"Google is not making us stupid, PowerPoint is not destroying literature, and the Internet is not really changing our brains," declare Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons, coming out against a couple years' worth of conventional wisdom in the Los Angeles Times. Their targets include Nicholas Carr, who penned the Atlantic cover story Is Google Making Us Stupid? back in 2008, and who recently published a book on the subject entitled The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains.
Carr argues that, as we become more accustomed to the Internet age, "[w]e willingly accept the loss of concentration and focus, the fragmentation of our attention, and the thinning of our thoughts in return for the wealth of compelling, or at least diverting, information we receive." Chabris and Simons say this claim is bogus, and based on "anecdotal" evidence.
The brain, psychology professors Chabris and Simons explain, isn't quite as plastic as such critics would have readers believe.
The basic plan of the brain's 'wiring' is determined by genetic programs and biochemical interactions that do most of their work long before a child discovers Facebook and Twitter ... Of course, the brain changes any time we form a memory or learn a new skill, but new skills build on our existing capacities without fundamentally changing them. We will no more lose our ability to pay attention than we will lose our ability to listen, see or speak.
Furthermore, Chabris and Simons point out that, even if the Internet did decrease our chances of spending "10 or more hours engrossed in a single text," it's not clear that marathon reading is, in fact, "the optimal regimen for building brainpower." Rather, they argue, any danger from the Internet is "not from the information itself, or from how it could rewire our brains, but from the way we think about our own knowledge and abilities"—we get overconfident.
Each time we text while we are driving and do not get into an accident, we become more convinced that we can do two (or three or four …) things at once, when in reality almost no one can multitask successfully and we are all at greater risk when we do so. ...
So Google is not making us stupid, PowerPoint is not destroying literature, and the Internet is not really changing our brains. But they may well be making us think we're smarter than we really are, and that is a dangerous thing.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.