Will the web mean the end of the contemplative mind?
The human brain is an organ that adapts readily to experience. It was once believed that the malleability of our neural pathways ended with childhood, but we now know that even the adult brain is constantly changing in response to stimuli and cues from the environment. "Plasticity," says Alvaro Pascual-Leone, a neuroscientist at the Harvard Medical School, is "the normal ongoing state of the nervous system throughout the life span."
The tools we use to aid our brains in gathering, analyzing, and storing information - what I call our intellectual technologies - exert a particularly powerful influence over the functioning of the billions of neurons in our skulls and the trillions of synapses that connect those neurons into the circuits that govern cognition, perception, and emotion. The influence has been documented by many neurological studies over the past forty years. It is also immediately apparent from even a cursory glance at mankind's history. Intellectual technologies like the map, the mechanical clock and the printing press helped to spur major shifts in the way our ancestors thought, with enormous ramifications for society and culture.
As we celebrate the 20th birthday of the World Wide Web, we would be wise to spare a moment to consider the effects the Web is having, and will continue to have, on the lives of our minds. The Internet is rapidly subsuming all of our traditional communications media, the various tools we use to transmit, discover and share information. We devote more and more of our time and attention to the Web because it is so cheap and convenient to use and so responsive to our needs and desires. A touch of a key or a keypad brings a gratifying response - an answer, a message, a connection. Who can resist?
But as the Web bombards us with an endless stream of entrancing multimedia tidbits, as it prods us to skitter from one task to another, it is also altering the circuitry of our brains. Just as the intellectual technology of the book taught us how to be deep readers (calm, reflective, patient), so the Web is teaching us how to be info-surfers (hurried, distracted, anxious). The neural changes do not go away when we turn off our computer; they persist in the structure and functioning of our gray matter. They become part of our mental "wiring." A Stanford University study, published just last month, showed that heavy "media multitaskers" score much more poorly on tests of attentiveness and concentration than do people who do little media multitasking. Heavy multitaskers are "suckers for irrelevancy," said the lead researcher, Clifford Nass. "They're distracted by everything."
For most of the past 500 years, the ideal mind was the contemplative mind. The loss of that ideal, and that mind, may be the price we pay for the Web's glittering treasure.