NYAS Event: Human Consciousness

What do you get when a neuroscientist, a psychologist, an expert in primate cognition, and a philosopher come together to talk about consciousness? A lot of questions. Can we truly ever reach an acceptable definition of consciousness? Is consciousness purely subjective? Is consciousness solely a human trait? Can neuroscience alone explain consciousness? Can a robot be conscious? Every topic relevant to consciousness, except maybe The Matrix movies, was discussed last night at the New York Academy of Sciences lecture, “The Thinking Ape: The Enigma of Human Consciousness.”

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What the Internet is doing to our brains

There was a time when I used a computer to research homework assignments, and used Microsoft Word to type up my results. Once the assignment was done, I’d shut off the computer and only turn it on again if another project came up.

That was then. Now my computer serves as my gateway to social networking; it keeps me informed on world issues; it’s a portal for communication. I panic when it is not working properly. It seems hard to remember how we survived without today’s technology; but we did, and so did our ancestors.

I attended the discussion, “From Stone Tools to the Internet: How Humans Adapt to Technology,” at the New York Academy of Science on November 9. The lecture was led by Nicholas Carr, author of The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains, and featured an introduction by anthropologists Nicholas Toth and Kathy Schick.

Toth and Schick, who run The Stone Age Institute in Bloomington, IN, said technology first came into existence 2.5 million years ago in the form of stone tools that were used to hunt, gather and carve drawings on cave walls. Early apes and humans had to break nuts, cut meat, and build shelter with whatever they had available at the time. Their brains were smaller in size than the modern human brain, yet the early humans used more of their senses for everyday life, including looking at the sun to tell time and even knowing how to travel without a written map (or MapQuest.com!)

Carr said that with the more technology we have today, the more our brains function as computers. The plasticity of our brains allows us to absorb information and adapt to circumstances and changes. “The brain is good at strengthening circuits we most use,” he said. “Habits turn into actual cellular changes within the brain.”

The Internet, social media, and video games help the brain to multi-task, but according to Carr, they hinder our focus on one particular task, which in turn inhibits our sustained attention. Carr displayed brain scans that suggest our minds are busier when surfing the net because we are trying to do too much—determining whether or not to click links, skimming through a limitless number of pages, and browsing information. On top of that, he said, we may not be retaining information because we figure we can just look it up again if needed. The brain did not seem as active in the scan of someone reading text on an actual paper page.

The brain experiences “cognitive overload” when reading the Internet, Carr argued, and is not taking in information for long-term memory because information is constantly being pushed in and out of our mind. Past articles regarding the brain and multitasking suggest that it’s hard for the mind to multitask effectively while we’re performing basic cognitive skills. For some, it appears that the Web has become a replacement for long-term memory. Carr described what he sees as pros and cons to humans relying so heavily on the Internet:

Pros

● Information gathering

● Fast filtering

● Problem solving

● Improves visual processing

Cons

● Less productivity

● No personal knowledge building

● Constantly switching your focus

● Less creativity.

It took me a long time to upgrade to a cell phone that acts as my personal agenda, sends me instant messages, and has the Internet at my fingertips, but now I wonder how I managed without it because it makes daily tasks easier. However, I value staying in the “stone age” because I still read paperback books instead of using an electronic reader. My life moves along just fine with or without gadgets. To use a quote Carr borrowed from T.S. Eliot: “Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge? Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?”

–Blayne Jeffries

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