Monday, June 7, 2010

The Internet as yet another force of right-brain thinking

In his Op-Ed in Saturday's Wall Street Journal, Nicholas Carr, author of "The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains" showcases the virtues of the in-depth, focused, linear, left-brained teaching and learning habits that the Internet has been distracting us away from:

A growing body of scientific evidence suggests that the Net, with its constant distractions and interruptions, is... turning us into scattered and superficial thinkers.
Carr proceeds with his digest of this evidence:
The picture emerging from the research is deeply troubling, at least to anyone who values the depth, rather than just the velocity, of human thought. People who read text studded with links, the studies show, comprehend less than those who read traditional linear text. People who watch busy multimedia presentations remember less than those who take in information in a more sedate and focused manner. People who are continually distracted by emails, alerts and other messages understand less than those who are able to concentrate. And people who juggle many tasks are less creative and less productive than those who do one thing at a time.
The richness of our thoughts, our memories and even our personalities hinges on our ability to focus the mind and sustain concentration. Only when we pay deep attention to a new piece of information are we able to associate it "meaningfully and systematically with knowledge already well established in memory," writes the Nobel Prize-winning neuroscientist Eric Kandel. Such associations are essential to mastering complex concepts.

In an article published in Science last year, Patricia Greenfield, a leading developmental psychologist, reviewed dozens of studies on how different media technologies influence our cognitive abilities. Some of the studies indicated that certain computer tasks, like playing video games, can enhance "visual literacy skills," increasing the speed at which people can shift their focus among icons and other images on screens. Other studies, however, found that such rapid shifts in focus, even if performed adeptly, result in less rigorous and "more automatic" thinking.
...

Ms. Greenfield concluded that "every medium develops some cognitive skills at the expense of others." Our growing use of screen-based media, she said, has strengthened visual-spatial intelligence, which can improve the ability to do jobs that involve keeping track of lots of simultaneous signals, like air traffic control. But that has been accompanied by "new weaknesses in higher-order cognitive processes," including "abstract vocabulary, mindfulness, reflection, inductive problem solving, critical thinking, and imagination." We're becoming, in a word, shallower.
This shallowness persists beyond screen time:
It would be one thing if the ill effects went away as soon as we turned off our computers and cellphones. But they don't. The cellular structure of the human brain, scientists have discovered, adapts readily to the tools we use, including those for finding, storing and sharing information. By changing our habits of mind, each new technology strengthens certain neural pathways and weakens others. The cellular alterations continue to shape the way we think even when we're not using the technology.

What we seem to be sacrificing in all our surfing and searching is our capacity to engage in the quieter, attentive modes of thought that underpin contemplation, reflection and introspection. The Web never encourages us to slow down. It keeps us in a state of perpetual mental locomotion.
Carr proceeds to extoll the forgotten virtues of book smarts, which have the opposite effect on what is, in fact, a natural human inclination towards distraction:
It is revealing, and distressing, to compare the cognitive effects of the Internet with those of an earlier information technology, the printed book. Whereas the Internet scatters our attention, the book focuses it. Unlike the screen, the page promotes contemplativeness.

Reading a long sequence of pages helps us develop a rare kind of mental discipline. The innate bias of the human brain, after all, is to be distracted. Our predisposition is to be aware of as much of what's going on around us as possible. Our fast-paced, reflexive shifts in focus were once crucial to our survival. They reduced the odds that a predator would take us by surprise or that we'd overlook a nearby source of food.

To read a book is to practice an unnatural process of thought. It requires us to place ourselves at what T. S. Eliot, in his poem "Four Quartets," called "the still point of the turning world." We have to forge or strengthen the neural links needed to counter our instinctive distractedness, thereby gaining greater control over our attention and our mind.

It is this control, this mental discipline, that we are at risk of losing as we spend ever more time scanning and skimming online. If the slow progression of words across printed pages damped our craving to be inundated by mental stimulation, the Internet indulges it. It returns us to our native state of distractedness, while presenting us with far more distractions than our ancestors ever had to contend with.
Carr's critics, for example Jonah Lehrer in this week's New York Times Book Review, have been quick to emphasize the positive effects of the Internet on cognition--effects that Carr mostly acknowledges as well: visual perception, visual attention, and processing speed.

I find it interesting how much of what the Internet promotes is what I call "right-brain" thinking: visual thinking; breadth over depth; shifting attention among multiple tasks or media. To the extent that this rewires our brains, it's turning more and more of us into right-brainers.

Perhaps that's one reason why so much of this new thinking is reflected in our k12 classrooms, what with all those visually stimulating textbooks with distracting sidebars; all those arts & crafts components of activities and assignments; all that multi-media; all those times when children are supposed to make external personal connections when they read rather than immersing themselves in the world of the text; and, of course, all that ongoing marginalization of linear lectures, texts, and writing assignments.

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