The Internet and the Mind

Is the Internet Really Big and Bad Enough?

As I sat down to write my feelings on this topic, many questions were puzzling me.  How is it that my brain processes all of this technology surrounding me?  Am I really making myself stupider? How is it that I can scroll and click with a mouse without thinking, simultaneously read words on the screen, even type so many words a minute without even having to (consciously) think about the letters I’m touching?  Are these actions really turning my brain to mush? I’ve never really been so sure.

PBS aired a well rounded and unbiased documentary of technology effect on society called “Digital Nation”.  At first, the documentary interviews many adults that seem to be very much against it.  Here are some quotes:

“They need to be stimulated, in a way they didn’t need to be stimulated before”

“They have done themselves a disservice by believing a multitasking environment can make them successful”

– Sherry Terckle, MIT Professor

“They are trying in a way that is not effective as it could be because they are distracted”

– David Jones MIT Professor

I’m just wondering how these MIT Professors even do their job!  How do they check their emails, or communicate with students? They obviously don’t consider themselves apart of the collective “they”.  I agree that we as the “digital native” (Horstman, 2010) generation are distracted, over stimulated, and ineffective.  I would just like to recognize that we didn’t choose this for ourselves, and we would not rely on sites such as ASUlearn, g-mail, etc. if they were not necessary to our entire education! We wouldn’t even be able to register for single class without the internet, and “we” are not the ones that set it up that way.  We as a generation and a society have gotten ourselves into this, and we are all guilty of it.

I ultimately agree with Professor Terckle, one of her last points really hit home when she said “Technology challenges us to assert our human values, which means first we have to figure out what they are. That’s not so easy. Take advantage of what it can do, but also ask what it is doing to us”.  I believe that truly is the key to this problem of technology and the internet.  The very last segment of the documentary shows a man recording himself with his laptop.  He starts to list everything he loves about the internet and its possibilities, but most of all; he loves “being able to turn it off”.  That is what we have to learn how to do more of.

Nicholas Carr’s What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains, a reading on the brain and how scientists and experimenters have discovered the truth about how amazing it is, truly fascinated me.  I have never before been presented with the facts about the brain in such a way that really kept me interested and left me astonished.  I have heard the facts before; sure the human brain is amazing, but never really grasped just how much until now.

The chapter’s main point can be summed up by this:

“What we learn as we live is embedded in the ever-changing cellular connections inside our heads. The chains of linked neurons form our mind true ‘vital paths’. Today, scientists sum up the essential dynamic of neuroplasticity with a saying known as Hebh’s rule: ‘Cells that fire together wire together’.”(Carr, 2010)

Contrary to past beliefs, the brain we possess is very plastic, meaning it is very changeable.  These paths of the brain are very changeable, but Carr makes sure to say, are not elastic. The brain cannot snap back to what it once was.  “The cellular components do not form permanent structures or play rigid roles. They’re flexible. They change with experience, circumstance, and need. Some of the most extensive and remarkable changes take place in response to damage to the nervous system.”

On the left: My Grandfather

I find this information fascinating.  My grandfather was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease about 10 years ago.  He is always on medication, but has found rehabilitation benefits from the Wii Fit.  The Wii Fit is a gaming system that has the player interact with their brain through visuals and balance control.  It is amazing how it helps him; my 80 year old grandfather with an immobilizing disease gets higher scores than my middle school age brothers.  “Our ways of thinking, perceiving, and acting, we now know, are not entirely determined by our genes. Nor are they entirely determined by our childhood experiences. We change them through the way we live, and as Nietzsche sensed. Through the tools we use.” (Carr 2010)

My Grandfather "PopPop" of the UK reported that two thirds of people with Parkinson’s that use the Wii Fit noticed an improvement in the management of their symptoms. The people who were surveyed noticed “ an improvement in their balance, which helps prevent falls that are common with Parkinson’s, that it is more convenient than going to the gym and some people don’t feel confident in that environment,   that you can track your progress through the exercises, which helps keep you motivated, that the social side of using the Wii with family and friends, combined with the adrenaline, really helps improve mood and combat the anxiety and depression that many people with Parkinson’s experience”(PDS of the UK, 2012)  This is just one of the many examples of technology furthering our society into better brain health.

I thought the Chapter “Digital You” of Scientific American: Brave New Brain. By J. Horstman gave a much different depiction of the brain than the Carr’s What the Internet is Doing to Our Brain.  Horstman gives little credit to the human brain.  He predicts in the future “people will ‘wear’ computers, special contact lenses and sensor that show multiple layers o reality and communication as well as sensors that locate them and show their location in blueprint-like detail” (2010, pg 62).  His chapter encourages healthy happiness by stepping away from technology.  Overall he just gives technology too much credit.

The things we worry about losing as we move into relying so much on technology are just the price of gain.  “When writing replaced memory, we lost some memory.  Something is always lost. That is the price of gain” – Professor James Paul Gee Arizona State University (PBS, 2011) But I also believe our brains can handle it.

When Carr described the history of brain research, one (now mostly dismissed) theory I believe, still has some truth to it: “But the workings of the brain, argued Descartes, did not explain the workings of the conscious mind. As the essence of the self, the mind existed outside of space, beyond the laws of matter. Mind and brain could influence each other (through, as Descartes saw it, some mysterious action of the pineal gland), but they remained entirely separate substances. Reality had a material side, which was the realm of science, but it also had a spiritual side, which was the realm of theology-and never the twain shall meet”.

No matter what you decide to call the “brain” or the “mind” or even the “heart” or the “soul”, there is an aspect of our being that is unexplainable and far beyond science.  We can’t even fully understand the brain yet!  Technology has nothing on the magic of our brains. Maybe in the future technology and the brain will combine; and that could really be detrimental, but for now, I will exercise my ability to turn it off (Digital Nation, 2010).


PBS Documentary “Digital Nation”

Horstman, J. (2010). Scientific American: Brave New Brain. San Francisco: Wiley.

Carr, N. (2010). What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains: The Shallows. New York: W.W. Norton & Company.

Parkinson’s UK


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