Rewiring the brain

(Warning: I’m going way far away from any area where I could possibly claim expertise here.)

Nicholas Carr has a new book coming out, as well as an article in Wired,  about the possibility of cognitive changes arising from the huge changes in the way we consume information in the Internet age.  I think that’s an interesting subject, but the reviews and discussions of Carr’s writing have emphasized a trope that I think is very misleading and alarmist: the Internet, they say, is rewiring our brains.

It seems to me that the rewiring-our-brains language is intended to scare people, provoking a reaction similar to Miles Monroe‘s (“My brain?  But that’s my second favorite organ!”).  But it’s not clear that it really means anything.  Anything that changes your mental state (remembering something, forgetting something, learning a new skill, etc.) results in physical changes (“rewiring”) of your brain.

It’s interesting to ask whether the Internet is changing the ways we think, and if so, whether those changes are good or bad, and it’s certainly good for psychologists and neuroscientists to do experiments to try to figure out the mechanisms.  But let’s discuss the results dispassionately without scaremongering.

Steven Pinker said it well in his book The Blank Slate:

All this should be obvious, but nowadays any banality about learning can be dressed up in neurospeak and treated like a great revelation of science. “Talk therapy, a psychiatrist maintains, can alter the structure of the patient’s brain” [says a newspaper article].  I should hope so, or else the psychiatrist would be defrauding her clients … A special issue of the journal Educational Technology and Society was intended “to examine the position that learning takes place in the brain of the learner, and that pedagogies and technologies should be designed and evaluated on the basis of the effect they have on student brains.”  The guest editor (a biologist) did not say whether the alternative was that learning takes place in some other organ of the body like the pancreas or that it takes place in an immaterial soul.

And just recently,  there’s a nice blog post by Vaughan Bell explaining why you shouldn’t pay any attention when people tout a scientific result as having to do with neuroplasticity:

Neuroplasticity sounds very technical, but there is no accepted scientific definition for the term and, in its broad sense, it means nothing more than ‘something in the brain has changed’. As your brain is always changing the term is empty on its own.

He goes on to describe the wide range of things people can mean when they use this term.

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Ted Bunn

I am chair of the physics department at the University of Richmond. In addition to teaching a variety of undergraduate physics courses, I work on a variety of research projects in cosmology, the study of the origin, structure, and evolution of the Universe. University of Richmond undergraduates are involved in all aspects of this research. If you want to know more about my research, ask me!

5 thoughts on “Rewiring the brain”

  1. I think that The Language Instinct (Pinker’s first general-audience book) is by far his best.

    Despite a lot of similarities in both subject and style, The Language Instinct and The Blank Slate are quite different sorts of book. TLI is a science book: its purpose is to explain the big ideas of modern Chomsky-derived linguistics. TBS is more of a polemic: in large part its purpose is to attack what Pinker sees as an incorrect, harmful, and unfortunately dominant strain of thought in the social sciences.

    Expositions and polemics can both be worthwhile activities, of course, and I do think that the thesis being advanced in TBS is important and worth thinking about. Still, I learned a lot more from TLI than TBS.

    Pinker is a terrific writer in any case. He engages with serious ideas, has plenty of wit and attitude, and most importantly he has a great eye for the telling example to make his point.

  2. Having read both, I agree. His How the Mind Works is in-between, both in subject matter and time of publication. I think I learned the most from How the Mind Works (as you say, The Blank Slate is largely a polemic and I had done a lot of reading on language etc before encountering Pinker). It is one of the few books I can point to as having definitely changed my views (not that my views haven’t otherwise changed in my life, but usually it is a) more gradual and b) the result of several influences).

    On my shelf of bought-but-not-yet-read books is his The Stuff of Thought.

  3. I read The Stuff of Thought, but I honestly can’t tell you much of anything about it, which is a bit embarrassing. Maybe it’s because my brain has been rewired by the Internet.

  4. This is one of the interesting subjects that everyone which to read. Experiments and reports are most appreciated. I will follow up with your future posts regarding the same.

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