As McLuhan suggested, media aren’t just channels of information. They supply the stuff of thought, but they also shape the process of thought. And what the Net seems to be doing is chipping away my capacity for concentration and contemplation. Whether I’m online or not, my mind now expects to take in information the way the Net distributes it: in a swiftly moving stream of particles. Once I was a scuba diver in the sea of words. Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski.
What does the research say?
Already, though, there is much we know or can surmise. The news is even more disturbing than I had suspected. Dozens of studies by psychologists, neurobiologists, educators, and Web designers point to the same conclusion: when we go online, we enter an environment that promotes cursory reading, hurried and distracted thinking, and superficial learning. It’s possible to think deeply while surfing the Net, just as it’s possible to think shallowly while reading a book, but that’s not the type of thinking the technology encourages and rewards. One thing is very clear. If, knowing what we know today about the brain’s plasticity, you were to set out to invent a medium that would rewire our mental circuits as quickly and thoroughly as possible, you would probably end up designing something that looks and works a lot like the Internet.
What about multitasking?
“The more you multitask, the less deliberative you become; the less able to think and reason out a problem.” You become, he argues, more likely to rely on conventional ideas and solutions rather than challenging them with original lines of thought.
Is there a cost to outsourcing our brain?
The more that people depended on explicit guidance from software programs, the less engaged they were in the task and the less they ended up learning. The findings indicate, van Nimwegen concluded, that as we “externalize” problem solving and other cognitive chores to our computers, we reduce our brain’s ability “to build stable knowledge structures”—schemas, in other words—that can later “be applied in new situations.” A polemicist might put it more pointedly: The brighter the software, the dimmer the user.
Via The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains
If you want the other side of the story—the one explaining how the internet is making us smarter—read Cognitive Surplus.