The Difference Engine: Rewiring the brain

Posted by Celia Walter | 1 Sep, 2010

IT’S a question that’s bothered cultural critics for decades: while we know more than ever, are we getting dumber as a result of the increasing amount of technology at our disposal?


The current debate about intelligence, sparked by Nicholas Carr’s recent and eminently readable “The Shallows”, asks what is the internet doing to our brains? Like Susan Jacoby’s “The Age of American Unreason” and Adam Winer’s “How Dumb Are You?” earlier in the decade, Mr Carr taps into the sense of despair among American intellectuals about the country’s poor educational showing when compared with other countries.


What seems to be forgotten in the rush to judgment about the internet making us dumber is that the brain’s basic architecture is created by genetic programs and biochemical interactions that do their job long before a child starts tapping away at a keyboard. “There is simply no experimental evidence to show that living with new technologies fundamentally changes brain organisation in a way that affects one’s ability to focus,” say Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons, psychologists at Union College, New York, and the University of Illinois, respectively. 

The danger, if there is one, is that the easy, on-demand access to reams of information from the internet may delude us into mistaking the data we download for genuine wisdom worth acting upon. The internet is just another reference source, albeit one on steroids that sucks up content so fast that little of it ever gets peer reviewed. Only fools would venture into such a forest with anything less than their eyes wide open and their brains fully engaged. Fortunately, there are fewer fools around than some of the scaremongers like to think.


From The Economist Babbage blog