Is Google Making Us Stupid?/GA1 - Themes and Motifs - Effect of Technology On The Brain's Neural Circuitry

Effect of Technology On The Brain's Neural Circuitry

In the essay, Carr introduces the discussion of the scientific support for the idea that the brain's neural circuitry can be rewired with an example in which philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche is said to have been influenced by technology. According to German scholar Friedrich A. Kittler in his book Gramophone, Film, Typewriter, Nietzsche's writing style became more aphoristic after he started using a typewriter. Nietzsche began using a Malling-Hansen Writing Ball because of his failing eyesight which had disabled his ability to write by hand. The idea that Nietzsche's writing style had changed for better or worse when he adopted the typewriter was disputed by several critics. Kevin Kelly and Scott Esposito each offered alternate explanations for the apparent changes. Esposito believed that "the brain is so huge and amazing and enormously complex that it's far, far off base to think that a few years of Internet media or the acquisition of a typewriter can fundamentally rewire it." In a response to Esposito's point, neuroscientist James Olds stated that recent brain research demonstrated that it was "pretty clear that the adult brain can re-wire on the fly". In The New York Times it was reported that several scientists believed that it was certainly plausible that the brain's neural circuitry may be shaped differently by regular Internet usage compared with the reading of printed works.

Although there was a consensus in the scientific community about how it was possible for the brain's neural circuitry to change through experience, the potential effect of web technologies on the brain's neural circuitry was unknown. On the topic of the Internet's effect on reading skills, Guinevere F. Eden, director of the Center for the Study of Learning at Georgetown University, remarked that the question was whether or not the Internet changed the brain in a way that was beneficial to an individual. Carr believed that the effect of the Internet on cognition was detrimental, weakening the ability to concentrate and contemplate. Olds cited the potential benefits of computer software that specifically targets learning disabilities, stating that among some neuroscientists there was a belief that neuroplasticity-based software was beneficial in improving receptive language disorders. Olds mentioned neuroscientist Michael Merzenich, who had formed several companies with his peers in which neuroplasticity-based computer programs had been developed to improve the cognitive functioning of kids, adults and the elderly. In 1996, Merzenich and his peers had started a company called Scientific Learning in which neuroplastic research had been used to develop a computer training program called Fast ForWord that offered seven brain exercises that improved language impairments and learning disabilities in children. Feedback on Fast ForWord showed that these brain exercises even had benefits for autistic children, an unexpected spillover effect that Merzenich has attempted to harness by developing a modification of Fast ForWord specifically designed for autism. At a subsequent company that Merzenich started called Posit Science, Fast ForWord-like brain exercises and other techniques were developed with the aim of sharpening the brains of elderly people by retaining the plasticity of their brains.

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