This Is Your Brain; This Is Your Brain Online

I’m a different person online. I’m more social. I’m funnier. Or so I like to tell myself. In face to face encounters I feel awkward and slow. According to my online bio , I am “Jennifer, aka Jenn, aka JeSais….a creative writing student ….currently living in New Mexico.” I paint words on paper sculpting my life into stories. I am messy. I love the feeling of cool sand between my toes and the salty tang of ocean on my lips. Also:

I speak Spanish
and a little Portuguese
some French
and even a few words of German:
koenntest du mir bitte die butter reichen. please pass the butter.
(don’t laugh, it came in handy when my roommate’s parents came to visit.)
My favorite tea is Blood Orange Rooibus Herbal Tea from the New Mexico Tea Company.
I’m in grad school to get an MFA in Creative Writing.
I read.
I like brussel sprouts.
I make awesome pozole.
I love to write with a purple Sharpie(r) Ultra Fine Point Permanent Marker.
I think David Byrne is a musical genius.

In the comments section, my friend Karin added, “And you make the best salads ever!”

Contrary to recent studies I feel smarter online. I have at my fingertips (which can type 85 words a minute) a search engine that can answer almost any question, and an RSS reader loaded up with feeds so I can quickly scan for new information from around the internets: NPR, , to “Brevity’s Creative Nonfiction Blog” and “Dating in the Odyssey Years” (a friend’s blogs), and more.

GOOGLE READER August 30, 2010 (a sampling):
SALON: Howard Kurtz and WashPost’s contempt for its readers
TWC: Eight Things Mrs. G is Loath to Admit
NEW PAGES: Writer Beware Reveals Media Error
NPR: University Attendance Scanners Make Some Uneasy
NPR: Our Storied Lives: The Quest for ‘Something More’
NPR: Freddie Mercury: Rock ‘N’ Roll’s Humble Showman

And so, within about seven minutes:

  • I had learned the Mrs. G (a blogger) doesn’t trust Bill Maher, did not like Avatar, did like All About Steve, once called a suicide hotline and was disconnected and now associates Slurpees with perseverance (you have to read the post for yourself).
  • I also learned that a six year old really didn’t land a million dollar book deal, and something about using scanners to track college student attendance (I didn’t actually READ the articles).
  • I did scan the article on NPR about “our storied lives” about how we constantly re-arrange the narrative of our lives—and how that sense of “story” of our own lives influences how we experience our lives, which sounded a lot like some points Judith Herman made in her book Trauma and Recovery which I had read in a graduate level creative writing seminar I had taken last year, so I shared the link on Facebook with the note “Attn folks from Daniel Mueller’s Trauma Drama seminar… any of this sound familiar?”
  • I also clicked on the Freddie Mercury story, then went on a little journey through my memory, first searching Wikipedia for “Freddie Mercury”. I had forgotten Freddie Mercury died from AIDS. I had forgotten he was so young. Only 45. People live with AIDS so much longer these days. He would have been 64. Then I remembered gym class, circa 1978. GIRLS gym class. Wearing polyester one-piece zip-up-the-front blue rompers, we played field hockey. My team won. We sang, at the top of our lungs “We are the champions… no time for losers, CAUSE WE ARE THE CHAMPIONS… of the world.”

* * *

In the print version of this essay hyperlinks will be footnoted. In the online version, they will be hyperlinked with anchor text, as indicated by a different color font and will be underlined. On some websites once a link has been clicked, the color of the font will change. Currently, my website is set for the font to appear green and underlined, and stays that way even when clicked. Rather than a stylistic choice, it is evidence of my lack of CSS skills.

* * *

So does this seven minute romp through my online life prove that I am smart? Nicholas Carr would not think so. In 2008 he wrote an article for The Atlantic, “Is Google Making Us Stupid,” in which he posits (and backs up by some pretty impressive research) that the use of the internet is actually re-wiring our brains; it is changing the way we think, and is ruining our ability to think deeply, to read and absorb long articles of complicated text. In June 2010 when Carr published a book expanding on the topic, The Shallows, a New York Times review dismissed many of Carr’s conclusions, including his contention that the “incessant noise of the internet….has turned the difficult text into an obsolete relic.” Times critic Jonah Lehrer instead noted that while it is true that the internet is changing our brains, “everything changes our brain.” Lehrer cited a study by neuroscientists from the University of California, Los Angeles:


rightquote….performing Google searches led to increased activity in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, at least when compared with reading a “book-like text.” Interestingly, this brain area underlies the precise talents, like selective attention and deliberate analysis, that Carr says have vanished in the age of the Internet. Google, in other words, isn’t making us stupid —it’s exercising the very mental muscles that make us smarter.

Technology writer and New Media expert Clay Shirky also disagreed with Carr. In an article he wrote for the The Wall Street Journal, “Does the Internet Make Your Smarter?” Shirky argued that the internet is in fact where we are sowing the seeds of a new culture of reading and writing:


rightquoteThe case for digitally-driven stupidity assumes we’ll fail to integrate digital freedoms into society as well as we integrated literacy. This assumption in turn rests on three beliefs: that the recent past was a glorious and irreplaceable high-water mark of intellectual attainment; that the present is only characterized by the silly stuff and not by the noble experiments; and that this generation of young people will fail to invent cultural norms that do for the Internet’s abundance what the intellectuals of the 17th century did for print culture.

My roommate Matt knocks on my door and asks, “Have you been to El Morro National Park?” Matt is a fourth year medical student doing a month-long rotation here at the University of New Mexico hospital. He arrived a few days before his start date with his boyfriend, Oz, who will return to Tel Aviv in a couple of days. They are trying to see as much of New Mexico as they can.

“No. Where is it?” I ask, as I pull up Google Maps, and start to type EL MORRO… “Do you mean ‘El Morro National Monument’?”

“Yeah, that’s it. Have you been there?”

“No, I’ve never even heard of it,” I say. “And their website sucks,” I mutter to myself as I click broken link (Trails…) , after broken link (Ranger Programs…)

Continue reading “This Is Your Brain; This Is Your Brain Online”