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Do you remember "This is your brain on drugs"? A 12-second video of an egg in a hot skillet swept the airwaves in the late 1980s, courtesy of the Partnership For a Drug-Free America. Debates raged over whether TV rots the brain. Update that to the 21st century and the question shifts to our newest habit: Does spending prolonged periods of time on the Web help or hurt our personal software?
If you're curious, take two free tests covered in the New York Times piece Hooked on Gadgets, and Paying a Mental Price, about how the Internet affects our brains. (Here's our own previous post about it).
Might we develop new skills that make up for whatever we lose? Are the Internet's effects on the brain inherently unhealthy? Anywhere Access (Microsoft's campaign name for secure Web access anytime, anywhere, from any device) means being able to plug in anytime for as long as we want to. We're just starting to find out what that means for human wiring.
Decreasing our ability to concentrate is one downside of neuroplasticity -- the brain's ability to physically change and adapt to environmental and internal changes in ways we're just beginning to understand. So says The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains, by Nicholas Carr, the book underlying the NYT report. (Remember the infamous 2008 Atlantic Monthly article, Is Google making us stupid? Same guy. And see, for example, The Internet Ate My Brain for another perspective on Carr's work.)
The upside? There is an upside. For an inspiring look at how the brain changes and adapts in astonishing ways, read the book I just devoured: The Brain That Changes Itself, by Dr. Norman Doidge. It relates what we've discovered about neuroplasticity through a series of true stories of recoveries that most doctors would have considered impossible just a few years ago. It's so well-written and compelling that I even read his extensive notes at the end. And I never do that.
To get inpsired about evolving from the media consumers of the late 20th century to creative online producers helping society advance, read Clay Shirky's brand-new book: Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age (and on Amazon here). When he spoke at Microsoft Reserach last week, he argued that our Internet behavior is evolving toward acts of interconnected genius and outright bravery. As he proved with his previous book, Here Comes Everybody, his observations and ideas have a way of catching on.
But back to the immediate question. How are our brains affected when we work on the Web?
If you're willing to comment, please add approximately what age bracket you're in. Digital natives are likely to be, literally, wired differently from folks my age. (That is, old enough to remember when the 12-second fried egg PSA first appeared. Compared to Nancy Reagan's "Just say no" campaign, it was downright cool.)