Technology and the Brain

Over the weekend, the Wall Street Journal (“Does the Internet Make You Dumber?” by Nicholas Carr) and the New York Times (“Hooked on Gadgets, and Paying a Mental Price” by Matt Richtel) both ran articles on people whose mental agility was suffering from too much information all the time from the Internet. Both articles could leave the impression that technology is a real problem for people and has primarily negative consequences.

But people use their technology in very different ways, so it’s very important to carefully sort out exactly what these articles are saying . . . and what they’re not saying.

The Wall Street Journal article focuses on the results of constant distraction and interruption: an increase in “visual literacy skills” at the cost of less rigorous thought.

One story is told of a class at Cornell University in which some students could use Internet-connected laptops during a lecture, while other students had to shut their computers. Carr notes that the students who browsed the Web had less retention. But the article doesn’t address what happened if students took notes on their laptops vs. taking notes by hand. Notes taken with a laptop could potentially be more detailed (if one is a fast typist) and more legible – and therefore lead to greater and deeper understanding. This, however, is not addressed.

Carr contrasts the Internet and books, saying, “Reading a long sequence of pages helps us develop a rare kind of mental discipline.” Some of the use to which people put the Internet is reading long pages of journal articles and in-depth email communications. The Internet and “scattered” do not have to coincide. It’s perhaps a bit ironic that Carr doesn’t acknowledge that people are using the Internet to read the very article in which he is saying that using the Internet is making us lose our mental discipline!

Richtel’s article—which, being quite a bit longer than Carr’s, invites the reader to an even more in-depth and thoughtful experience—reports the tale of a man who overlooked the most important communication of his life in an overflowing email inbox. It broadens out to discuss his family and the effects that technology is having on their individual lives and family life.

Richtel discusses the stimulation provided by multitasking and an ongoing flow of information and the lasting effects becoming inured to being barraged can have on the brain and on the person’s extra-Internet life, with disconnected thoughts and inability to focus. Because the family Richtel focuses on is struggling with gadget over-use (addiction?) the article has a negative tone overall.

Both articles make the point that it is possible to use technology in ways that affect our brains, our work, and our family lives for the worse. What they don’t aim to do is show the other side of the picture. And that is why it’s very important for the reader to approach these articles with thought and care—to see what they’re saying and what they’re not saying. Once that’s clear, then considering whether one wants to make a change in the way one is using technology is a good thing to consider.