Internet Not Rewiring Brains After All

Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker dismisses notions that the information age is making us dumber or even significantly altering our brains.

For a reality check today, take the state of science, which demands high levels of brainwork and is measured by clear benchmarks of discovery. These days scientists are never far from their e-mail, rarely touch paper and cannot lecture without PowerPoint. If electronic media were hazardous to intelligence, the quality of science would be plummeting. Yet discoveries are multiplying like fruit flies, and progress is dizzying. Other activities in the life of the mind, like philosophy, history and cultural criticism, are likewise flourishing, as anyone who has lost a morning of work to the Web site Arts & Letters Daily can attest.


Moreover, as the psychologists Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons show in their new book “The Invisible Gorilla: And Other Ways Our Intuitions Deceive Us,” the effects of experience are highly specific to the experiences themselves. If you train people to do one thing (recognize shapes, solve math puzzles, find hidden words), they get better at doing that thing, but almost nothing else. Music doesn’t make you better at math, conjugating Latin doesn’t make you more logical, brain-training games don’t make you smarter. Accomplished people don’t bulk up their brains with intellectual calisthenics; they immerse themselves in their fields. Novelists read lots of novels, scientists read lots of science.

From my own experience — which is admittedly atypical, given the vast amount of time I spend in front of a computer screen — the ability to quickly find information means that I’m less able to store it than I once was.  I tend not to remember names and other minute pieces of data with the facility I once did.  And I’m more worse at navigation — never a strong suit — than I used to be, since I can now easily get point-to-point directions from Google Maps or a GPS device, making me less apt to commit locations and spacial relationships to memory.

But I don’t think this is the degradation of capacity so much as changing habits.  The “muscles” associated with tasks that I now rely on the “crutch” of the Internet to help my accomplish have atrophied but I could rebuild them if necessary.

Pinker concludes:

The new media have caught on for a reason. Knowledge is increasing exponentially; human brainpower and waking hours are not. Fortunately, the Internet and information technologies are helping us manage, search and retrieve our collective intellectual output at different scales, from Twitter and previews to e-books and online encyclopedias. Far from making us stupid, these technologies are the only things that will keep us smart.

While that goes too far, he’s right that the Internet and associated phenomena help us organize and retrieve information better than was ever possible previously.

Going back to my own experience, in compensation for the diminished point storage capacity described above, I’ve become better than ever at finding patterns and seeing relationships between seemingly unrelated knowledge sets that I’ve acquired.  That was always the thing I was best at and I constantly practice it these days.  And easy and constant access to information means I’ve got more dots at my disposal to connect.

FILED UNDER: Uncategorized, , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. john personna says:

    I’m not sure where he went too far, given that you end up with pretty much the same conclusions.

    FWIW, I think Clay Shirkey has a key observation in the phrase Cognitive Surplus:

    Whatever we lose in multitasking we make up for in rapid search, and new tribes:

  2. john personna says:

    Oh, and I stumbled across Khan Academy since we last talked education:

    That such a thing isn’t “enough” for “everybody” doesn’t seem to have slowed him down.

  3. James Joyner says:

    I’m not sure where he went too far, given that you end up with pretty much the same conclusions.

    I may just be over-reading “keep us smart.”

  4. Dave Schuler says:

    I don’t think it’s the information age or the Internet per se but I do think there’s a change in cognition going on. I think its occurring as a consequence of the move towards visual presentation, a trend that’s been gaining steam over the last sixty years. There’s a substantial body of scholarship documenting the ways in which non-literate people think of the world differently than do literate folks. Note that I’m not saying that the literate are necessarily smarter than the non-literate just that they view things differently. Similarly, those who have been immersed in today’s increasingly visual world may be experiencing similar changes. See over at my place under Visualcy

  5. Michael Reynolds says:

    Memory is clearly being outsourced. No one memorizes phone numbers anymore. I don’t memorize web addresses or email addresses. My computers do all of that for me. As for actual physical addresses, the only one I know is my own.

    The internet is no longer an externality to the younger generation. It’s not an object “out there” or even a place “over there,” it’s fully-integrated into their thought processes. It’s a given. It’s inside them.

    We are for the first time in history rapidly approaching a place where memory is handled by machines. It’s as revolutionary as turning hard labor over to machines. Could we all re-adjust to using shovels instead of earth-movers? Sure, in theory, but we’ll never choose to do so. And we won’t choose to ignore the vast memory extension provided by the internet.

    This is one of the reasons I am so frustrated with the debates on education. It’s not a right vs. left thing, it’s not even a money thing. It’s a complete revolution, and all the forces of education, from all factions and parties, are in effect counter-revolutionary and utterly irrelevant.

    The school is no longer necessary as a place of learning. As a warehouse for kids, as a place for them to play, sure. But is there a reason a kid needs to go to a specific geographical location to learn? No. And that’s just the beginning of what’s happening. The core function of education must shift from the imparting of facts, to epistemology. It’s not that facts have become less important, it’s that facts are free and ubiquitous. In a world where all data is everywhere, all the time, the essential function of education is to teach people to make sense of that firehose of data.

    That is absolutely not happening in schools. On the contrary, schools are trying to build walls to keep the internet out, in order to defend their monopoly on the imparting of facts.

    Of course teaching critical thinking skills runs smack into various adult interests opposed to the true interests of children. Religion is the enemy of critical thinking. So are political parties. So are Luddite pressure groups like Common Sense Media. Adults with their heads stuffed full of nonsense despise the idea of children learning to think as opposed to learning facts.

  6. john personna says:

    I guess as relates to both Dave’s and Michael’s comments:

    I’ve been kind of amazed, as I take more time out of urban life, to discover my trail memory. I rode the backbone trail up out of Pacific Palisades maybe 3 or 4 times, and then came back 5 years later to hike it in reverse. I couldn’t remember it all, but from each point I was at, I could picture the next few segments. I knew where I was. “Not so amazing,” I thought. “This is what my brain is for.”

    Place memory is important to any mobile creature, so it’s neat but not that surprising that we can organize our virtual “worlds” into “sites” like OTB.

    I think we need to remember that OTB and Khan University are “places” and that is how this web thing is building out. Education is going to be about mapping the places we need.

    Based on my reading of Pinker’s Blank Slate, this makes sense, as our brains have some pre-wired functions. We are better at things we are built for than the truly abstract things we learn. (Confusingly the book is called “blank slate” but it is an argument against the “blank slate” theory of mind.)