Stupid is as Stupid Does?
Speaking of plastic . . . the question “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” is one worth asking. Of course, it takes some smarts to ask and answer that question, so Google hasn’t made us that stupid—yet. That provocative question comes from an article in the Atlantic Monthly way back in 2008. The gist of the now 10+ year old article was that the easy availability of information is creating an artificial sense of pace (“real life”—personal relationships, for example--do not move that fast) and it tends to cause us to confuse information (of which we have too much) with wisdom (of which we have too little).
As we use what the sociologist Daniel Bell has called our “intellectual technologies”—the tools that extend our mental rather than our physical capacities—we inevitably begin to take on the qualities of those technologies. The mechanical clock, which came into common use in the 14th century, provides a compelling example. In Technics and Civilization, the historian and cultural critic Lewis Mumford described how the clock “disassociated time from human events and helped create the belief in an independent world of mathematically measurable sequences.” The “abstract framework of divided time” became “the point of reference for both action and thought.”
The clock’s methodical ticking helped bring into being the scientific mind and the scientific man. But it also took something away. As the late MIT computer scientist Joseph Weizenbaum observed in his 1976 book, Computer Power and Human Reason: From Judgment to Calculation, the conception of the world that emerged from the widespread use of timekeeping instruments “remains an impoverished version of the older one, for it rests on a rejection of those direct experiences that formed the basis for, and indeed constituted, the old reality.” In deciding when to eat, to work, to sleep, to rise, we stopped listening to our senses and started obeying the clock. Our brains begin to get programmed to respond to artificial stimuli over against the real world of our senses and our sensations.
So, how does that relate to plastic? Remember that we are not using plastic as a noun but as an adjective. Neural plasticity refers to the newly discovered ability of the brain (as an organ) to literally recreate itself.
Google—and other online technologies—are allowing us to create a world that recreates us literally on the cellular level.
Researchers’ understanding of this reality is growing as they study the brains of combat and trauma victims suffering from PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder), Neuroscientists discovered that the actual neural circuitry of the brain got rewired by traumatic events. Far from a rigid framework set permanently in place in childhood, our brains are constantly reinventing themselves in response to events and experiences in our lives.
As the article noted, “James Olds, a professor of neuroscience who directs the Krasnow Institute for Advanced Study at George Mason University, says that even the adult mind ‘is very plastic.’ Nerve cells routinely break old connections and form new ones. ‘The brain,’ according to Olds, ‘has the ability to reprogram itself on the fly, altering the way it functions.’”
We will see why this is both good and bad news in our next blog.