Does The Internet Make You Smart or Stupid, Thoughtful or Forgetful?

For whatever reason, a number of articles appeared this past weekend in the Wall Street Journal, Washington Post and New York Times on the cognitive impacts of the Internet. Negative impacts seem to be outweighing the positive, if you read the stories.

On Saturday, for instance, there were two essays in the Wall Street Journal debating whether the Internet makes you smart or dumb.

Arguing that Internet makes you smarter was Clay Shirky, author of the book, "Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age." Mr. Shirky argues that while, "The bulk of publicly available media is now created by people who understand little of the professional standards and practices for media," over the long-term, the Internet will eventually make "the good stuff possible."

Mr. Shirky argues that all media technology revolutions from Gutenberg's press onward have given rise to complaints about "eroding cultural norms about quality and acceptability, and leading to increasingly alarmed predictions of incipient chaos and intellectual collapse."

Just be patient, Mr. Shirky says; "new norms" will be created "around (the) newly abundant and contemporary literature" which will in turn create a new reading and writing culture.

Arguing that the Internet "with its constant distractions and interruptions, is also turning us into scattered and superficial thinkers" is Nicholas Carr, author of "The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains."

Mr. Carr cites the results from several cognitive researchers that he says presents a "deeply troubling" picture "at least to anyone who values the depth, rather than just the velocity, of human thought."

Mr. Carr writes that,

 "People who read text studded with links, the studies show, comprehend less than those who read traditional linear text. People who watch busy multimedia presentations remember less than those who take in information in a more sedate and focused manner. People who are continually distracted by emails, alerts and other messages understand less than those who are able to concentrate. And people who juggle many tasks are less creative and less productive than those who do one thing at a time."

Mr. Carr also had a similar piece in Sunday's Washington Post, arguing that Google Maps and GPS may also be bad for our brains. He again cites studies that postulate that Google Maps, GPS and the like may be reducing the size of our hippocampus, which he writes, "is thought to be the place where we store maps of our surroundings. It plays a crucial role in our ability to keep track of where we are and to get from one place to another."

In addition, Mr. Carr writes,

"But here's the really scary part. In addition to stockpiling mental maps, the hippocampus plays an essential role in creating and storing memories. Some studies have found, in fact, that a shrinking hippocampus is a risk factor for Alzheimer's disease."

Mr. Carr cites Véronique Bohbot, a professor of psychiatry at McGill University in Montreal, who he quotes as saying,

"Society is geared in many ways toward shrinking the hippocampus... In the next twenty years, I think we're going to see dementia occurring earlier and earlier."

For those interested, Mr. Carr also had a longer article on the Internet potentially making us all dumber in the July/August 2008 Atlantic magazine.  The comments alone are worth a read.

Then, in Sunday's New York Times, there were two more stories (here and here) about how digital devices and the Internet were making us all forgetful and impatient. Furthermore, for many, removing their technological tethers is nearly unbearable.

This Times story says that researchers are finding that,

 "While many people say multitasking makes them more productive, research shows otherwise. Heavy multitaskers actually have more trouble focusing and shutting out irrelevant information, scientists say, and they experience more stress."

"And scientists are discovering that even after the multitasking ends, fractured thinking and lack of focus persist. In other words, this is also your brain off computers."

The other Times story says another potential problem is that digital technology means that we never throw stuff away, "causing us to retain many old and unnecessary memories at the expense of making new ones."

By the way, Mr. Shirky says in his piece that, "The present is, as noted, characterized by lots of throwaway cultural artifacts, but the nice thing about throwaway material is that it gets thrown away." A bit of contradiction here, I believe.

Anyway, is the Internet, along with all our digital devices, and the capability to archive just about everything we read or receive really making us smarter or stupider, more forgetful or less? Or is it all a wash?

Sound off.

There is also this opinion piece in the August 2009 IEEE Spectrum to consider that discusses the increasing use of neuroenhancement drugs to boost our brain power and memory. Are they a potential answer?

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