Your Mind in the Digital World (Continued)

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The hot debate over wired life and its effects on the brain, which we weighed in on recently, has continued to be a viral topic on the Web this week. Some say the Internet is making us distracted and dumb. Techies say the downside is not all that serious, and the digital world will usher in a new, positive cultural movement.

Harvard professor of psychology Steven Pinker, author of The Stuff of Thought, agreed with the techies in a recent, much-discussed Op-Ed in the New York Times and argued that new technologies just might be the only things keeping us smart.

But it's worth quoting back here from our recent show with Nicholas Carr, the tech-savvy but famously Web-wary author of “The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains."  Host Tom Ashbrook asked Carr, who kicked off this whole debate, what exactly our hyperlinked world is doing to our minds: Are we changing for the worse? Here’s part of Carr's response:

The Internet is encouraging more superficial thought. It gives us tons of stuff to look at, tons of new information to see. But it’s training us at a very deep cognitive level to skip around from one bit of information to the next and never slow down, pay attention, think deeply.

Carr went on:

If our habits of mind change—if we spend more time jumping around from webpage to webpage, handling a bombardment of messages, skimming and scanning—those are the brain functions that are strengthened. And our brain wants to do them more and more because that’s the nature of the brain. It wants to keep exercising itself in a way that it has been exercised. And on the other hand, if that activity displaces calmer, more attentive, more contemplative thought, then we begin to lose some of the capacity for that mode of thinking.

On that same show, another of our guests, Times technology reporter Nick Bilton, disagreed with Carr, saying the Web doesn’t push out the old school way of thinking, but complements and enriches it. He focused in on how humans maximize the benefits of technology. Bilton cited a research project by Tufts University professor Maryanne Wolf (listen back to our show with her) about how we learned to read, which he said proved the following:

Our brains are not designed to read. We’re designed to communicate, and we’re designed to run through the jungle and things like that, but we’re not designed to read. . .When we make this argument that our brains are not designed for computers and video games and all these things—our brains were never designed to read. So how can we say that reading is a better experience than computers? Our brains adapt and there’s research that shows that they do. I mean,  if you look at the plasticity and so on, this shows it. If we look back through time—this is the same kind of argument we’ve heard with every single technology.

Who’s right in this debate? It’s unlikely to be resolved any time soon. But for one very witty take on the whole controversy, check out this video:

Evelyn Ratigan is an intern with On Point.

This program aired on June 17, 2010. The audio for this program is not available.