Friday, June 11, 2010

Does Twitter Rot Your Brain?

Stephen Pinker takes on the notion that the Internet is making us stupid:

The effects of consuming electronic media are also likely to be far more limited than the panic implies. Media critics write as if the brain takes on the qualities of whatever it consumes, the informational equivalent of “you are what you eat.” As with primitive peoples who believe that eating fierce animals will make them fierce, they assume that watching quick cuts in rock videos turns your mental life into quick cuts or that reading bullet points and Twitter postings turns your thoughts into bullet points and Twitter postings.

Yes, the constant arrival of information packets can be distracting or addictive, especially to people with attention deficit disorder. But distraction is not a new phenomenon. The solution is not to bemoan technology but to develop strategies of self-control, as we do with every other temptation in life. . . .

And to encourage intellectual depth, don’t rail at PowerPoint or Google. It’s not as if habits of deep reflection, thorough research and rigorous reasoning ever came naturally to people. They must be acquired in special institutions, which we call universities, and maintained with constant upkeep, which we call analysis, criticism and debate. They are not granted by propping a heavy encyclopedia on your lap, nor are they taken away by efficient access to information on the Internet.

The new media have caught on for a reason. Knowledge is increasing exponentially; human brainpower and waking hours are not. Fortunately, the Internet and information technologies are helping us manage, search and retrieve our collective intellectual output at different scales, from Twitter and previews to e-books and online encyclopedias. Far from making us stupid, these technologies are the only things that will keep us smart.

I would add one caveat, that how we live can certainly have long-term effects on our brains. This has been shown by studies of monks who live in quiet contemplation for years. Reading long books in silence is a skill that one has to learn. But if you are a busy, active person, then being busy on the internet is not going to make any difference compared to being busy on the phone or at the conference table.


Unknown said...

What are the effects of years of quiet contemplation on monks' brains?

John said...

I can't recall the details, except that the happiest people ever studied were some Tibetan monks who meditated on happiness all day.