Inside your skull there are upwards of 30 billion neurons. Each neuron is connected by synapses. And each neuron might have several thousand synapses. Now that’s a big network!
For the first half of the 20th century it was believed that once an individual had moved from childhood to adulthood those brain connections were set. As soon as we stopped growing it was thought our brains ossified. In fact the brain was likened to a mechanical device.
Although Sigmund Freud, in the late 19th century, suggested otherwise the fixed-brain view persisted until the late 1970’s. Research then started to suggest that the brain wasn’t hardwired but exhibited a certain degree of plasticity.
One of the earliest experiments to show this examined cultural differences. Even though Asian and Western children exhibit very similar brain responses to certain stimuli they change markedly later in childhood, after the effects of culture impose themselves on the brain.
Well it turns out that all those stories about our children’s inability to focus on one thing, read a book or sit in calm contemplation may be related to Internet browsing and exposure to multiple applications and devices all crying out for attention at the same time. Constantly skipping through a huge amount of interconnected information without dwelling on anything for long may be re-wiring their brains. Rewiring them so that behavior becomes expected. That behavior becomes self-fulfilling in the sense that the brain now wants to operate like that and continues to strengthen the rewiring.
This is generally considered to be a bad thing: A sign that the Internet is destroying our children’s ability to think deeply and to concentrate. Nicholas Carr explored the danger in his book The Shallows.
But I’m not so sure.
Remember Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink, about rapid cognition? Well William Duggan, from Columbia Business School, took that a step further in a book called Strategic Intuition. He showed that Eureka moments were the brain unconsciously connecting the dots of previously absorbed information. And the best people at doing this were those that were exposed to a large amount of unconnected data; People who read a lot from different disciplines, who were curious about lots of very different things. This sort of intuition may occur in a flash but is the result of a lot of slowly developing brain connections. And the flash is something new. Maybe something utterly unique – never conceived of before.
So if our brains have the capacity for more and more synapses why shouldn’t we try and create all of the connections we can? And doesn’t skipping through the Internet and building a behavior of constant exposure to many new things at the same time help in that regard? Maybe the danger is that we are creating much weaker synapses. But maybe, just maybe, this generation will turn out to be one of the most uniquely creative that humanity has ever created.
Try telling yourself that the next time you rage at your child for spending eight straight hours with connected devices!
The Internet might be re-wiring our brains. But that could just be a good thing.