I read with great interest Jim Holt’s essay Smarter, Happier, More Productive in the March 3, 2011 edition of the London Review of Books. Holt reviews Nicholas Carr’s book How the Internet is Changing the Way We Think, Read and Remember (Atlantic 2010). Carr talks about his “analogue youth” and “digital adulthood,” observing that long-term use of a computer (and the internet) seemed to have changes the way he thought about and executed his work, and perhaps the way his brain worked. Holt’s essay explains:
Lest we take him to be speaking metaphorically, Carr launches into a brief history of brain science, which culminates in a discussion of ‘neuroplasticity’: the idea that experience affects the structure of the brain. Scientific orthodoxy used to hold that the adult brain was fixed and immutable: experience could alter the strengths of the connections among its neurons, it was believed, but not its overall architecture. By the late 1960s, however, striking evidence of brain plasticity began to emerge. In one series of experiments, researchers cut nerves in the hands of monkeys, and then, using microelectrode probes, observed that the monkeys’ brains reorganised themselves to compensate for the peripheral damage. Later, tests on people who had lost an arm or a leg revealed something similar: the brain areas that used to receive sensory input from the lost limbs seemed to get taken over by circuits that register sensations from other parts of the body (which may account for the ‘phantom limb’ phenomenon). Signs of brain plasticity have been observed in healthy people, too. Violinists, for instance, tend to have larger cortical areas devoted to processing signals from their fingering hands than do non-violinists. And brain scans of London cab drivers taken in the 1990s revealed that they had larger than normal posterior hippocampuses – a part of the brain that stores spatial representations – and that the increase in size was proportional to the number of years they had been in the job.
The full version of Holt’s essay is here.
Maybe I reveal too much about the way my own brain works, but one of the first thoughts in reading Holt’s review was this: if brains can reorganize themselves based on what one sees (maps, the streets of London) or does (play the violin), then might long-term consumption of pornography change the brain, too? If so, then so what? In other words, if consuming pornography does change the brain, how does it change the brain and what does that mean for brain function?
I’d be curious to know if there anyone doing this kind of scientific research.