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review" THE STRAITS TIMES SATURDAY, JUNE 12 2010 PAGE A32

I By Srnvnu Purxrn Us, the effects oI experience are highly

hni,tter u)on't make


specific to the experiences themselves. If
EW forms of media have al- you train people to do one thing (recog-
ways caused motal panics: nise shapes, solve maths puzzles, find hid-
the printing press, newspa- den words), they get better at doing that
pers, paperbacks and televi- thing, but almost nothing else. Music
sion were all once denounced doesn't make you better at maths, conju-
gating Latin doesn't make you more logi-

btrd brairts afus


as threats to their consumers'brainpower
and moral fibre. cal, brain-training games don't rnake you
So, too, with electronic technologies, smarter, Accomplished people don't bulk
PowerPoint, we'te told, is reducing dis- up their brains with intellectual calisthen-
course to bullet points, Search engines ics; they immerse themselves in their
lower our intelligence, encouraging us to fields. Novelists readlots ofnovels, scien-
skim.on the surface of knowledge rather tists read lots of science,
than dive to its depths. Twitter is shrink- The effects of consming electronic
ing our attention spans. media are also likely to be far more limit-
But such panics often fail basic reality ed than the panic implies. Media critics
checks, When cbmic books were accused write as if the brain takes on the qualities
of turning iuieniles into delinquents in of whatever it consumes, the information-
the 1950s, crime in the country was fall- al equivalent of "you are what you eat".
ing to recrird lows, lust as the denuncia- As with primitive peoples who believe
tions of video games in the 1990s coincid- that eatirig fierce animals will make them
ed with the great Arnerican crime decline. fierce, they assume that watching quick
The decades of television, transistor radi- cuts in rock videos turns your mental life
os and rock videos wete also decades in into quick cuts or that reading bullet
which IQ scores rose continuously, points and Twitter postings turns your
For a reality check today, take the thoughts into bullet points and Twitter
state of science, which demands high lev- postings.
els of brainwork and is measured by clear Yes, the constant arrival of informa-
benchmarks of discovery. These days sci- tion packets caqbe distracting or addic-
entists are never far from their e-mail, tive, especially to people with attention
rarely touch paper and cannot lecture defisit disorder. But distraction is not a
without PowerPoint, If electronic media new phenomenon. The iolution is not to
were hazardous to intelligence, the quali- bemoan technology but to develop strate-
gies of self-control, as we do with every
ty of science would be plummeting. Yet
discoveries are multiplying like fruit flies, other temptation in life. Turn off e-rnail
and progress is dizzying. Other activities or Twitter when you work, put away your
in the life of the mind, like philosophy, Blackberry at dinner time, ask your
spouse to call you to bed at a designated
history and cultural criticism, are like-
wise flourishing, as anyone who has lost a hour,
morning of work to the website Arts & And to encourage intellectual depth,
Letters Daily can attest. don't rail at PowerPoint or Google. lt's
Critics of new media sometimes use not as if habits of deep reflection, thor-
ough research and rigorous reasoning ev-
science itself to press their case, citing re-
er came naturally to people. They must
search that shows how "experience caD
be acquired in special institutions, which
change the brain". But cognitive neurosci-
we call universities, and maintained with
entists roll their eyes at such talk. Yes,
constant upkeep, which we call analysis,
every time we learn a fact or.skill the wir-
ing of the brain changes; it's not as if the
criticism and debate. They are not grant-
ed by propping a heavy encyclopaedia on
information is stored in the pancreas, But your lap, nor are they taken away by effi-
the existence of neural plasticity does not
cient access to information on the Inter-
mean the brain is a blob of clay pounded
net,
into shape by experience.
The new media have caught on for a
Experience does not revamp the basic
reason. Knowledge is increasing exponen-
infotmatio[-processing capacities of the
brain, Speed-reading programmes have
tially; human brainpower and waking
hours are not. Fdtunately, the Internet
long claimed to do iust that, but the ver-
and information technologies aie helping
dict was rendered by Woody Allen after
he read War And Peace in one sitting: "It
e effects of consuming equiualent of lou are what you eat".
,As with primitiue peoples.who belieue that
us manage, search and retrieve our collec -
tive intellectual output at different
was about Russia," Genuine multitasking,
too, has been exposed as a myth, not iust electronic media are als:o eatingfurce animals will make themfrerce, they scales, from Twitter and previews to
e-books and online encyclopaedias, Far
by laboratory studies but by the familiar ussrne that watching quick cuts in rock uideos
sight of an SUV undulating between lanes
as the driver cuts deals on his.cellphone..
Iy to be far more turns your mental life into quick cuts or thnt
from making us stupid, these technolo-
gies are the only things that will keep us
smart.
Moreover, as the psychologisttChds- limired than the panic implie* Media crirtcs reading bullet poin* and Twitter postings tunl.s
topher Chabris and.Daniel Simons show The writer, a profossor 0f psychology at Harvard,
in their new book The Invisible Gorilla:
wriie as if thc brain talrcs on thc qwlities of your thoughts into bullet points and Twitter is the author ol The Stutf 0f Thought.
lind Other Ways Our Intriitions Deceive whnteuer it conxunes, the informalional postings. NEW YORI( TIMES SYNDICATE