- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Three generations inhabit the summer house, and an extended family gathers each evening at the dinner table to talk about the events, reflections and encounters of the day. The adults worry about the growing scarcity of doctors who take insurance because they fear lower fees when Obamacare kicks in. Both children and adults lament the dying fish and birds on the beaches of the Gulf of Mexico 1,500 miles away and talk warmly of the pleasure of swimming in the cool, clean Atlantic. The boys, age 11 and 14, taking summer science classes in marine biology, describe how certain parasites look under a microscope and marvel at the distinctive colors of feldspar and quartz in the neighborhood.

Despite the chatter about computers, iPods and iPads, Twitter and Facebook, the circle of family around the table might have stepped off a cover of the old Saturday Evening Post. The elders at table take a reassurance that maybe the changes wrought by electronics and the mass media might not be quite as bad as they thought. It’s clear that the boys, who seem to spend an inordinate amount of time with video games and computer surfing, nevertheless read books, some even on paper and others on their Kindle, and the conversation reveals that their young minds have not yet turned to mush.

Still, there are those alarming observations from scientific laboratories that the new media is rewiring our brains, forever altering the way we compute information, and this is especially damaging to children and teenagers. We would all like the reassurance of chilling out, but it’s impossible to stifle the nagging concerns about the new ways young brains process information.

In “The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains,” Nicholas Carr, a science and technology writer, argues that the Internet is the most mind-altering conceptualizer for learning since the invention of the alphabet and numbers. He thinks it’s turning us into “lab rats, constantly pressing levers to get tiny pellets of social and intellectual nourishment.” Advertisers are betting on our clicking their links, encouraging us to buy not what we necessarily need, but whatever they have to sell. Links connect us to an endless chain of websites until the constant repetition narrows rather than expands consciousness. A study of 3,500 voters between the ages of 18 and 24 found that 2008 voters typically looked for sites with which they expected to agree, to reinforce opinions. No one was much interested in getting new and contrary information.

Mr. Carr’s most alarming observations are drawn from discoveries in neuroscience showing how brains change - the evolutionary term is “adapt” - on encountering new information, expanding certain neural pathways in the brain while others atrophy. “We are evolving from being cultivators of personal knowledge to being hunters and gatherers in the electronic data forest,” he argues. He cites a study of London cabdrivers, much celebrated for their minute knowledge of street addresses and how to get to them, who showed a diminished memory once introduced to the GPS screen on the dashboard.

Changes in how we receive information often have led to worries about what moral and intellectual abilities we would forfeit in return. When Guttenberg first operated his press, not only the monks decried its impact on the market for the monastery’s beautifully illustrated manuscripts. Political and religious leaders lamented the loss of control over information and interpretation and worried that the popular press would lead to diminished interest and understanding in the common folk.

They were right to worry. It took decades to find the spark to start the Reformation, but the printing quickly changed power relationships by increasing literacy and widening the distribution of knowledge. Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker celebrates the way the electronic media is making us smarter. “Experience does not revamp the basic information capacities of the brain,” he writes in “The Stuff of Thought.” Just as we are not really what we eat, what we know is not determined by the process by which we learn. We still need self-discipline to read and to pursue additional information if we want to specialize or simply be well-informed.

Matt Ridley, author of “The Rational Optimist,” concurs, describing the new electronic processing as sexy, generating an interconnectedness. “Ideas are having sex with other ideas from all over the planet with ever-increasing promiscuity,” he says. “The telephone had sex with the computer and spawned the Internet.” But it’s still up to the rest of us to shape these electronic children, to help them become good citizens. Not an easy task, sexy or not.

Suzanne Fields is a syndicated columnist.