Internet: Good or Bad for the Brain?

I was fairly quiet on the blogs and Twitter the latter part of last week, because I spent Thursday and Friday at the Health Horizons Conference, sponsored by the Institute for the Future (IFTF). I’ll post some reflections soon, but first I want to comment on an interesting discussion that was brewing last week. Over at Neuron Culture, David Dobbs has some nice insight into the ongoing debate between renowned science/tech writers Stephen Pinker and Nicholas Carr.

Carr apparently states in his new book, The Shallows, (which I have not read), that the internet might be killing our brains with increasing distractions. Pinker, on the other hand, thinks that while many people are initially panicked by new media technology, one day society will see the internet for what it truly is: a way of richly organizing the ever-increasing abyss of information.

A second showdown, this time between writers Jonah Lehrer and Clay Shirky, tackles the question: Is the internet better for creating a ‘Cognitive Surplus’ than television? Shirky believes the era of the mindless television sitcom moved us away from social interaction and deep thought, but the advent of online social exchange – even in the form of inane material such as the lolcats at – is once again bolstering our feeble brains. Lehrer fires back, saying that television and internet alike can fuel passionate offline discussions and detailed analysis.

From a neuroscience perspective: Is the never-ending online information flow good or bad for our brains? (Or, for that matter, is technology good for our brains?) Is one technology (television) better or worse than another (the internet)?

Just like all aspects of life, I suspect brain growth is all about balance. For me, Twitter serves as a filter for my information stream. I follow people whose insight and opinion I respect (whether I agree with them or not doesn’t matter). But sitting down to write a blog post takes me away from the cacophony of Twitter for a moment to think critically about a particular topic. Often I engage my colleagues and friends in a discussion, either in person or over email/chat, regarding the ideas in my head long before I publish anything online. I balance the real-time information flow with real-life conversations.

One could argue that any information stream – be it reading a book, watching a movie, or surfing the net could deaden our brain if we don’t pause for reflection. Intelligently analyzing, as opposed to passively experiencing, the information that enters our brains is no doubt one of the distinguishing factors that makes us human. So don’t be afraid of technology, and don’t quibble over which technologies are good or bad. Rather, simply use technology to augment human social interaction.