Fun With Your New Brain

“The Brain” by Ars Electronica photo courtesy of Flickr

“The Brain” by Ars Electronica photo courtesy of Flickr

by James Patrick Kelly

Even though Nicolas Carr’s The Shallows: What The Internet is Doing to Our Brains has nothing to do with craft, it’s a book that I think every writer should know.  It asserts that, largely unbeknownst to us, the Internet is reprogramming our brains and thus privileging certain cognitive abilities over others.  While some of his claims are more persuasive than others, his central thesis speaks to the way we will read and think in the future.

In order to understand the implications of what Carr is saying, let’s divide his argument into three parts and consider each separately.  First: Is the net really reprogramming our brains?   Second: If so, then what exactly is changing?  Third: Are these changes good or bad?

It may come as a surprise to you that our brains can be reprogrammed at all.  Until the 1970s, orthodox neuroscience held that the structure of the adult brain was fixed and the only change possible was degenerative.  As we aged, we would lose mental capacity; the best we could hope for would be to slow the inevitable erosion.

This view has been largely discredited.  We now know that the brain remains plastic; it can be profoundly remade throughout life.  And, according to the theory of neuroplasticity, what we experience can change the very structure and functioning of our brain.

Connections within our brains are continually being pruned and created.  Links can come and go in as little as a week.  You will remember during the early days of the world wide web that those annoying Under Construction Icons were everywhere?  So it is with your cerebral cortex, which is similarly in a state of perpetual overhaul.

A key insight of neuroplasticity theory is that our brains are structured and restructured by our experiences.  “It’s what you pay attention to.  It’s what’s rewarding to you,” according to Michael Merzenich, one of the leading researchers in brain plasticity.  In a 2004 TED talk he goes on to say, “It’s all about cortical processing and forebrain specialization.  And that underlies your specialization.  That is why you, in your many skills and abilities, are a unique specialist.   A specialist who is vastly different in your physical brain, in detail, from the brain of an individual a hundred years ago, enormously different in the details from the brain of an average individual a thousand years ago.”

In 2008, the neuroscientist Gary Small released the findings of a study he had conducted at UCLA.  His team worked with seniors ranging from 55 and 76, half of whom were seasoned net users and half of whom had no net experience.   He found that the experienced netizens “registered a twofold increase in brain activation when compared with those with little Internet experience. The tiniest measurable unit of brain activity registered by the fMRI is called a voxel. Scientists discovered that during Internet searching, those with prior experience sparked 21,782 voxels, compared with only 8,646 voxels for those with less experience.”

Six days later, Small brought both groups back to repeat the experiment.  In the interim he’d had the net novices practice Googling around the net for an hour a day.   The results?   The newbies’ brains now showed increased activity in the same neural circuits as the netizens’.  They had effectively rewired their brains.

In five days.  Clicking around the net for just one hour a day.

Going back to a point he made in his TED talk, Michael Merzenich posted the following to his blog On The Brain, “When culture drives changes in the ways that we engage our brains, it creates DIFFERENT brains.”  Speaking of Google and the net, he goes on to write, “THEIR HEAVY USE HAS NEUROLOGICAL CONSEQUENCES.  No one yet knows exactly what those consequences are.”

(Note: Dr. Merzenich isn’t usually quite so heavy handed with the CAPS LOCK key.)

So what exactly is the net doing to your brain?   The prefrontal regions of increased activity in the Small experiment are centers of problem-solving and decision-making.   Patricia Greenwell, a developmental psychologist at UCLA, writes in Science that studies have indeed discovered a “new profile of cognitive skills”—including increases in non-verbal IQ and facility at multitasking—among heavy users of digital media.

But she points to other studies which document the tradeoffs of this ongoing reorganization of our brains.  “Although the visual capabilities of television, video games, and the Internet may develop impressive visual intelligence, the cost seems to be deep processing: mindful knowledge acquisition, inductive analysis, critical thinking, imagination, and reflection.”

Which is apparently what sent Nicolas Carr to his keyboard to write The Shallows.  Understand that Carr is no Luddite.  He is himself a blogger and a social networker and logs many hours in front of a screen.  When he first began to notice that it was difficult to pay attention for more than a few minutes, he wrote it off to “middle-age mind rot.”  But now he attributes the greater part of his lack of concentration, his tendency to skip and skim and, most important, his struggle to read and comprehend entire books, to what the Internet is doing to his brain.

What does brain-rewiring mean for writers and readers?

Clay Shirky thinks he knows.   He’s one of the best known advocates for the digital revolution and wrote the book Cognitive Surplus, which makes a case that the change that the net is effecting throughout society is mostly benign—and besides, it’s inevitable.

He’s also a frequent flier on the TED talks. Shirky thinks it’s too bad if deep reading has become a lost skill but he advises us to get used to the idea that the age of the book is passing.  “No one reads War and Peace,” he writes in an Encyclopedia Britannica blog post,It’s too long, and not so interesting.”   Yes, he’s being polemical, but the science suggests that he is half right.  It doesn’t matter whether Tolstoy’s books are interesting or not; their real problem is that they are long and that they are books.

If books that are “too long” are passé, then we must consign some of our cherished classics to the dustbin of history.  My copy of Moby Dick is 458 pages long.  Faulkner is guilty of 484 pages in Light in August.  The one volume Lord of the Rings runs 1216 pages.  And then there are the works of some of our most talented contemporary writers—I’m looking at you,  Jonathan Franzen, Hilary Mantel,  David Mitchell, and Margaret Atwood ….

… Excuse me, I got distracted just then remembering Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, maybe the best read I’ve had in the last five years.  Great book.   And so very interesting, even if it was 528 pages.  What do you think, should I see the movie or wait for the video?

Wait, what the hell was I talking about?   Brains, right!  Something that was supposed to be either good or bad, right?   I don’t know why I find it so hard to concentrate these days.  Maybe I spend too much time reading blogs!

The fact is, we don’t know whether our new brains will be better than the old ones.  What we do know is that they are constantly adapting to the cognitive environment we live in.  Maybe it’s time to take charge of that environment?

Otherwise it’s definitely going to mess with our heads.

James Patrick Kelly has won science fiction’s Hugo, Nebula and Locus Awards.  His work has been translated into twenty-one languages and is available in print, audio and digital.  His most recent book is DIGITAL RAPTURE, The Singularity Anthology (2012), co-edited with John Kessel. His website is www.jimkelly.net

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