Tools and The Changing Brain

In his article, ‘The Neuro Transformers: Culture & the Malleability of the Human Brain’, Robin Phillips drew attention to an interesting fact about brain scans done on London taxi drivers in the 1990s. Researchers found that, in the cabbies, the posterior hippocampus, a part of the brain that stores spatial representations, was considerably larger than in non-cab drivers.

Commenting on this, Phillips noted that “clearly, a London taxi-driver’s genetic make-up is not fundamentally different from a London mechanic’s or a London web designer’s, yet there are very clear structural differences in their brains. How did this come about?”

Once again the explanation lies in what we explained in our previous post on neuroplasticity: the brain is not static and fixed, as scientists used to think; rather, it is an organism that is continually changing to meet the demands we place upon it.

One example of this was given in an earlier post where we shared a report from Susan Greenfield on an experiment at the Harvard Medical School involving piano exercises. Volunteers without any experience playing the piano were taught piano exercises. Those volunteers who practiced piano exercises for five days showed marked structural changes in the area of the brain associated with finger movement. Interestingly, however, another group who had merely imagined doing the piano exercises had changes in their brain structure just as pronounced as those that had actually had the lessons.

The plasticity of the brain should offer hope to those who find learning difficult, or who struggle to get their brains around certain complex concepts. We can literally improve our brain by how we use it.

But this also brings with it a certain challenge, as we hinted at the end of our previous post. Neuroplasticity not only means that the brain is capable of improving and strengthening itself over time; it also means that the brain can be weaken because of how we use it. If we are not proactive to use our tools in the most neurologically efficient way, our tools can come to dominate us, ultimately weakening the brain’s capacity to store and process information. As technology historian and Pulitzer Prize nominee Nicholas Carr put it in his book The Shallows, “a central theme of intellectual and cultural history” is that “the tools we use to write, read and otherwise manipulate information work on our minds even as our minds work with them…”

As our tools work on our minds, this sometimes means that we become smarter. But it can also mean we become dumber. The issue isn’t just the tools we’re using, but how we’re using them.

This is especially true when it comes to the internet. As the most powerful information conduit in the history of human civilization, the internet’s potential to make us smarter is almost staggering. But the internet also has the potential to change our brains in less positive ways. The difference comes entirely down to how you use it.

So here is a question for you. Are you using the internet in a way that keeps your brain sharp, or in a way that leads to intellectual decay?

As we have studied the latest findings in brain science, we have assembled various steps for equipping you to achieve your fullest potential when studying online. Applying these steps could literally make a difference between success or failure in your EPPP Exam Prep.

Further Reading

• EPPPocalypse: Our Changing Human Brains, Good or Bad? Modern technology is changing the way our brains work, says neuroscientist

• Review of The Shallows: What The Internet Is Doing To Our Brains 

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