Steven Pinker: "Tech rots your brain" hysteria is stupid


Supposedly, the use of technology is making it harder for human beings to focus and get things done. As somebody whose focusing and self-management skills have been drastically improved in recent years, thanks to technology (Shout-out to the nice folks at Daylite! Thanks, Twitter, for improving my focus and on-the-spot analysis during conference lectures! DEVONthink PRO, you rock at helping me manage information and think big-picture!), I was already pretty skeptical about this assertion.

Seems that I have no less an authority than Steven Pinker backing up my skepticism.

For a reality check today, take the state of science, which demands high levels of brainwork and is measured by clear benchmarks of discovery. These days scientists are never far from their e-mail, rarely touch paper and cannot lecture without PowerPoint. If electronic media were hazardous to intelligence, the quality of science would be plummeting. Yet discoveries are multiplying like fruit flies, and progress is dizzying. Other activities in the life of the mind, like philosophy, history and cultural criticism, are likewise flourishing, as anyone who has lost a morning of work to the Web site Arts & Letters Daily can attest.

Critics of new media sometimes use science itself to press their case, citing research that shows how "experience can change the brain." But cognitive neuroscientists roll their eyes at such talk. Yes, every time we learn a fact or skill the wiring of the brain changes; it's not as if the information is stored in the pancreas. But the existence of neural plasticity does not mean the brain is a blob of clay pounded into shape by experience.

Experience does not revamp the basic information-processing capacities of the brain. Speed-reading programs have long claimed to do just that, but the verdict was rendered by Woody Allen after he read "War and Peace" in one sitting: "It was about Russia." Genuine multitasking, too, has been exposed as a myth, not just by laboratory studies but by the familiar sight of an S.U.V. undulating between lanes as the driver cuts deals on his cellphone.

New York Times: Mind over Mass Media

Image courtesy Flickr user Hljod.Huskona, via CC.