How is the internet changing the way that you think?

Edge is an organization that “promotes inquiry into and discussion of intellectual, philosophical, artistic, and literary issues, as well as to work for the intellectual and social achievement of society.” Every year, they ask their brain trust to address one big question, and this year it is this: How is the internet changing the way that you think?  Regular readers will recognize that we have occasionally touched on this topic before, most recently when we reviewed some issues related to the effects of multitasking on the brain.  But the respondents at Edge came up with a host of interesting comments, and I recommend reading the entire set of them if you have the time.  Below the fold, I have exerpted a few of the comments that I found most relevant to issues in neuroethics.

From my perspective, I think that the two major effects of the internet as we use it today is that it decreases the need for wetware memory and degrades our ability to pay attention.  The memory issue is good – I don’t have to remember as much as I used to because a tremendous amount of information is available at a moment’s notice.  But flip side of the internet in general and hyperlinking in particular is that they are unbelievably distracting, and Nicholas Carr famously described his experiences in this regard in his article in the Atlantic entitled,Is Google Making us Stupid?“.  I tend to think quite a bit about the effects of normal aging on memory, and one of the things that we have learned in the last few years is that as we age, it is not so much our ability to remember things as to avoid being distracted by irrelevant stimuli which impedes our ability to perform cognitive tasks.  The data is not yet convincing, but I suspect that this loss of cognitive control is substantially further degraded by regular internet use.  The impact that this may have on the aging of today’s young brains, developing so critically in an environment which promotes distractibility, is unknown.

Well, that’s my two cents worth.  If you see other comments on the Edge site that you like – or don’t like – by all means let us know.  And, of course, if you have an opinion on the subject, feel free to comment.

From Brian Eno

I notice that I read books more cursorily — scanning them in the same way that I scan the Net — ‘bookmarking’ them.

From Howard Rheingold

Attention is the fundamental literacy. Every second I spend online, I make decisions about where to spend my attention. Should I devote any mindshare at all to this comment or that headline? — a question I need to answer each time an attractive link catches my eye. Simply becoming aware of the fact that life online requires this kind of decision-making was my first step in learning to tune a fundamental filter on what I allow into my head — a filter that is under my control only if I practice controlling it.

From James O’Donnell

How is the Internet changing the way I think? My fingers have become part of my brain. What will come of this? It’s far too early to say.

From Alun Anderson

The Internet may not have changed how my brain works but if you take “thinking” to mean the interaction between what’s in your brain, what’s in other people’s brains, and what’s in the environment around you, then the Internet is changing everything.

From Andy Clark

The most that we can tell from our armchairs, it seems to me, is that what we are thinking (and when we tend to think it) is in some way altering. But of course, there can be no doubt that the Internet alters what we tend to think and when. If it didn’t, we wouldn’t need it. So that’s true but kind of trivial.

Suppose we convince ourselves, by whatever means, that as far as the basic mode of operation of the brain goes, Internet experience is not altering it one whit. That supports a negative answer only if we assume that the routines that fix the ‘nature of human thinking’ must be thoroughly biological: that they must be routines running within, and only within, the individual human brain. But surely it is this assumption that our experiences with the Internet (and with other ‘intelligence amplifiers’ before it) most clearly calls into question. Perhaps the Internet is changing the ‘way we think’ by changing the circuits that get to implement some aspects of human thinking, providing some hybrid (biological and non-biological) circuitry for thought itself. This would be a vision of the Internet as a kind of world-wide supra-cortex. Since this electronic supra-cortex patently does not work according to the same routines as, say, the neocortex, an affirmative answer to our target question seems easily on the cards.

From Josh Greene

Jim Flynn has documented massive gains in IQ over the 20th Century (the “Flynn Effect”), which he attributes to our enhanced capacity for abstract thought, which he in turn attributes to the cognitive demands of the modern marketplace. Why hasn’t the Internet had a comparable effect? The answer, I think, is that the roles of master and servant are reversed. We place demands on the Internet, but the Internet hasn’t placed any fundamentally new demands on us. In this sense, the Internet really is like a butler. It gives us the things that we want faster and with less effort, but it doesn’t give us anything that we couldn’t otherwise get for ourselves and doesn’t require us to do anything more than give comprehensible orders.

Someday we’ll have a nuts-and-bolts understanding of complex abstract thought, which will enable us to build machines that can do it for us, and perhaps do it better than we do, and perhaps teach us a thing or two about it. But until then, the Internet will continue to be nothing more, and nothing less, than a very useful, and very dumb, butler.

From Thomas Metzinger

The core of the problem is not cognitive style, but something else: attention management. The ability to attend to our environment, to our own feelings, and to those of others is a naturally evolved feature of the human brain. Attention is a finite commodity, and it is absolutely essential to living a good life. We need attention in order to truly listen to others — and even to ourselves. We need attention to truly enjoy sensory pleasures, as well as for efficient learning. We need it in order to be truly present during sex, or to be in love, or when we are just contemplating nature. Our brains can generate only a limited amount of this precious resource every day. Today, the advertisement and entertainment industries are attacking the very foundations of our capacity for experience, drawing us into the vast and confusing media jungle. They are trying to rob us of as much of our scarce resource as possible, and they are doing so in ever more persistent and intelligent ways. We know all that. But here is something we are just beginning to understand — that the Internet affects our sense of selfhood, and on a deep functional level.

From Charles Seife

Now, when I expend the effort to squirrel memories away, I store them in the clutter of my hard drive as much as I do in the labyrinth of my brain. As a result, I spend as much time organizing them, making sure I can retrieve them on demand, as I do collecting them.

From Geoffrey Miller

The Internet changes every aspect of thinking for the often-online human: perception, categorization, attention, memory, spatial navigation, language, imagination, creativity, problem-solving, Theory of Mind, judgment, and decision-making. These are the key research areas in cognitive psychology, and constitute most of what the human brain does. BBC News and The EconomistWebsite extend my perception, becoming my sixth sense for world events. Gmail structures my attention through my responses to incoming messages: delete, respond, or star for response later? Wikipedia is my extended memory. An online calendar changes how I plan my life. Google Maps change how I navigate through my city and world. FaceBook expands my Theory of Mind — better understanding the beliefs and desires of others.

But for me, the most revolutionary change is in my judgment and decision-making — the ways I evaluate and choose among good or bad options. I’ve learned that I can offload much of my judgment on to the large samples of peer ratings available on the Internet. These, in aggregate, are almost always more accurate than my individual judgment. To decide which Blu-ray disks to put in my Netflix cue, I look at the average movie ratings on Netflix, IMDB, and Metacritic. These reflect successively higher levels of expertise among the raters — movie renters on Netflix, film enthusiasts on IMDB, and film critics on Metacritic. Any film with high ratings across all three sites is almost always exciting, beautiful, and thoughtful.

From Nicholas Carr

The medium does matter. It matters greatly. The experience of reading words on a networked computer, whether it’s a PC, an iPhone, or a Kindle, is very different from the experience of reading those same words in a book. As a technology, a book focuses our attention, isolates us from the myriad distractions that fill our everyday lives. A networked computer does precisely the opposite. It’s designed to scatter our attention. It doesn’t shield us from environmental distractions; it adds to them. The words on a computer screen exist in a welter of contending stimuli.

The human brain, science tells us, adapts readily to its environment. The adaptation occurs at a deep biological level, in the way our nerve cells, or neurons, connect. The technologies we think with, including the media we use to gather, store, and share information, are critical elements of our intellectual environment and they play important roles in shaping our modes of thought. That fact has not only been proven in the laboratory; it’s evident from even a cursory glance at the course of intellectual history. It may be immaterial to Mr. Tracy whether a student reads from a book or a screen, but it is not immaterial to that student’s mind.

My own reading and thinking habits have shifted dramatically since I first logged onto the Web fifteen or so years ago. I now do the bulk of my reading and researching online. And my brain has changed as a result. Even as I’ve become more adept at navigating the rapids of the Net, I have experienced a steady decay in my ability to sustain my attention. As I explained in 2008, “what the Net seems to be doing is chipping away my capacity for concentration and contemplation. My mind now expects to take in information the way the Net distributes it: in a swiftly moving stream of particles.” Knowing that the depth of our thought is tied directly to the intensity of our attentiveness, it’s hard not to conclude that as we adapt to the intellectual environment of the Net our thinking becomes shallower.

From Noga Arikha

The technologies we create always have an impact on the real world, but rarely has a technology had such an impact on minds. We know what is happening to those who were born after the advent of the Internet and for those like me who started out with typewrites, books, slowness, reality measured by geographical distance and local clocks, the world that is emerging now is very different indeed from the world we knew.

As for me, I am learning how to make room for the need to slow down and disconnect without giving up on my addiction to Google, email, and rapidity. I was lucky enough to come from somewhere else, from a time when information was not digitized. And that is what perhaps enables me to use the Internet with a measure of wisdom.

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