David Kirkpatrick

June 12, 2008

The internet is changing our brains

Filed under: Arts, et.al., Media, Science, Technology — Tags: , , , , , , , — David Kirkpatrick @ 12:24 am

Just read Nicholas Carr’s piece in the July/August 2008 print Atlantic Monthly, “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” The article raises some very interesting points, most importantly bringing into sharper focus the relatively new neuroscience idea that our brain continually changes, improves and otherwise re-wires itself. This is counter the long-held belief that once you reach adulthood, your brain is permanentlyset. Sort of like concrete poured into a mold. Instead the medium a malleable, and the mold is constantly refiguring itself.

The larger concept is the internet, and its unique structure, is affecting the way we access and process information. Certainly true. I’ve included an excerpt from the article about how acquiring a typewriter affected Nietzsche’s writing.

I completely understand this idea. When writing for business or media I use the computer keyboard, but when writing fiction I often will write in longhand. It’s a different experience and it slows my thinking down forcing me to contemplate each word a bit more. Sure I do some fiction at the keyboard, but much of that writing is done with pen set to paper. And my journal of many years is one hundred percent longhand. Something about the pen, or pencil, scratching across the page still appeals to me. Plus I like looking at the large stack of spiral-bound notebooks holding my thoughts dating back twenty-plus years.

From the article:

Sometime in 1882, Friedrich Nietzsche bought a typewriter—a Malling-Hansen Writing Ball, to be precise. His vision was failing, and keeping his eyes focused on a page had become exhausting and painful, often bringing on crushing headaches. He had been forced to curtail his writing, and he feared that he would soon have to give it up. The typewriter rescued him, at least for a time. Once he had mastered touch-typing, he was able to write with his eyes closed, using only the tips of his fingers. Words could once again flow from his mind to the page.

But the machine had a subtler effect on his work. One of Nietzsche’s friends, a composer, noticed a change in the style of his writing. His already terse prose had become even tighter, more telegraphic. “Perhaps you will through this instrument even take to a new idiom,” the friend wrote in a letter, noting that, in his own work, his “‘thoughts’ in music and language often depend on the quality of pen and paper.”

“You are right,” Nietzsche replied, “our writing equipment takes part in the forming of our thoughts.” Under the sway of the machine, writes the German media scholar Friedrich A. Kittler, Nietzsche’s prose “changed from arguments to aphorisms, from thoughts to puns, from rhetoric to telegram style.”

The human brain is almost infinitely malleable. People used to think that our mental meshwork, the dense connections formed among the 100 billion or so neurons inside our skulls, was largely fixed by the time we reached adulthood. But brain researchers have discovered that that’s not the case. James Olds, a professor of neuroscience who directs the Krasnow Institute for Advanced Study at George Mason University, says that even the adult mind “is very plastic.” Nerve cells routinely break old connections and form new ones. “The brain,” according to Olds, “has the ability to reprogram itself on the fly, altering the way it functions.”