cc licensed ( BY ) flickr photo shared by spablab

A colleague recently shared a link to this Reuters story Is surfing the Internet altering your brain?. My degrees in Geology hardly qualify me to refute brain scientists, but my common sense really wrankles at suggestions such as:

“We’re seeing an evolutionary change. The people in the next generation who are really going to have the edge are the ones who master the technological skills and also face-to-face skills,” Small told Reuters in a telephone interview
….

He said a study of 24 adults as they used the Web found that experienced Internet users showed double the activity in areas of the brain that control decision-making and complex reasoning as Internet beginners.

“The brain is very specialized in its circuitry and if you repeat mental tasks over and over it will strengthen certain neural circuits and ignore others,” said Small.

“We are changing the environment. The average young person now spends nine hours a day exposing their brain to technology. Evolution is an advancement from moment to moment and what we are seeing is technology affecting our evolution.”

Now the person they quote is a brain scientist, so if the authority system holds up, my opinions amount to jack.

But I fail to make the leap from an observed and measured set of increases of brain activity to the notion that brains are changing in an evolutionary sense.

Try this on. Let’s say I take 24 ordinary people in my own study, and I have them spend a month with an Olympic bicycle trainer. We should likely be able to measure a marked increase in activity in their thigh muscles- does this mean that they are evolving to be a super human strong race?

Evolutionary change has to play out over many generations. The peppered moths change of color due to an increase in industry was documented, and although short on a human time scale, it may have been hundreds of generations on moth years. And a color change is small potatoes compared to a change in brain function.

Our species change to achieve some sort of better survival status. What is the evolutionary advantage of sitting behind a computer ort playing video games? Trying to avoid stereotypes, are these the samples that will reproduce more successfully as to pass on their traits to offspring?

I just do not buy the “brain change” argument. The increase of activity in brains of internet users can be documented, but there is no evidence of an evolutionary change.

This stuff goes back to Marc Prensky’s stuff:

“Different kinds of experiences lead to different brain structures, ” says Dr. Bruce D. Perry of Baylor College of Medicine. As we shall see in the next installment, it is very likely that our students’ brains have physically changed ““ and are different from ours ““ as a result of how they grew up.

This is a supposition, notice the weasel words– it is very likely that our students’ brains have physically changed.

Prensky does go on to qualify his assertion:

But whether or not this is literally true, we can say with certainty that their thinking patterns have changed. I will get to how they have changed in a minute.

Yes, I can buy that people who spend time in front of the screens may develop different thinking patterns (as will happen for other subjects who are immersed in books?), but I really cannot swallow assertion that human brains are changing because of time spent online.

Show me a brain scan of a LOLCAT impressed on a human cortex, that might turn me into a believer…

Profile Picture for Alan Levine aka CogDog
An early 90s builder of the web and blogging Alan Levine barks at CogDogBlog.com on web storytelling (#ds106 #4life), photography, bending WordPress, and serendipity in the infinite internet river. He thinks it's weird to write about himself in the third person.

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