The Internet brought us email, instant messaging, and online searching. We can find information and exchange it at lightning-speed compared to 20 years ago. With a smartphone, you can connect to the Web as you travel, at all times of day. People have worried that the Net is rewiring our brains, destroying our capacity to focus, stealing our memories, and generally dumbing us down. There’s little evidence of it, so far, and some that spending time on the Internet enhances our cognitive abilities.
Still, people have publicly said they thought they were experiencing bad effects. In 2008, the writer Nicholas Carr asked in The Atlantic Monthly, “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” He later wrote the book, “The Shallows: How the Internet is Changing the Way We Think, Read and Remember.” He confessed that “the Net seems to be…chipping away my capacity for concentration and contemplation….Once I was a scuba diver in the sea of words. Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a jet ski.”
Technological change tends to produce these worries, neuroscientist writer Christian Jarrett notes in “Great Myths of the Brain.” In 1566, a Swiss scientist named Conrad Gessner fretted that the printing press would cause confusing information overload. The appearance of radio and then TV led to public concern about distraction and lost conversation. All change creates the possibility of anxiety, psychologists tell us.
Clearly, the arrival of personal electronic devices and sprawling Wi-Fi has created temptation to browse and multi-task. People aren’t as good as multi-tasking as they often think they are, and when you’re being ignored by someone playing with his phone rudeness can look like stupidity.
But this doesn’t mean we’re becoming less adept at mental tasks, only that we’re using our time differently. Carr says that easy browsing is making us less introspective. However, computer use can be stimulating, too. In one 2009 study, researchers scanned the brains of 24 volunteers aged 55 to 76, while they read from a book and then while they conducted searches online. Half of the group were considered Web-savvy. When they were Web-searching, the brain scans showed that areas associated with decision making and complex reasoning lit up — more so than when they were reading. Jarrett reports unpublished research at the University of Arizona with elderly subjects who had been trained to use Facebook for two months. They showed an improvement of 25 percent on tests of working memory, beating a control group that kept online diaries but didn’t use Facebook.
People who use computers tend to show up as smarter, for instance in a 2010 study that examined the abilities of 2,671 people aged 32 to 84. After controlling for age, sex, education, and health status, the researchers concluded that individuals who frequently used a computer scored significantly higher on a cognitive skills test than those who seldom did. Did computer use boost ability? The scientists argued yes. They also said this may be especially so for people with less ability and for men. Avoiding the new technology seems a good way to get left behind in a time of rapid change.
There does appear to be evidence that hand-writing, rather than tapping keys, helps us think. But we can teach kids to write without taking away their phones, and instead urge them to use those phones to look up facts whenever necessary. How many raging dinner-table arguments are now quickly resolved by a Google search?
April 27, 2015
Christopher Nystuen, MD, MBA