As the Internet Rewires Our Brains

By Kurt Cagle
February 28, 2009 | Comments: 3

The Internet, ironically, has been abuzz this week with dire news about how the Social Media and the Internet itself is stunting our mental growth, is turning us into idiot savants, Aspergers and reverting our brains to a more primitive state. The first such statement came from Lady Greenfield, an Oxford University neurologist, baroness, and director of the Royal Institution in England, who warned that sites such as Facebook and Twitter were contributing to the decline of critical skills in children who used them heavily, claiming that repeated exposure could effectively rewire the brain.

In a speech earlier to the House of Lords, she told the assembled members of Parliament that 'I often wonder whether real conversation in real time may eventually give way to these sanitised and easier screen dialogues, in much the same way as killing, skinning and butchering an animal to eat has been replaced by the convenience of packages of meat on the supermarket shelf,'.

Additionally, Lady Greenfield told the Lords a teacher of 30 years had told her she had noticed a sharp decline in the ability of her pupils to understand others.

'It is hard to see how living this way on a daily basis will not result in brains, or rather minds, different from those of previous generations,' she said.

She did admit that people with autism spectrum disorders were able to better communicate via such services, but raised the question about whether autism itself is a response to such services.

'Of course, we do not know whether the current increase in autism is due more to increased awareness and diagnosis of autism, or whether it can - if there is a true increase - be in any way linked to an increased prevalence among people of spending time in screen relationships. Surely it is a point worth considering,' she added.

Reaction from many in the social media has been swift (the Twitter community in particular spread the link within minutes of the publication of her quotes), and not surprisingly many have rushed to the defense of social media in general and their particular media in particular.

The Medium and the Message

Given both the credentials that Dr. Greenfield has and her significant expertise in the field, it is very likely that some (even all) of her comments have been taken very much out of context by the media. Overall, however, its worth considering that her fundamental assertions are correct - contemporary children's brains are almost certainly changing in response to social media. The more relevant and important question is whether this is necessarily a bad thing.

First, it's essential to know that the brain rewires itself all the time - every time you learn new information, you are in essence burning a new set of pathways through the neurons in the cerebral cortex - rewiring the brain. Whether the skill is learning calculus or writing a blog, the brain is reshaping itself constantly in response to the intellectual activity going on.

The more telling question is whether such changes to the brain are in fact beneficial or harmful. The introduction of the alphabet and reading brought about major changes in the way that the brain developed, according to Leonard Shlain, author of The Alphabet vs. the Goddess. As culture shifted from a largely oral tradition to a written one, Shlain wrote, this shift had a pronounced effect on the ability to reason, creating a world view that was at once more nuanced and symbolic than for those who were pre-literate. Yet this came at a cost: the ability to memorize long oral recitations, the key to preserving cultural history, vanished, seemingly overnight. This effect can be seen even today in the extinction of hundreds of languages within the last century that for the most part survived via oral traditions.

Shlain's assertions become somewhat more problematic in the last century, as first radio, then television, then the Internet became the dominant media in use. Radio represented, in his book, the return of the oral tradition, and radio's potential as a mass media hid a more troubling side - radio based speech and music introduces nuances that can't be captured in print, and has the ability to reach a more primal level in our brains, one that can bypass the reasoning part and connect to something that is more emotional, one of the reasons why a speech over the radio can raise so many different emotions compared to reading a transcription. Shlain argued that the rise of Hitler during the 1930s was made possible partially because Hitler (and Joseph Goebels, Hitler's master of propaganda) used radio to such good effect to stir up emotional support while bypassing the rational part of the brain.

More recently, television has affected a change as well - one in which narratives could generally only be sustained within ten minute blocks, imagination was suppressed, and the sensitivity to frequently repeated messages could imprint ideas directly into one's head without going through a rationality filter (again, by Shlain's argument, rationality exists as a byproduct of reading). TV created a generation of non-critical thinkers ... and it is interesting to view the rapid decline of the critical essay as television use rose in the 1960s and on (and moreover, to note that those people who do write and think critically seldom watch television).

Television had a second adverse effect - television is a study in motion, you seldom have more than a second where some animation doesn't happen somewhere on the screen (to the extent that advertisers occasionally show sequences that have no motion for most of the video in order to jar their audience's expections). However, in real life, you seldom get situations even closely approximating the hyperkinetic whirpool of TV - for the most part things move very slowly, and there are frequent times of no motion at all. Kids who grow up on television thus often find the real world "boring" because things don't happen at the hyperkinetic pace that they have come to expect, which in turn can manifest itself in behavioral problems and depression.

The Physical Effects of Social Media

So what about social media on the Web? First, keep in mind that unlike previous media, the Internet is not in fact a single medium, but rather is an aggregation of media that can be combined in any number of different ways. This means that any discussion of social media has to be examined in terms of its relevant pieces and the way that they are combined - and that because different web sites and services tend to stress different mixes of such content, the rules that apply to a blogging site cannot necessarily be carried over to Flickr.

However, there are some common characteristics that have emerged with the web and social media. One of the first things that happens when you view a web page is that you perform a very rapid (300-600 ms) fast scan that forms an immediate impression of the page, in which the eyes light on elements just fast enough to see their positions, but generally not fast enough to read perhaps a word or two per shift in eye movement. This assessment is perhaps closest to the way that we scan newspapers or magazines, but considerably faster. Indeed, perhaps a more appropriate metaphor is the way that a driver scans a dashboard while keeping his eyes on the road, not so much actually reading but visually checking to insure that nothing is out of place.

This behavior carries over to scanning webmail, Twitter tags, eBay listings, essentially any kind of array based content. One consequence of this is that brains wired to best process this may find a stronger tendency to scan blocks of content rather than reading them, useful for picking out context, but at the cost of losing nuance in your reading - and your writing.

Keypad entry has become a second media difference - until the advent of the computer, keyboard competency was limited to writers and secretarial pools. With computers, keyboard entry - effectively speaking with one's fingers - has become ingrained in an entire generation. One offshoot of this is that you see less planning in terms of writing (which carries over to other cerebral tasks), and more of a tendency to just jump in and start producing, revising even as you write. The advantage that derives from this is that there is considerably less effort expended in these short write/edit/revise cycles than there is in the creation of successive drafts, often making for more spontaneous works, but at a cost of loss of cohesiveness when projects extend beyond a certain size or scope.

Much is made of the attention deficit that arises among heavy computer users, an effect which is real, though again its worth considering it in context. Many actions that occur within web browsers are becoming more intellectually challenging - the creation of blogs, programming, reviewing and analyzing information - and this requires the consumption of energy by the brain, and an increased "down-time" where the brain can process that information and then accept more. Context switching is a way for the brain to rest, doing less taxing activities momentarily to give the necessary neural pathways the ability to relax and prepare for the next heavy lifting.

However, there's some evidence that this context switching is a deep layer activity, and that the switching is not necessarily done consciously; rather the consciousness makes a semi-aware decision to switch activities based upon subconscious stimulae. Unfortunately, this also carries through to other activities beyond computing, at least for some time after context switching on a computer.People attempt to multitask (which is usually just context switching) even while doing activities that should require full participation.

In July, 2008, Atlantic Magazine released a very controversial article by Nicholas Carr entitled "Is Google Making Us Stupid?". In it, Carr describes, quite eloquently, the central conundrum facing people who enter into the Internet realm:

Over the past few years I've had an uncomfortable sense that someone, or something, has been tinkering with my brain, remapping the neural circuitry, reprogramming the memory. My mind isn't going--so far as I can tell--but it's changing. 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.

Deep reading involves "losing oneself" in the words, establishing a world in your head that allows you to escape from the here and now. Some have called it a "fugue state" or "zen state", a mental orientation where the self is subsumed, at least temporarily, in this alternate world. When you transition out of this fugue state, the period can be disorienting, a momentarily period where you "wake up" back to full consciousness.

Carr's argument (paraphrased) is that we are losing the ability to enter that fugue state, that the intense concentration for reading is no longer present in people. I find this argument specious. Programmers and writers can easily immerse themselves into that fugue state and write, often for hours at a time, and this concentration is in many respects even more challenging than reading long content.

Yet before condemning the media, consider the physics. On most computers, you are staring into a strong backlit monitor, looking at words made of characters that are at comparatively low resolution when compared to print. This means that eyes have to work harder to make out the same information, tire more quickly and hence become averse to staring at longer passages. If a person becomes used to reading media on the computer, they will carry these patterns back to reading books because the behavior becomes intrinsic, even if the reason for the behavior is not.

This scenario makes more sense when watching Kindle readers, who don't deal with the backlit effect because of the e-Ink based screens used. As e-Ink and similar "paper interfaces" become more heavily incorporated into computers and consumer electronics over the next decade, it is likely that one effect of it will be that such trained attention spans will begin to increase again.

From Communities of Place to Communities of Interest

In a similar vein, instant messaging and short burst messaging (such as Twitter or SMS) has come under a cloud of criticism because it supposedly subverts children's language development skills and leads to anti-social behavior. The first contention is, frankly, silly - every generation of kids and teenagers growing up develops a cant or slang that exists primarily to establish their independence from the previous generation. This generation is no different, save that they are one of the first generations to have their own unique communication channel over which to use this slang, a channel that makes it possible for them to communicate remotely.

The consequence of this is that for the first time in history, proximity ceases to be a factor in communication, which in turn means that those kids are able to form friendships and relationships based less upon who is near them and more on who share common interests - a community of interest rather than a community of place. Proximity does play a factor - the strongest friendships usually occur when the friends physically meet, but IM and SMS serve to reinforce those bonds.

Does that make kids anti-social? Actually, I suspect it makes relationships stronger. After moving from Seattle to Victoria, BC, my teenage daughter was despondent about leaving friends that she knew there. However, through social media, she quickly reconnected, making it possible for her to maintain the friendship. Over time, it has attenuated - the girls are developing different interests and life experiences, and as such have less and less in common - but this is true of friendships (and other relationships) in general.

What it does do, however, is place a larger communication divide between those that are online and those that aren't. Lady Greenfield's teacher sees children that are communicating less and less by the channels that she knows about, and therefore sees the emergence of anti-social behavior. Maybe she's just not on the right channel?

The shift from communities of place to communities of interest is going on worldwide, though it is perhaps most apparent in the youngest generation, who are coming of age at a time when much of the foundational work already has been done. Those who would argue for the value of communities of place often use civic involvement as a touchstone - that as people move into cyberspace, they leave many of the issues of their community behind, become apathetic about the world around them.

In my experience, however, the opposite is taking place. Communities of interest can often coincide with communities of place - an interest group forms to solve a particular problem (the introduction of a retail complex in an area that many feel should remain untouched), the group communicates with one another via social media and the occasional SM mediated meetups, and eventually are able to raise enough of a political caucus together to forestall the development or at least force changes. Ten or even twenty years ago, the ability to organize and respond to local political needs were far more primitive, with the results that often the ability of the community of place to respond came only after changes were no longer possible.

Relating this back to both changes in childhood neural development and education, the "texting" channel is compelling. Friendships formed by proximity can grow if there is commonality of interest, but the obverse isn't true all that often - people thrown together with few common interests will not tend to spontaneously form friendships.

People who grow up together usually also have common interests, but in an era where divorce is rampant, where moving is common due to job relocation or other factors, and where school closings and similar factors force kids to have to rebuild their relationships every three to five years, kids' abilities to relate to one another are often already very poor. Is it little surprise then that social media is increasingly seen by these kids as an alternative to the painful and often humiliating experience of trying to establish friends by direct social interactions?

Educators, especially those from an earlier era, would be well advised to explore these channels more fully. Facebook could be used to communicate with students, tracking running "chats", establishing assignments (and showing results to the students' respective pages), providing rewards and incentives (and the occasional disincentive) in a way that more accurately reflects the worldview of the children. Such a model may seem absurd to many teachers, yet it is a perfectly natural one to those same children, especially as they are far more likely to accept the role of the teacher as a guider and facilitator than they are of the teacher as authoritarian if that teacher can communicate at their level.

The Nuanced Channels of Text

What of the "flattening" effect that such social media purportedly has on communications? Again, some context is needed. Until comparatively recently, text existed solely for asynchronous communication - the author of a book or a magazine article would almost never actually come to where you were and read the entire contents of the work aloud to you or even hand the book to you physically and say "Here is my message or story ... now respond to it".

Text messaging is synchronous communication using text rather than spoken words, and has effectively never existed before because the mechanism for creating that text is too cumbersome when you can just speak the words to the other people in the discussion. Yet with communities of interest this equation is turned on its head - the visual and aural cues so necessary for spoken communication don't exist, while the speed of text messaging is limited by the speed at which you can type ... and the current generation types, on average, very, very fast, all the while creating a language that is not all that different from stenographers' notation from sixty years ago.

I am a professional writer and have been working with typewriters and computer keyboards since the mid-1970s. My nearly-sixteen year old daughter has had one typing class when she was in fourth grade. She types faster than I do, with more accuracy. I suspect she is not alone in this. She's gained the speed because it has become a second mode of communication for her, one that she practices every time she IMs her friends or writes her online blog/diaries.

Text is, admittedly, far less nuanced as a communication mechanism, and if text by itself was the only carrier of content, I think the arguments about text reducing the subtle clues of oral communication would hold some water. Yet it isn't. As the cost of telephony has dropped and the rise in mobile device numbers has climbed exponentially, voice can be added into the mix (sometimes over the same channels, as most IM services now support some form of VOIP interface) as necessary. With a bit of additional complexity, webcam video support can be added as well to get even more full spectrum communication.

What this means is that social media communication streams can be as rich as necessary - perhaps not quite to the point of a hologram of the other person hovering above your keyboard, though that day is not far off. What's more, if the additional complexity isn't necessary - and in many cases it actually adds nothing to the message but noise - then it isn't transmitted.

Certainly the brain is adapting to this. The world is becoming increasingly complex, and the ability to filter out the signal from the noise is only becoming more critical rather than less. The childhood brain in particular is being stressed, but those stresses will be a part of their life, and the stresses are in turn shaping the brain to more effectively filter out the irrelevant.

A final thought in an overlong essay - psychologists, especially those that have developed a fairly conservative model of the brain, have pushed the notion of information overload - we are pushing our brains to accept too much information too quickly, and these stresses are affecting all of us. Much of this is due to the fact that for many people over the age of forty, the coping mechanisms of the brain to this stress can only erect a fairly crude barrier. Children, with far more malleable brains, are essentially developing their own mechanisms for handling information management, mechanisms that are still largely hidden to those of us who are older.

The greatest danger that these children face is that well meaning psychologists and educators will label these mechanisms as aberrations, and will try to "correct" them back to a model that no longer really works. We must, we must, accept the fact that we are undergoing a decades long transition that is in its own way as profound to the human psyche as the introduction of writing was five thousand years ago, and rather than condemning the new waves of media we should accept that these represent our own future and make the effort to become proficient in them as fully as possible.

Kurt Cagle is an online editor for O'Reilly Media. Please feel free to subscribe to his news feed or follow him on Twitter.

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