21 Oct 2010

Too much of a good thing?

For many of us, technology has changed our lives considerably over the last few years, most noticeably through the use of the internet. But has technology also changed our minds?

There is a growing belief that our dependence on the Internet is affecting the way we think and even the fabric of our brains. Nicholas Carr brought this to prominence with an article in Atlantic magazine entitled ‘Is Google Making Us Stupid?’ (July/August issue, 2008). His argument wasn’t that the search engine itself was affecting our intelligence, but rather our concentration and the way we now access and use information.

As Carr puts it:

“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."

The argument is that information is so easy to find that we don’t write it down any longer, and a lot of us flick through emails and websites so frequently we’ve got used to digesting larger quantities but smaller chunks of data.

Scientists have long known that our brains change depending on how we use it. Studies have shown that taxi drivers have a larger hippocampus compared to other people - the part of the brain associated with navigation in animals. Similarly, people who can’t read have a different brain structure to those who can. If the advent of the printing press could have changed our grey matter, then could modern technology as well?

Neuroscientists and psychologists are split, and as yet, there is no evidence to back this up. We could all be reducing our concentration span, or it could be another example of fear of a changing world. After all, the ancient  Druids banned writing, believing it to have an adverse impact on memory.


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