The ever-wise Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons have just written what is the calmest, clearest, sanest refutation I've seen of the "internet is making us dumber" argument. They have decoupled neural plasticity from the ways our attention is focused by various media--whether that media is a text message, a power point, or a long book. As they note so wisely: "To book authors like us it seems a heretical notion, but it is possible that spending 10 or more hours engrossed in a single text might not be the optimal regimen for building brainpower." Hallelujah. To read their whole op ed piece in the LA Times, you can go here: http://www.latimes.com/news/opinion/commentary/la-oe-chabris-computers-b...
And if you happen to be one of those strange throwbacks, a "book lover," I highly recommend their own, The Invisible Gorilla: And Other Ways Our Intuitions Deceive Us. It is just out this month and well worth your attention.
Simons and Chabris are two of the most important scientists in the study of attention. They, after all, are the two who, very early in their careers, invented the fabulous attention blindness experiment where the participants are asked to sort out the number of times people in a black shirt toss basketballs to people wearing a white shirt. The situation is confusing and therefore cognitively absorbing. So much so that half the people busy counting basketballs miss the appearance of a woman (an undergrad in the course that made the film) in a full-on gorilla suit who walks into the circle of basketball tossers, thumps her chest at the camera, and then strides off. They were seeking the most graphic way possible to illustrate the fact that, whenever we pay attention in one direction, we are missing other things, sometimes things as monumental as a woman in a gorilla suit.
So, yes, if you are texting, you are probably not focusing on your driving--and vice versa. And if you are turning around yelling at the kids to stay in their car seats you are also not focusing on the road. There is nothing intrinsically more captivating about texting than concern over your child's safety but neither one is inherently good for keeping your attention on the oncoming traffic.
It's that level of common sense that pervades their work and helps us get past the ridiculous hyperbole of either "the internet makes us dumber" or its equally unrealistic opposte "the internet makes us smarter." What the internet does is affords us the possibility of working in new ways with a world of other contributors. THAT makes us smarter, not as individuals, but in aggregate. That's how, in fact, the Internet, the World Wide Web, and such things as the Mozilla browser (the world's second most used browser and developed open source, through crowdsourcing) were all developed. Wikipedia too. And Trip Advisor. And any number of wonderful things in our digital lives that weren't made because we were smarter but because we had the right tools and the right partners to work together.
By the way, that list bit--about the ways that, collectively, we can be smarter with the right tools and the right partners? That is the punchline to my own forthcoming book on the science of attention in the digital age. It owes a large debt to Daniel Simons and Christopher Chabris's brilliant experiment and to the clarity and sanity of their ongoing work in our befuddled, dazzled, and promising digital era.