Yesterday, I finished reading The Shallows by Nicholas Carr, and I must say it’s a fascinating and somewhat foreboding read. In the next few days I hope to have some summarizing thoughts for you all, but I just wanted to whet your appetites with a brief passage today.
In a 2005 interview, Michael Merzenich ruminated on the Internet’s power to cause not just modest alterations but fundamental changes in our mental makeup. Noting that “our brain is modified on a substantial scale, physically and functionally, each time we learn a new skill or develop a new ability,” he described the Net as the latest in a series of “modern cultural specializations” that “contemporary humans can spend millions of ‘practice’ events at (and that) the average human a thousand years ago had absolutely no exposure to.” He concluded that “our brains are massively remodeled by this exposure.” He returned to this theme in a post on his blog in 2008 resorting to capital letters to emphasize his points. “When culture drives changes in the ways that we engage our brains, it creates DIFFERENT brains,” he wrote, noting that our minds “strengthen specific heavily-exercised processes.” While acknowledging that it’s now hard to imagine living without the Internet and online tools like the Google search engine, he stressed that “THEIR HEAVY USE HAS NEUROLOGICAL CONSEQUENCES.”
What we’re not doing when we’re online also has neurological consequences. Just as neurons that fire together wire together, neurons that don’t fire together don’t wire together. As the time we spend scanning Web pages crowds out the time we spend reading books, as the time we spend exchanging bite-sized text messages crowds out the time we spend composing sentences and paragraphs, as the time we spend hopping across links crowds out the time we devote to quiet reflection and contemplation, the circuits that support those old intellectual functions and pursuits weaken and begin to break apart. The brain recycles the disused neurons and synapses for other, more pressing work. We gain new skills and perspectives but lose old ones. (Carr, 119-120)
Yes, our brains are literally rewiring themselves because of our extended use of online technologies and screen time. These changes impact the way we think, feel, connect, remember, work, and worship. And dare I say, the results of these changes do not all appear to be for the better. Only time will reveal the full impact of these changes on ourselves and society, but as Carr later suggests, we owe it to ourselves to consider what we stand to lose in the process.