Lamb, G. (2010) Are iPads, smartphones, and the Mobile Web rewiring the way we think? Christian Science Monitor, July 24
In this article, a number of experts are interviewed about their opinions on whether technology is changing the way we think. Being good journalism, we have both the case for and against.
Much of the justification for conclusions drawn on this topic by those interviewed is based on brain research.Yes, it is true that whatever we do, whether it is using an iPhone, reading a book, or going to the toilet, it all results in changes to our neural network. But how that neural activity translates into further behaviour is quite another matter. ‘Real’ neurologists who study brain patterns will be the first to admit that most of the relationship between neural patterns and cognitive behaviour is correlational rather than causal. In other words, we can see that a particular activity results in ‘patterns’ of neural activity, some of which appear to be more than just transient (i.e. memory), but relating that ‘pattern’ to subsequent behaviour is much more problematic. The brain is extremely complex and has the ability to modify or control ‘patterns’ – we might call this thinking or reflection. Thus what we have in books such as Nicholas Carr’s are huge jumps from neurological research to assumptions about the consequences for cognitive behaviour which the neurologists themselves are reluctant to make.
What we lack is any real evidence, one way or the other, as to how new technologies change the way we think. Yes, they are likely to have some effects, but we need to study actual cognitive thinking and behaviour, not just neural patterns, if we are to find a connection between the use of new technologies and changes in the way we think. Simple conclusions such as the use of modern technologies leads to shallow thinking probably cannot be justified. The issue is much more complex than that. In some circumstances, this may be the case, but in others the use of modern technologies may actually result in higher levels of cognition. What we need to understand better are the conditions that lead to shallow or deep thinking, not just the technologies that are used. Unfortunately, shallow conclusions about the way technologies influence our thinking may in fact be a reinforcement of the argument – it demonstrates equally shallow thinking!
Buchanan, W. (2010) The Shallows Christian Science Monitor, June 21
Carr, N. (2010) The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to our Brain New York: W.W. Norton