Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Neuroplasticity and How the Internet is Rewiring Our Brains

Conventional wisdom has long held that the structure of the brain is fixed and unmalleable--although memories and abilities may change, the basic wiring of the brain remains constant. In recent decades, however, cognitive research has begun to challenge that prevailing view. 

Positron emission tomography (PET) scan -- National 
Institutes of Health via Wikimedia Commons
Although neuroplasticity--the brain's ability to reorganize itself and adapt certain structures for various purposes--was theorized in 1949 by Donald Hebb in the postulate now know by the colloquial expression "neurons that fire together wire together," the technology to objectively test this principle has not been refined enough for practical scientific application until more recently.  As Sharon Begley points out in a 2007 article in Time, technologies such as transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) tests and functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) have provided neuroscientists with the tools by which to explore the ways in which the physical structures of the brain change in response to what we think.

If this principle is accurate, it suggests that repeated use of certain neural pathways strengthens them, reinforcing the synaptic associations between neurons and making those connections more likely to activate in the future. It also implies the opposite--that unused neural circuitry might atrophy or be reappropriated by the brain for other functions.

If sound-bite media and flashy audiovisual Internet elements promote brevity and entertainment, might the ubiquity of electronic devices, with their attendant interruptions, be conditioning the brains of digital technology users to crave the sugar buzz of novelty and insipid distractions rather than a healthy diet of thoughtful rumination and focused, contemplative musing? Is it possible that reliance on the Internet as a source of information is rewiring technophilic brains so as to erode their ability to meaningfully analyze that information?

Author Nicholas Carr writes about these concerns in his 2010 book The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains. He postulates that the increasing use of digital technologies has negative consequences for analytical thought and memory consolidation, the process in which short-term, "working" memories are transferred to long-term memory.

Now, as Laughing Squid and Viral Viral Videos point out, a new animated video by Epipheo offers an articulate synopsis of Carr's thesis: the frenetic pace and constant interruption of the Internet presents users with a barrage of often trivial information to the detriment of the kind of deep thinking and learning that can only take place in the calm of attentive reflection.

Take a moment to watch the video to learn more about Carr's argument--then ponder the irony of receiving that message in a four-minute multimedia distillation of his 280-page scholarly book.


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