3 reasons the internet may be making us smarter, not dumber

Various studies hint that internet and social media users tend to be more engaged, not less.

For some time, experts from sociologists to tech industry analysts have been warning of a dumbing down effect on our brains from use of the internet. Tech skeptic Nicholas Carr, for one, has often pondered its potential negative impact on the wiring of our brains.

However, in reviewing some recent research data, Greg Stevens of The Kernel concludes the internet isn't necessarily making us dumber-- it may actually be enhancing cognitive functions.

Actually, he also points out, the argument that technology may be dumbing down users has been going on for decades. “It happened with film, television, and video games… and now the internet,” says Dr. Jillianne Code, assistant professor at the University of Victoria.

Indeed, in years past, there was a never-ending stream of angst about the devastating effect electronic communications (from phones to TV) and entertainment was having on peoples' ability to think critically, and even to write. An interesting twist to the rise of the internet and social media is that it requires written communication skills.

Stevens details and refutes the three bits of conventional wisdom circulating about today's internet and social media:

Myth 1: The internet is making us less intelligent. A study by Dr. Code found no differences between frequent and infrequent internet users for their processing skills. "But there was a difference in both planning and attention," Stevens says. "Specifically, frequent Internet users did better on the tests for both planning and attention than infrequent internet users." A possible explanation is that "using the internet actually stimulates your mind.... Of course, it’s also possible that people who have better attention and planning skills might use the Internet more often.... Maybe people with poor attention and planning skills just get fed up with the internet more easily and so don’t use it as much."

Myth 2: Relying on Google makes one's memory worse. A pair of neuroscience researchers performed brain scans of people while they did text searches on Google. "For those with internet experience, using Google to search actually produced higher levels of activation in the parts of the brain associated with complex reasoning and decision-making," Stevens reports.

Myth 3: Social media isn't destroying real-world relationships. "People who use online communication to talk with close friends had closer friendships, and felt more overall personal and social satisfaction, than people who did not use online communication to keep in touch with their close friends.... A study showed "no evidence that using online communication “displaced” spending face-to-face time with friends."

Perhaps technology is simply turning many of us into more more intellectually curious, critical thinkers. Ed Gottsman put it best all the way back in 2005, in the beginning, when Google first became a verb:

"Google may actually be nurturing a very different attitude toward life-long learning, and in so doing may be creating a fundamentally new kind of person--someone who's less patient, more inquisitive, less willing to take 'No' for an answer and more certain of his or her facts. In other words, a pain in the neck. Oh, well. I suppose it couldn't all be good news."

(Photo by Joe McKendrick.)

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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