Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing Our Minds for the Better

Clive Thompson on September 18, 2018

 

This is an excerpt from Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing Our Minds for the Better.

I have one caveat to offer. If you were hoping to read about the neuroscience of our brains and how technology is “rewiring” them, this volume will disappoint you.

This goes against the grain of modern discourse, I realize. In recent years, people interested in how we think have become obsessed with our brain chemistry. We’ve marveled at the ability of brain scanning—picturing our brain’s electrical activity or blood flow—to provide new clues as to what parts of the brain are linked to our behaviors. Some people panic that our brains are being deformed on a physiological level by today’s technology: spend too much time flipping between windows and skimming text instead of reading a book, or interrupting your conversations to read text messages, and pretty soon you won’t be able to concentrate on anything—and if you can’t concentrate on it, you can’t understand it either. In his book The Shallows, Nicholas Carr eloquently raised this alarm, arguing that the quality of our thought, as a species, rose in tandem with the ascendance of slow-moving, linear print and began declining with the arrival of the zingy, flighty Internet. “I’m not thinking the way I used to think,” he worried.

I’m certain that many of these fears are warranted. It has always been difficult for us to maintain mental habits of concentration and deep thought; that’s precisely why societies have engineered massive social institutions (everything from universities to book clubs and temples of worship) to encourage us to keep it up. It’s part of why only a relatively small subset of people become regular, immersive readers, and part of why an even smaller subset go on to higher education. Today’s multitasking tools really do make it harder than before to stay focused during long acts of reading and contemplation. They require a high level of “mindfulness”—paying attention to your own attention. While I don’t dwell on the perils of distraction in this book, the importance of being mindful resonates throughout these pages. One of the great challenges of today’s digital thinking tools is knowing when not to use them, when to rely on the powers of older and slower technologies, like paper and books.

That said, today’s confident talk by pundits and journalists about our “rewired” brains has one big problem: it is very premature. Serious neuroscientists agree that we don’t really know how our brains are wired to begin with. Brain chemistry is particularly mysterious when it comes to complex thought, like memory, creativity, and insight. “There will eventually by neuroscientific explanations for much of what we do: by those explanations will turn out to be incredibly complicated,” as the neuroscientist Gary Marcus pointed out when critiquing the popular fascination with brain scanning. “For now, our ability to understand how all those parts relate in quote limited, sort of like trying to understand the political dynamics of Ohio from an airplane window about Cleveland.” I’m not dismissing brain scanning; indeed, I’m confident it’ll be crucial in unlocking these mysteries in the decades to come. But right now the field is so new that it is rash to draw conclusions, either apocalyptic or utopian, about how the Internet is changing our brains. Even Carr, the most diligent explorer in this area, cited only a single brain-scanning study that specifically probed how people’s brains respond to using the Web, and these results were ambiguous.

The truth is that many healthy daily activities, if you scanned the brains of people participating in them, might appear outright dangerous to cognition. Over recent years, professor of psychiatry James Swain and teams of Yale and University of Michigan scientists scanned the brains of new mothers and fathers as they listened to recording of their babies’ crying. They found brain circuit activity similar to that in people suffering from obsessive-compulsive disorder. Now, these parents did not actually have OCD. They were just being temporarily vigilant about their newborns. But since the experiments appeared to show the brains of new parents being altered at a neural level, you could write a pretty scary headline if you wanted: BECOMING A PARENT ERODES YOUR BRAIN FUNCTIONS! In reality, as Swain tells me, it’s much more benign. Being extra fretful and cautious around a newborn is a good thing for most parents: Babies are fragile. It’s worth the tradeoff. Similarly, living in cities—with their cramped dwellings and pound noise—stresses us out on a straightforwardly physiological level and floods our system with cortisol, as I discovered while researching stress in New York City several years ago. But the very urban density that frazzles us mentally also makes us 50 percent more productive, and more creative, too, as Edward Glaeser argues in Triumph of the City, because of all those connections between people. This is the “city’s edge in producing ideas.” The upside to creativity is tied to the downside o living in a sardine tin, or, as Glaeser puts it, “Destiny has costs as well as benefits. Our digital environments likely offer a similar push and pull. We tolerate their cognitive hassles and distractions for the enormous upside of being connected, in new ways, to other people.

I want to examine how technology changes our mental habits, but for now, we’ll be on firmer ground if we stick to what’s observably happening in the world around us: our cognitive behavior, the quality of our culture production, and the social science that tries to measure what we do in everyday life. In any case, I won’t be talking about how your brain is being “rewired.” Almost everything rewires it, including this book.

About the author

Thompson is one of the most prominent technology writers, respected for doing deeply-reported, long-form magazine stories that get beyond headlines and harness the insights of science, literature, history and philosophy. He specializes in writing not merely on the inventors of technologies, but about how everyday people use them—often quite unpredictably. In addition to the New York Times Magazine and Wired, he writes for Mother Jones and Smithsonian. He is one of the longest-running bloggers, having launched his science-and-tech blog Collision Detection since 2002. In his spare time he’s also a musician, performing in The Delorean Sisters and writing original music as part of the duo Cove. He is married and lives in Brooklyn with his two children.

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