Monday, June 07, 2010

Keep Reading: This'll Make You Smarter!

More Perspicacious Minds?
Illustration by Patrick Thomas
(Image from NYT)

Worried about computers and the internet dumbing you down? Fret no more, dear reader, for according to Jonah Lehrer, "Our Cluttered Minds" (NYT, May 27, 2010), quite the reverse occurs:
[T]he preponderance of scientific evidence suggests that the Internet and related technologies are actually good for the mind. For instance, a comprehensive 2009 review of studies published on the cognitive effects of video games found that gaming led to significant improvements in performance on various cognitive tasks, from visual perception to sustained attention. This surprising result led the scientists to propose that even simple computer games like Tetris can lead to "marked increases in the speed of information processing." One particularly influential study, published in Nature in 2003, demonstrated that after just 10 days of playing Medal of Honor, a violent first-person shooter game, subjects showed dramatic increases in ­visual attention and memory.
Lehrer is citing this against the argument by Nicholas Carr in his recent book, The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains, for according to Lehrer, Mr. Carr argues that the internet and "computers are destroying our powers of concentration" because "our mental malleability has turned us into servants of technology, our circuits reprogrammed by our gadgets" as we "lurch from site to site, if only because we constantly crave the fleeting pleasure of new information." Web surfing is a rather different issue than 'gaming', I would think, but as Lehrer notes after this summary of Carr's views:
Carr's argument also breaks down when it comes to idle Web surfing. A 2009 study by neuroscientists at the University of California, Los Angeles, found that performing Google searches led to increased activity in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, at least when compared with reading a "book-like text." Interestingly, this brain area underlies the precise talents, like selective attention and deliberate analysis, that Carr says have vanished in the age of the Internet. Google, in other words, isn't making us stupid -- it's exercising the very mental muscles that make us smarter.
I'm pleased to hear this. Now if only the internet would compensate us monetarily for the time we spend surfing it.

Despite Lehrer's optimism, I still wonder if the internet doesn't distract us from deeper, more continuously sustained thinking. Lehrer does note, consistent with Carr's pessimistic concerns, that "numerous surveys suggest that the Internet has diminished our interest in reading books." I certainly read fewer books these days, though that's also due to the demands of my work. Editing, translating, and researching all detract from my time as much as or more than the internet distracts me from reading. But at least, I'm getting smarter, if Lehrer is right.

If . . .

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At 11:34 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm uncertain whether all this computer stuff is actually helpful. Cumputer generated graphics after all are capable of turning South America into something other than South America.


At 11:48 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Maybe you could link to that graphic transformation, JK?

Jeffery Hodges

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At 9:38 PM, Blogger The Red Witch said...

I have been having a great time with The Latin Library site and Fordham's Medieval Sourcebook, as well as Dartmouth's Milton Reading Room. I don't see how spending a couple of hours on any of those sites is dumbing anyone down. If I was not reading these texts on the net, I would have them in a book form, assuming I could find them. I think of my 'surfing' as no different from reading books.

At 3:52 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

I also use the Milton site and wouldn't be able to do much research and publishing without the internet. I don't know if it's making me smarter, probably not, but it's helping my scholarship.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 9:10 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I feel you getting smarter and I am half a world away! If you get much smarter, you will float above us in little old Arkansas!
Excited about the Salem Summit I am putting together for when you come home. Food, friends, and I must get back to my web surfing so I will be able to keep up with you and Dad!

At 12:06 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

If only I were getting smarter. I do admit that my life smarts more and more as I age . . .

Jeffery Hodges

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