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Photomicrograph of different components of the rat cerebellum, including Purkinje neurons in green, glia (non-neuronal cells) in red, and cell nuclei in blue. (Image from Hello I am Here.)

Carl Schoonover’s Portraits of the Mind: Visualizing the Brain from Antiquity to the 21st Century was reviewed in the New York Times on November 29, and the rippling outward hasn’t stopped. Schoonover is a 27 year old Ph.D. candidate in neuroscience at Columbia. Overwhelmed by the beauty of the images he was working every day, he thought non-neuroscientists as well as non-scientists would be amazed by the visually rich landscape he was exploring.

A number of coffee table books have been published that feature microscopic imagery, and of course I am seduced by any and all images of life in the substrata. But this book combines visually stunning imagery with thoughtful and compelling content as well. Each chapter features an essay by an expert in the field (and a foreword by science writer Jonah Lehrer). The microscopic images are fantastical and explosively lively, but I am also engaged by a compendium of exquisite drawings by Spanish neuroscientist Santiago Ramón y Cajal (1852-1934). All in all, this is a feast.

Diffusion MRI image of a patient who has suffered a stroke in the thalamus. This has resulted in major disruptions to certain axon tracts, some of which are visible at the bottom of the figure.

Drawing by Santiago Ramón y Cajal

Complexity and flow: Never what is seems

Nicholas Carr’s latest book, The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains, continues to spawn conversations regarding what we can and cannot know about the effect of cybertechnology on our brains and cognitive abilities. (A recent post about the book is here with links to earlier posts about agent provocateur Carr.)

In an article posted on Miller-McCune by Nate Kornell and Sam Kornell, the authors draw parallels to the jeremaids written in the 50s about the damage television would do to intelligence and education. That turned out to not be true. (Research the Flynn Effect for more information on this.)

Kornell and Kornell make their case regarding the internet:

Is Nicholas Carr correct to argue that the Internet is remapping our neural circuitry in a harmful way? Critics hoping to poke holes in Carr’s argument have cited a 2009 study by neuroscientists at the University of California, Los Angeles, who found that compared to reading a book, performing Google searches increased brain activity in the area that underlies selective attention and deliberate analysis.

It’s not a bad study to cite, since Carr specifically claims that the Web is bad for our neural circuitry. But it’s also misleading, because the term “intelligence” is so broad and complex that neurological research hasn’t begun to explain it in its totality — which means that the study shouldn’t be used to support the claim that the Internet is making us “smarter,” either.

The authors point that everything affects the neural circuitry and that neural circuitry per se is not the place to explore effects on intelligence.

So what, finally, of the simple logical argument that skipping from hyperlink to hyperlink online is less mentally nourishing than reading a challenging book or a long magazine article? Here, critics of the Web have a strong case. Life is a daily struggle to attain clarity of thought, and devoting your undivided attention to something for an extended period of time — like a book — is a good way to achieve it. Better, probably, than surfing the Web.

But clarity of thought and IQ — which is the measure of intelligence independent of knowledge — are not the same thing. The great wealth of empirical data gathered by neuroscientists and cognitive psychologists in recent decades suggests that “intelligence” is a broad term for a very complex phenomenon, which makes it tenuous at best to draw conclusions about the effect of the Internet on something as “global” — as the Nobel-prize winning cognitive psychologist Daniel Kahneman has put it — as intelligence.

So even though bookreading requires a formalized concentration and surfing the Internet disperses it, that is no foundation for saying that life on the Web makes us less intelligent. “It can be mentally distracting, but that doesn’t mean it’s mentally deforming.”

It’s useful to remember, when considering the argument that Web is contributing to our mental downfall, that ruing the invention of new forms of mass communication is a historical tradition of long standing. Television, typewriters, telegrams, telephones, writing in languages other than Latin, writing at all—at one point or another all of these were declared sure signposts of the fall of Western civilization.

None of them did, and if history is any guide, the Internet won’t either.