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?

5 thoughts on “My response to Carr and Pinker on Media Plasticity

  1. A lively discussion indeed -Similar to you, it seems to me that such sweeping statements that technology and multitasking make us less capable of abstract, creative or deep thought are easily rationalized but hardly justified.

    Ultimately, I think it in comes down to your definition of knowledge. To suggest that technology has reduced human knowledge is unfathomable, particularly if we consider the biomedical sciences. In fact, were buried in data just as in industry and government.

    Finding solutions to explore and understand such complex, multifaceted information, I would suppose, fundamentally requires creative, higher-order thought and strong technological awareness.

  2. Nice post Micah. I look forward to an ensuing discussion with Carr if he responds.

    Also, the question you raise about cognitive norms is indeed a good one. It goes back 2500 years ago to Socrates’ complaint about written language. It seems then that we have to strike a balance between panicky fears about “loss of depth” and a genuine fear of losing functionality because we can, for example, no longer concentrate long enough to finish a book. If someone has trouble finishing long book chapters, but excels at reading tweets, can we say that some attentional capacity is lost? Given the high functionality of enduring attention (i.e. cognitive persistence), it seems that we could set up a normative standard for “cognitive styles” in terms of how long attention can be sustained. Perhaps a meditation task could accomplish this. But then again, who is to say that the capacity for sustained attention is a good thing? Regardless, I am inclined to say that any cognitive style which leads to enduring attention is “good”. What do you think?

  3. well done sir. one thing i’m interested in is not cognitive functioning per se but the notion that we are learning to think in large groups now rather than as individuals. the big difference between the internet and previous forms of communications media involves immediacy and interaction on a scale many magnitudes greater than humanity has ever known. but i have a lot of research to do. good links here for me to explore. rock on.


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