Is the Web changing our brain? Part 1

In the Hangout the other day, one of the topics which prompted much debate was the impact of the Web on how we think and process information. This post (part 1 of 2) develops the theme.

Like most complicated questions the details of the answer are complicated too. But the broader response is not. There have been concerns raised by those such as Susan Greenfield that the Web is fundamentally changing our brain. This is of course true. In fact every interaction humans have with the world alters their brain (though this is not a validation of Greenfield’s claims). Others such as Gary Small, have gone as far as to involve evolutionary language.

Outside of some epigenetic effects which don’t appear to have been demonstrated in this domain, there seems little excuse for such rhetoric given the lack of selective pressure. Evolution via natural selection requires those that can’t succeed die or don’t reproduce. I’m currently unaware that those not on Facebook have been prevented from breeding, nor that the impact of such a policy would bare evolutionary fruit over such a small evolutionary time-scale. The real issue is a matter of degrees and to what extent the very real changes that do occur in brains are impacting human behaviour.

This is a very real concern in the domain of education where some authors have attempted to address issues such as whether the Web is making us less able to learn. A notable example being Nicholas Carr, author of The Shallows, who has suggested that the multitasking capacity of computers and the rapid nature of information acquisition on the Web has led to an inability to focus on a singular task at hand. As stated before, there is good neurological evidence that the Web is indeed changing our brain (Small et. al., 2009; Your Brain on Google) and that interactions with the internet can change the brains of new Web users very rapidly. But again, this evidence remains unclear. Brains are meant to adapt to new experience and there is no clear demonstration that changed brains impede learning.

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