We hear so much these days about the plasticity of the human brain – its ability to adapt to changing demands and circumstances. If our neural architecture is forever being redrawn to meet our daily challenges then it makes you wonder about the inordinate amounts of time many of us now spend surfing the internet, flicking feverishly from one link to the next. Writing in Atlantic Monthly, Nicholas Carr believes our new digital habits are having real psychological effects:
“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.”
This description certainly strikes a chord with me. When I go on holiday and subject myself to a self-imposed internet ban, I’m sure it takes me several days to overcome the information withdrawal that ensues. Carr too thinks we’re growing dependent on a constant stream of information:
“…the Net seems to be…chipping away my capacity for concentration and contemplation. My mind now expects to take in information the way the Net distributes it: in a swiftly moving stream of particles. Once I was a scuba diver in the sea of words. Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski.”
Carr isn’t the first person to recognise the possible psychological effects that the internet might be having on us. For some time, neuroscientist Professor Susan Greenfield has been warning that the immediacy and short-term excitement of screen interaction is stripping away our ability to follow a narrative and to understand context (you can hear Greenfield discuss her worries on Radio 4’s Start the Week).
However, it’s easy to forget that humans have always adapted to changing technologies. There’s nothing to suggest that the impact of the internet or computer use on our brains and behaviour will be on a different scale to previous new technologies.
Indeed, over at Mind Hacks, Vaughan Bell recently uncovered an article about the 19th century neurologists George Beard and Silas Weir Mitchell who were worried about the pace of life and the harmful effect new technologies were having on the brains of American citizens.
As Vaughan says, the article provides “a lovely illustration of the fact that since the dawn of popular medicine, our cultural concerns about changes in society are likely to be expressed in the language of illness and disease.”
“This is not to say that all fears about new technologies are unfounded,” he adds “but it’s clear that they are quickly medicalised and get far more prominence than the evidence supports, both in the 19th century and in the 21st.”
Link to Atlantic Monthly article.
Link to Nicholas Carr’s Blog.
Link to Susan Greenfield describing her concerns on BBC Radio 4’s Start the Week.
Link to Vaughan Bell providing some historical context at Mind Hacks.