Neuroconscience

The latest thoughts, musings, and data in cognitive science and neuroscience.

Tag: the shallows

My response to Carr and Pinker on Media Plasticity

Our ongoing discussion regarding the moral panic surrounding Nicolas Carr’s book The Shallows continues over at Carr’s blog today, with his recent response to Pinker’s slamming the book. I maintain that there are good and bad (frightening!!) things in both accounts. Namely, Pinker’s stolid refusal to acknowledge the research I’ve based my entire PhD on, and Carr’s endless fanning of the one-sided moral panic.

Excerpt from Carr’s Blog:

Steven Pinker and the Internet

And then there’s this: “It’s not as if habits of deep reflection, thorough research and rigorous reasoning ever came naturally to people.” Exactly. And that’s another cause for concern. Our most valuable mental habits – the habits of deep and focused thought – must be learned, and the way we learn them is by practicing them, regularly and attentively. And that’s what our continuously connected, constantly distracted lives are stealing from us: the encouragement and the opportunity to practice reflection, introspection, and other contemplative modes of thought. Even formal research is increasingly taking the form of “power browsing,” according to a 2008 University College London study, rather than attentive and thorough study. Patricia Greenfield, a professor of developmental psychology at UCLA, warned in a Science article last year that our growing use of screen-based media appears to be weakening our “higher-order cognitive processes,” including “abstract vocabulary, mindfulness, reflection, inductive problem solving, critical thinking, and imagination.”

As someone who has enjoyed and learned a lot from Steven Pinker’s books about language and cognition, I was disappointed to see the Harvard psychologist write, in Friday’s New York Times, a cursory op-ed column about people’s very real concerns over the Internet’s influence on their minds and their intellectual lives. Pinker seems to dismiss out of hand the evidence indicating that our intensifying use of the Net and related digital media may be reducing the depth and rigor of our thoughts. He goes so far as to assert that such media “are the only things that will keep us smart.” And yet the evidence he offers to support his sweeping claim consists largely of opinions and anecdotes, along with one very good Woody Allen joke.

Right here I would like to point out the kind of leap Carr is making. I’d really like a closer look at the supposed evidence demonstrating  “our intensifying use of the Net and related digital media may be reducing the depth and rigor of our thoughts.” This is a huge claim! How does one define the ‘depth’ and ‘rigor’ of our thoughts? I know of exactly one peer-reviewed high impact paper demonstrating a loss of specifically executive function in heavy-media multi-taskers. While there is evidence that generally speaking, multi-tasking can interfere with some forms of goal-directed activity, I am aware of no papers directly linking specific forms of internet behavior to a drop in executive function. Furthermore, the HMM paper included in it’s measure of multi-tasking ‘watching tv’, ‘viewing funny videos’, and ‘playing videogames’. I don’t know about you, but for me there is definitely a difference between ‘work’ multitasking, in which I focus and work through multiple streams, and ‘play’ multitasking, in which I might casually surf the net while watching TV. The second claim is worse- what exactly is ‘depth’? And how do we link it to executive functioning?

Is Carr claiming people with executive function deficits are incapable or impaired in thinking creatively? If it takes me 10 years to publish a magnum opus, have I thought less deeply than the author that cranks out a feature length popular novel every 2 years? Depth involves a normative judgment of what separates ‘good’ thinking from ‘bad’ thinking, and to imply there is some kind of peer-reviewed consensus here is patently false. In fact, here is a recent review paper on fmri creativity research (is this depth?) indicating that the existing research is so incredibly disparate and poorly defined as to be untenable. That’s the problem with Carr’s claims- he oversimplifies both the diversity of internet usage and the existing research on executive and creative function. To be fair to Carr, he does go on to do a fair job of dismantling Pinker’s frighteningly dogmatic rejection of generalizable brain plasticity research:

One thing that didn’t surprise me was Pinker’s attempt to downplay the importance of neuroplasticity. While he acknowledges that our brains adapt to shifts in the environment, including (one infers) our use of media and other tools, he implies that we need not concern ourselves with the effects of those adaptations. Because all sorts of things influence the brain, he oddly argues, we don’t have to care about how any one thing influences the brain. Pinker, it’s important to point out, has an axe to grind here. The growing body of research on the adult brain’s remarkable ability to adapt, even at the cellular level, to changing circumstances and new experiences poses a challenge to Pinker’s faith in evolutionary psychology and behavioral genetics. The more adaptable the brain is, the less we’re merely playing out ancient patterns of behavior imposed on us by our genetic heritage.

Here is my response, posted on Nick’s blog:

Hi Nick,

As you know from our discussion at my blog, I’m not really a fan of the extreme views given by either you or Pinker. However, I applaud the thorough rebuttal you’ve given here to Stephen’s poorly researched response. As someone doing my PhD in neuroplasticity and cognitive technology, it absolutely infuriated me to see Stephen completely handwave away a decade of solid research showing generalizable cognitive gains from various forms of media-practice. To simply ignore findings from, for example the Bavalier lab, that demonstrate reliable and highly generalizable cognitive and visual gains and plasticity is to border on the unethically dogmatic.

Pinker isn’t well known for being flexible within cognitive science however; he’s probably the only person even more dogmatic about nativist modularism than Fodor. Unfortunately, Stephen enjoys a large public following and his work has really been embraced by the anti-religion ‘brights’ movement. While on some levels I appreciate this movement’s desire to promote rationality, I cringe at how great scholars like Dennett and Pinker seem totally unwilling to engage with the expanding body of research that casts a great deal of doubt on the 1980’s era cogsci they built their careers on.

So I give you kudos there. I close as usual, by saying that you’re presenting a ‘sexy’ and somewhat sensationalistic account that while sure to sell books and generate controversy, is probably based more in moral panic than sound theory. I have no doubt that the evidence you’ve marshaled demonstrates the cognitive potency of new media. Further, I’m sure you are aware of the heavy-media multitasking paper demonstrating a drop in executive functioning in HMMs.

However, you neglect in the posts I’ve seen to emphasize what those authors clearly did: that these findings are not likely to represent a true loss of function but rather are indicators of a shift in cognitive style. Your unwillingness to declare the normative element in your thesis regarding ‘deep thought’ is almost as chilling as Pinker’s total refusal to acknowledge the growing body of plasticity research. Simply put, I think you are aware that you’ve conflated executive processing with ‘deep thinking’, and are not really making the case that we know to be true.

Media is a tool like any other. It’s outcome measures are completely dependent on how we use it and our individual differences. You could make this case quite well with your evidence, but you seem to embrace the moral panic surrounding your work. It’s obvious that certain patterns, including the ones probably driving your collected research, will play on our plasticity to create cognitive differences. Plasticity is limited however, and you really don’t play on the most common theme in mental training literature: balance and trade-off. Your failure to acknowledge the economical and often conservative nature of the brain forces me to lump your work in with the decade that preceded your book, in which it was proclaimed that violent video games and heavy metal music would rot our collective minds. These things didn’t happen, except in those who where already at high risk, and furthermore they produced unanticipated cognitive gains. I think if you want to be on the ‘not wrong’ side of history, you may want to introduce a little flexibility to your argument. I guess if it makes you feel better, for many in the next generation of cognition researchers, it’s already too late for a dogmatic thinker like Pinker.

Final thoughts?

Snorkeling ’the shallows’: what’s the cognitive trade-off in internet behavior?

I am quite eager to comment on the recent explosion of e-commentary regarding Nicolas Carr’s new book. Bloggers have already done an excellent job summarizing the response to Carr’s argument. Further, Clay Shirky and Jonah Lehrer have both argued convincingly that there’s not much new about this sort of reasoning. I’ve also argued along these lines, using the example of language itself as a radical departure from pre-linguistic living. Did our predecessors worry about their brains as they learned to represent the world with odd noises and symbols?

Surely they did not. And yet we can also be sure that the brain underwent a massive revolution following the acquisition of language. Chomsky’s linguistics would of course obscure this fact, preferring us to believe that our linguistic abilities are the amalgation of things we already possessed: vision, problem solving, auditory and acoustic control. I’m not going to spend too much time arguing against the modularist view of cognition however; chances are if you are here reading this, you are already pretty convinced that the brain changes in response to cultural adaptations.

It is worth sketching out a stock Chomskyian response however. Strict nativists, like Chomsky, hold that our language abilities are the product of an innate grammar module. Although typically agnostic about the exact source of this module (it could have been a genetic mutation for example), nativists argue that plasticity of the brain has no potential other than slightly enhancing or decreasing our existing abilities. You get a language module, a cognition module, and so on, and you don’t have much choice as to how you use that schema or what it does. The development of anguage on this view wasn’t something radically new that changed the brain of its users but rather a novel adaptation of things we already and still have.

To drive home the point, it’s not suprising that notable nativist Stephen Pinker is quoted as simply not buying the ‘changing our brains’ hypothesis:

“As someone who believes both in human nature and in timeless standards of logic and evidence, I’m skeptical of the common claim that the Internet is changing the way we think. Electronic media aren’t going to revamp the brain’s mechanisms of information processing, nor will they supersede modus ponens or Bayes’ theorem. Claims that the Internet is changing human thought are propelled by a number of forces: the pressure on pundits to announce that this or that “changes everything”; a superficial conception of what “thinking” is that conflates content with process; the neophobic mindset that “if young people do something that I don’t do, the culture is declining.” But I don’t think the claims stand up to scrutiny.”

Pinker makes some good points- I agree that a lot of hype is driven by the kinds of thinking he mentions. Yet, I do not at all agree that electronic media cannot and will not revamp our mechanisms for information processing. In contrast to the nativist account, I think we’ve better reason than ever to suspect that the relation between brain and cognition is not 1:1 but rather dynamic, evolving with us as we develop new tools that stimulate our brains in unique and interesting ways.

The development of language massively altered the functioning of our brain. Given the ability to represent the world externally, we no longer needed to rely on perceptual mechanisms in the same way. Our ability to discriminate amongst various types of plant, or sounds, is clearly sub-par to that of our non-linguistic brethren. And so we come full circle. The things we do change our brains. And it is the case that our brains are incredibly economical. We know for example that only hours after limb amputation, our somatosensory neurons invade the dormant cells, reassigning them rather than letting them die off. The brain is quite massively plastic- Nicolas Carr certainly gets that much right.

Perhaps the best way to approach this question is with an excerpt from social media. I recently asked of my fellow tweeps,

To which an astute follower replied:

Now, I do realize that this is really the central question in the ‘shallows’ debate. Moving from the basic fact that our brains are quite plastic, we all readily accept that we’re becoming the subject of some very intense stimulation. Most social media, or general internet users, shift rapidly from task to task, tweet to tweet. In my own work flow, I may open dozens and dozens of tabs, searching for that one paper or quote that can propel me to a new insight. Sometimes I get confused and forget what I was doing. Yet none of this interferes at all with my ‘deep thinking’. Eventually I go home and read a fantastic sci-fi book like Snowcrash. My imagination of the book is just as good as ever; and I can’t wait to get online and start discussing it. So where is the trade-off?

So there must be a trade-off, right? Tape a kitten’s eyes shut and its visual cortex is re-assigned to other sensory modalities. The brain is a nasty economist, and if we’re stimulating one new thing we must be losing something old. Yet what did we lose with language? Perhaps we lost some vestigial abilities to sense and smell. Yet we gained the power of the sonnet, the persuasion of rhetoric, the imagination of narrative, the ability to travel to the moon and murder the earth.

In the end, I’m just not sure it’s the right kind of stimulation. We’re not going to lose our ability to read in fact, I think I can make an extremely tight argument against the specific hypothesis that the internet robs us of our ability to deep-think. Deep thinking is itself a controversial topic. What exactly do we mean by it? Am I deep thinking if I spend all day shifting between 9 million tasks? Nicolas Carr says no, but how can he be sure those 9 million tasks are not converging around a central creative point?

I believe, contrary to Carr, that internet and social media surfing is a unique form of self stimulation and expression. By interacting together in the millions through networks like twitter and facebook, we’re building a cognitive apparatus that, like language, does not function entirely within the brain. By increasing access to information and the customizability of that access, we’re ensuring that millions of users have access to all kinds of thought-provoking information. In his book, Carr says things like ‘on the internet, there’s no time for deep thought. it’s go go go’. But that is only one particular usage pattern, and it ignores ample research suggesting that posts online may in fact be more reflective and honest than in-person utterances (I promise, I am going to do a lit review post soon!)

Today’s internet user doesn’t have to conform to whatever Carr thinks is the right kind of deep-thought. Rather, we can ‘skim the shallows’ of twitter and facebook for impressions, interactions, and opinions. When I read a researcher, I no longer have to spend years attending conferences to get a personal feel for them. I can instead look at their wikipedia, read the discussion page, see what’s being said on twitter. In short, skimming the shallows makes me better able to choose the topics I want to investigate deeply, and lets me learn about them in whatever temporal pattern I like. Youtube with a side of wikipedia and blog posts? Yes please. It’s a multi-modal whole brain experience that isn’t likely to conform to ‘on/off’ dichotomies. Sure, something may be sacrificed, but it may not be. It might be that digital technology has enough of the old (language, vision, motivation) plus enough of the new that it just might constitute or bring about radically new forms of cognition. These will undoubtably change or cognitive style, perhaps obsoleting Pinker’s Bayesian mechanisms in favor of new digitally referential ones.

So I don’t have an answer for you yet ToddStark. I do know however, that we’re going to have to take a long hard look at the research review by Carr. Further, it seems quite clear that there can be no one-sided view of digital media. It’s not anymore intrinsically good or bad than language. Language can be used to destroy nations just as it can tell a little girl a thoughtful bed time story. If we’re to quick to make up our minds about what internet-cognition is doing to our plastic little brains, we might miss the forest for the trees. The digital media revolution gives us the chance to learn just what happens in the brain when its’ got a shiny new tool. We don’t know the exact nature of the stimulation, and finding out is going to require a look at all the evidence, for and against. Further, it’s a gross oversimplification to talk about internet behavior as ‘shallow’ or ‘deep’. Research on usage and usability tells us this; there are many ways to use the internet, and some of them probably get us thinking much deeper than others.

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