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The Internet: Bad for Your Brain?

The NY Times runs a story today entitled, “How to Train the Aging Brain.” As someone with an aging brain, I was intrigued. According to the story, neural connections in your brain — those things that receive, process and transmit information — weaken with disuse and age. Is there anything that can be done? The article has some suggestions, one of which was particularly interesting to me:

Educators say that, for adults, one way to nudge neurons in the right direction is to challenge the very assumptions they have worked so hard to accumulate while young. With a brain already full of well-connected pathways, adult learners should “jiggle their synapses a bit” by confronting thoughts that are contrary to their own, says Dr. Taylor, who is 66.

Teaching new facts should not be the focus of adult education, she says. Instead, continued brain development and a richer form of learning may require that you “bump up against people and ideas” that are different. In a history class, that might mean reading multiple viewpoints, and then prying open brain networks by reflecting on how what was learned has changed your view of the world.

It would take an Internet law and policy geek (me; perhaps you if you’re reading this) to immediately connect this with Cass Sunstein’s “” book. In (now in version 2.0), Sunstein argues that the Internet helps people find and interact with people and ideas they like while avoiding people and ideas they do not like (and that this is bad for democracy). From Chapter 1 of the book (available in pdf format from Princeton University Press here – the original Chapter 1 is in pdf here):

Technology has greatly increased people’s ability to “filter” what they want to read, see, and hear. With the aid of the Internet, you are able to design your own newspapers and magazines. You can choose your own programming, with movies, game shows, sports, shopping, and news of your choice. You mix and match.

You need not come across topics and views that you have not sought out. Without any difficulty, you are able to see exactly what you want to see, no more and no less. You can easily find out what “people like you” tend to like and dislike. You avoid what they dislike. You take a close look at what they like.

That is, the Internet helps us to stick to stuff that we know and accept and not have our basic ideas and knowledge challenged. If Sunstein (who is now the “Regulatory Csar” or head of the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs) is right (and some people think he is not), then it seems the Internet is not only bad for democracy, it’s bad for your brain.

2 thoughts on “The Internet: Bad for Your Brain?”

  1. I’m a Sunstein skeptic — at least I’m skeptical of his solutions. But it does seem to me that the trend in the media landscape is toward more customized information and more group polarization. The primary example isn’t the Internet, though, it’s Fox News — or MTV, or ESPN. (Virtual worlds are part of it too.) However, while intra-group conformity may lead to balkanization, this result can be recast as an increased diversity of viewpoints, which isn’t always the worst thing.

    And when you get a thousand subcultures blooming, chance are that you’ll bump up against more diverse viewpoints in your everyday (offline) life, and this will be good for your brain, right?

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