We’re going to take a closer look at these stories, but please tell us what you think in the comment section.

The Internet and Attention

In the Atlantic Monthly, journalist Nicholas Carr wonders if “Google is making us stoopid [sic].” The search engine, in this instance, is an emblem of the Internet age, and Carr worries that the sheer abundance of information on the Web is short-circuiting our brains:

The Net seems to be chipping away my capacity for concentration and contemplation. My mind now expects to take in information the way the Net distributes it: in a swiftly moving stream of particles. Once I was a scuba diver in the sea of words. Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski.

Given the pervasive influence of the Web on daily life, there’s been surprisingly little research on the ways in which the Internet affects the brain. (Carr’s evidence for a decrease in attention span is almost entirely anecdotal.) Although some studies have found a “significant association” between measures of Internet addiction and the symptoms of attention deficit disorder (ADHD), other research suggests that the symptoms of ADHD all but disappear when affected children interact with a computer. In other words, the computers improve the focus of the children. This finding suggests that one reason there might be a correlation between ADHD and computers (Web surfing, video games, and so on) is that children with attention problems use computers to help control the symptoms of their disorder. They self-medicate with electronics.

Vaughan Bell, a clinical psychologist at the Institute of Psychiatry at King’s College London and blogger at MindHacks, proposes a few possible studies that could help reveal the tangled relationship between Internet usage and concentration:

A longitudinal study would be useful. It would need to test a group of people at the beginning to make sure they were all equivalent [in terms of the ability to focus] and would then re-test everyone at a later date and see whether those who became heavy web users had worse sustained attention.

A randomised controlled trial would be the best evidence, and it would randomly assign a group of equivalent people to heavy or light web use and then it would measure the effects on the ability to concentrate.

What do you think? Has the Internet affected your ability to concentrate?

The Limits of fMRI
Nikos Logothetis, director of the Max Plank Institute for Biological Cybernetics, has published a series of influential papers on the nature of the fMRI signal. He’s long been interested in the how the information detected by brain scanners (which measure changes in blood flow) correlates with the underlying activity of neurons. His most recent paper, published this week in Nature, is a review of both the uses and abuses of fMRI. Although the technology is often described as a “window into the brain,” Logothetis makes it clear that the metaphor of transparency is inappropriate. He cites a long list of factors that complicate the interpretation of fMRI data, from the challenge of distinguishing between excitation and inhibition to the difficulty of measuring the relative activation of different brain areas. If brain scanners are like a window, then the window has some very dirty glass.

Nevertheless, Logothetis believes that brain scanners represent a crucial tool for modern neuroscience. He ends the article by calling for scientists to increasingly rely on multiple techniques when probing the brain. He argues that, given the limitations of fMRI, it’s essential to supplement, whenever possible, the “beautiful graphics” with direct recordings from actual brain cells.

Today, a multimodal approach is more necessary than ever for the study of the brain’s function and dysfunction…If we really wish to understand how our brain functions, we cannot afford to discard any relevant methodology.

On a related note, a recent paper in Cognition demonstrated that showing people pictures taken in a brain scanner significantly influenced how subjects evaluated the “scientific reasoning” of the experiments, even when the pictures didn’t add any additional information. The researchers argue that snapshots of the brain made the science paper more convincing because people have a natural “affinity for reductionistic explanations of cognitive phenomena.”

Fishermen Think Holistically

It’s long been recognized that East Asians tend to think more holistically than Westerners. Instead of parsing the world into categories and rules, East Asians tend to emphasize relationships and similarities between objects and people. As the psychologist Richard Nisbett writes in his book The Geography of Thought, “Modern Westerners see a world of objects—discrete and unconnected things. Modern Asians are inclined to see a world of substances—continuous masses of matter.” (As Nisbett notes, these differences in thinking have deep historical roots. The ancient Greeks saw the world as consisting of different kinds of matter, whereas ancient Chinese philosophers emphasized the continuity of all creation.)

The question, of course, is what causes such stark difference in cognitive style? One leading explanation is that holistic thought is a by-product of societies with greater social interdependence. Nisbett defines an interdependent society as one in which “relationships exist for their own sake and rest on a sense of unity and mutality. These relationships are based on sympathy, frequent face-to-face interaction, shared experiences, and even shared property.” In contrast, independent societies tend to see such relationships as mostly a means to an end. “Such relationships,” Nisbett writes, “frequently involve the exchange of goods and labor and are often based on bargaining and contracts.”

To test the possible link between social interdependence and holism, Nisbett and colleagues studied farmers, fisherman and herders in Eastern Turkey. Unlike the fishing and farming communities, which depend on a set of deep-seated relationships, herders are famously nomadic and isolated. As predicted, herders also exhibited significantly less holistic cognition. Like Westerners, they tended to focus on the differences between objects rather than their similarities. They were more likely to perceive the world as a collection of things rather than as a fluid set of substances.

Are you a herder or a fisherman? Do you think your culture has influenced your cognitive style?

Mind Matters is edited by Jonah Lehrer, the science writer behind the blog The Frontal Cortex and the book Proust was a Neuroscientist.