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Technology and the Brain

Where did I put my keys?

By MARILYN SOLTIS
  Two thousand years ago the Roman philosopher Seneca said “To be everywhere is to be nowhere.” Today, we can Google any subject, call, text or email anywhere in the world, and be connected through social media. But at what price?
  It’s no secret that many of us are losing our ability to concentrate, read a book from cover-to-cover, or even maintain a conversation without furtive glances to our Blackberries and Smart Phones. We can take in a lot of information very quickly, yet our attention span keeps decreasing.
  In The Shallows, What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains, [W.W. Norton & Company] Nicholas Carr brings to light the stunning new discoveries in the field of neuroscience that reveal how the technologies we use to find, store and share information on the Internet are rerouting our neural pathways.
  The author explains how the plasticity of the brain or the ability of the brain to change in response to stimuli is always present. According to biology, every time we go on the Internet we are reinforcing its scattering effect on the brain. The mind of the book reader is changing to the distracted mind of the screen watcher, making us more, well, shallow.
  The distracted mind is constantly flitting from subject to subject.
In an interview with Chicago Life, Carr said, “Do you find that time disappears? When you’re online, it seizes our attention, just to scatter it. We’re so immersed. There is so much going on. You go online to check the weather and two hours later, maybe you haven’t even checked the weather yet.”
  In his book Carr also describes how human thought has been shaped by other advancements like maps, the alphabet, the printing press, and clocks, and how these shifts in thinking affected the culture.
  Scattered bits of information cannot take the place of critical thinking or the creative process and the implications for the process of education. It’s one thing to laugh off some middle-aged forgetfulness, but experts are only starting to look at the implications for education at all levels.
  This year the Kaiser Family Foundation released a study showing children between the ages of eight and eighteen spent roughly eight hours a day, not counting classroom time, using a smart phone, computer, television or other electronic device. Add in another two hours talking or texting on a cell phone and the average kid in America spends most of their time connected to a device, often simultaneously, like watching TV and sending text messages or surfing the net while talking on the phone.
  There’s another reason for concern. In a chilling study, researchers at the University of Michigan analyzed data collected over the past 30 years from close to 14,000 college students of “Generation Me.”
  The findings? A 40 percent drop in empathy from students of 30 to 40 years ago. The biggest drop came after the year 2000. Separate analyses showed a cross section of Americans seeing changes in other people’s helpfulness and kindness over this same period.
   Speculation by the researchers for the decline in empathy zeroed in on the three-fold increase in media exposure over those years. College students also grew up on video games which studies are showing numbs people to pain of others. Social media allows them to block out other people’s problems —there’s always another “friend” to be found on the internet. They found that college students perceive their time is limited and prefer to focus on their own issues, fostering a social environment that devalues listening to a friend that might need someone to talk to about their problems.
  This lack of empathy was foreseen back in 1968 in Stanley Kubrick’s film 2001: A Space Odyssey. Carr says the final scene has haunted him since he saw it as a teenager in the 1970s.
  “What makes it so poignant, and so weird, is the computer’s (HAL) emotional response to the disassembly of its mind”—its despair as one circuit after another goes dark, its childlike pleading with the astronaut—‘I can feel it. I’m afraid’—and its final reversion to what can only be called a state of innocence,” he says.
  HAL’s pleas go unnoticed as the human figures act more like unfeeling robots. Carr says, “That’s the essence of Kubrick’s dark prophecy: as we come to rely on computers to mediate our understanding of the world, it is our own intelligence that flattens into artificial intelligence.”

Published: August 08, 2010
Issue: Fall 2010 Issue