Nicholas Carr had an interesting article at Wired Magazine last week. It reports on research relating to the potential impact of the internet on human brains.  It’s very provocative, and worth a read.

The core notion is that web content, with its many hyperlinks and other potential distractions, may impede, rather than enhance, learning. In fact, the headline states that the internet “shatters” focus and “rewires” our brains. Disturbing, if true.  But I’m not persuaded, as I discuss below.

Carr contends that the internet is an “interruption system. It seizes our attention only to scramble it.”  Well, yes, and no.  It is a system with interruptions, but it is no greater an interruption system than life itself.  As I’ve stated before, our brains developed over millions of years of our forebears walking across the savanna.  We were looking for interruptions:  things that we could eat, or things that could eat us. The internet can scramble attention, but we are arguably hardwired to deal with things that scramble attention — falling rocks, or leaping saber-toothed tigers, crying babies, or the walk of a potential mate.

In fact, interruptions were the overwhelming cognitive norm throughout our evolutionary development. Our brains are composites of genetic wiring going back millions of years. Homo sapiens — modern humans — arose perhaps 200,000 years ago. Only in recent genetic history — perhaps 4,000 years ago (or as many as 10,000) — did mankind begin writing.  We had to wait many thousands of years later before wide-scale adoption of the printing press created an environment in which a large number of humans began reading on a regular basis.  If we peg mass printing from the year 1500, that would mean that fewer than 30 generations of humans have been exposed to books.  That is a drop in the genetic bucket. Thus. if anything, books are the new thing, and the internet, with its richer environment and multiple tugs on attention, may be the old.

If we assume that people are processing information on the internet on the assumption that it is like receiving information from a book, then surely there are many more distractions on the internet.  But environmental distractions abound when one reads, as well.  As someone who grew up in a house with four siblings, I don’t think I ever was able to read “without distractions.” Furthermore, children faced numerous distractions in the classroom for generations before the internet presented them with distractions on-screen.

Thus, I’m not persuaded by Carr’s article.  Maybe the article is dealing with the law of small numbers.  Carr’s lede discusses six subjects divided into two groups in a psychology experiment, and then talks about another test with 18 subjects.  With data pools of three and nine, respectively (6/2, 18/2), there is reason for skepticism about drawing universal conclusions.  Carr cites other studies with 70 or 100 subjects, but again, the significance of those studies may be questionable.

At bottom, I don’t think it is possible to write that the internet is making us “smarter” or “dumber.”  The internet provides information.  Some of that information will inform. Some will distort.  Some will slide along the surface; some will plumb the depths. Maybe, most importantly, some of that information will at some point overwhelm.  But there is no single way the internet will impact homo sapiens. And it is quite doubtful that it is, suddenly and irrevocably, “shattering” focus.