Science confirms that the internet rewires our brains. Of course, I told you that years ago.

June 9, 2010 at 3:23 pm Leave a comment

In Wired Nicholas Carr writes about UCLA professor of psychiatry Gary Small who outfitted six volunteers with goggles on which they could see the internet as they surfed with a hand-held controller. Then Dr. Small used  whole-brain magnetic imaging on them to demonstrate not only that the internet “rewires” the way the brain works, but that it does it very quickly–after only a few hours in fact.

It’s an interesting story and well worth a read, but not a particularly surprising one. In fact, in Ad Age a couple of years ago, I pointed out that this is exactly what the internet would do to our brains. And somehow I managed to do it without access to millions of dollars worth of sophisticated medical equipment or time-consuming experiments. All I had was some knowledge of history and an ability to catch a lateral from Neil Postman and run with it.

Marshall McLuhan famously said that “the medium is the message.” Less famously (but more accurately, I think), Postman altered this to “the medium is the metaphor.” What he meant by that is that the dominant medium of an age defines how we believe the world is supposed to be. I’ll not go into a detailed explanation (though if you’re interested, you can read the original article here) of how that expectation changes the way we “consume” the world around us.  I’ll merely point out that there is in fact a physiological reason (now confirmed by Dr. Small and his multi-million-dollar machines) that people no longer sit still for hours at a time to follow a complex argument (or, if you want to go way back, sit around campfires and listen to poets recite the Iliad from memory).

Does this change in the way our brains work make us smarter or kinder or more just? I have profound doubts. Does it make it easier to sell us things and distract us with whatever version of centrifugal bumblepuppy is all the rage at a given moment? Almost certainly.

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