiquitous, always-on networking is having on our cognitive processes. His argument was that our deepening dependence on networking technology is indeed changing not only the way we think, but also the structure of our brains."

Carr's article touched a nerve and has provoked a lively, ongoing debate on the net and in print (he has now expanded it into a book, "The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains"). This is partly because he's an engaging writer who has vividly articulated the unease that many adults feel about the way their modi operandi have changed in response to ubiquitous networking. Who bothers to write down or memorise detailed information any more, for example, when they know that Google will always retrieve it if it's needed again? The web has become, in a way, a global prosthesis for our collective memory.

You can't help but agree and and surmise that maybe it is a form of brain drain. Put it this way, if it were coming from a medical doctor, the prognosis wouldn't be good. We are not only reading less but we are reading material that has already been processed much of the time into bite sized digestible chunks leaving our brains free to do other less challenging tasks. This means our brains are being asked to do less and less, or does it? Couldn't it just mean we are seeing another leap in evolutionary terms? A kind of quantum leap with technology aiding us in rewiring or maybe hot wiring our brains to think and respond in different new and novel ways?

Could it be yet another example of the "use it or lose it" dynamic? Sarah Churchwell, academic and critic says - "...what I can attest to is that the internet is changing our habits of thinking, which isn't the same thing as changing our brains. The brain is like any other muscle – if you don't stretch it, it gets both stiff and flabby. But if you exercise it regularly, and cross-train, your brain will be flexible, quick, strong and versatile."

Overall, we have to decide whether it is a good thing or just just a symptom of our sanitised pop culture world? You be the judge...

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