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1.4 Brain damage

Described image
Figure 5  The Internet is changing our brains…

Carr makes reference to the Internet changing our cognitive capacity, that it is rewiring our brains. In one sense, this is a facile truism; any time you learn anything your brain is ‘rewired’ at a synaptic level. If you remember anything from this book, it will have rewired your brain, but you probably won't need to worry about it. There is a trend, however, to promote this rewiring to a grander scale, to suggest it is some kind of evolutionary change. Susan Greenfield is fond of making pronouncements of this nature, for example, that “these technologies are infantilising the brain into the state of small children who are attracted by buzzing noises and bright lights, who have a small attention span and who live for the moment” and even ‘we do not know whether the current increase in autism is due more to increased awareness and diagnosis of autism, or whether it can – if there is a true increase – be in any way linked to an increased prevalence among people of spending time in screen relationships’ (Derbyshire, 2009).

These arguments seem both vague and ill-founded. The suggestion is that because the brain rewires itself (what is termed ‘brain plasticity’) it can therefore be influenced by the amount of time spent playing games, being online and so on (although the activities are rarely differentiated and often grouped together as ‘screen time’). This is as true of playing a computer game as it is of riding a bicycle or writing a book. It is the subsequent conclusion that it is necessarily harmful that lacks evidence and, as with the quotes above, is based on supposition and anecdote. Brain plasticity is also, surely, an antidote to these concerns, since if an individual's brain has been rewired by one set of behaviour, it can be rewired again. The intention of referring to brain circuitry seems to be to instigate fear. As neuroscientist Joshua Greene puts it, ‘the Internet hasn't changed the way we think anymore than the microwave oven has changed the way we digest food. The Internet has provided us with unprecedented access to information, but it hasn't changed what we do with it once it's made it into our heads’ (Gerschenfeld, 2010).

Whether there are social and behavioural impacts of operating online is a serious question, however. Just as the television had serious social impacts, we must accept that computers and Internet will also have consequences.

These will undoubtedly be a mixture of positive and negative, but I would argue that using pseudo-scientific explanations to back up prejudices will not help us address these issues.