(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.