The Situationist

Pinker and the Brain

Posted by Adam Benforado on June 12, 2010

Steven Pinker had a provocative op-ed in the New York Times on Thursday taking on all those Luddites out there who bemoan the technological marvels of the Google search engine, PowerPoint presentation, and Twitter account as sure harbingers of the death of the brain.

Pinker places the latest panic in context and points out that earlier fear-mongering over the impact of comic books and video games on crime and the effects of television, radio, and rock videos on I.Q. scores turned out to be baseless.

As he concludes:

The effects of consuming electronic media are [] likely to be far more limited than the panic implies. Media critics write as if the brain takes on the qualities of whatever it consumes, the informational equivalent of “you are what you eat.” As with primitive peoples who believe that eating fierce animals will make them fierce, they assume that watching quick cuts in rock videos turns your mental life into quick cuts or that reading bullet points and Twitter postings turns your thoughts into bullet points and Twitter postings.

* * *

Yes, the constant arrival of information packets can be distracting or addictive, especially to people with attention deficit disorder. But distraction is not a new phenomenon. The solution is not to bemoan technology but to develop strategies of self-control, as we do with every other temptation in life. Turn off e-mail or Twitter when you work, put away your Blackberry at dinner time, ask your spouse to call you to bed at a designated hour.

* * *

And to encourage intellectual depth, don’t rail at PowerPoint or Google. It’s not as if habits of deep reflection, thorough research and rigorous reasoning ever came naturally to people. They must be acquired in special institutions, which we call universities, and maintained with constant upkeep, which we call analysis, criticism and debate. They are not granted by propping a heavy encyclopedia on your lap, nor are they taken away by efficient access to information on the Internet.

* * *

The new media have caught on for a reason. Knowledge is increasing exponentially; human brainpower and waking hours are not. Fortunately, the Internet and information technologies are helping us manage, search and retrieve our collective intellectual output at different scales, from Twitter and previews to e-books and online encyclopedias. Far from making us stupid, these technologies are the only things that will keep us smart.

I agree with most of Pinker’s analysis, but a couple of sentences in the middle of the op-ed struck me as highly questionable and I wonder what other Situationist readers think:

Accomplished people don’t bulk up their brains with intellectual calisthenics; they immerse themselves in their fields. Novelists read lots of novels, scientists read lots of science.

Pinker’s point is that “the effects of experience are highly specific to the experiences themselves.  If you train people to do one thing (recognize shapes, solve math puzzles, find hidden words), they get better at doing that thing, but almost nothing else.”

Fair enough as a general statement, but what about the novelist example?  Are the best novelists those who “immerse themselves in their field[]?  Does “read[ing] lots of novels” make you a better novelist?  Or are the best novelists—the truly creative and groundbreaking writers—those who read widely, ponder issues in various fields, and have broad life experience.

Consider the great British writer, Iris Murdoch.  Prior to writing her first novel, Under the Net, published when she was only 25, Murdoch studied ancient history, classics, and philosophy at Oxford, and then worked for the Treasury and the United Nations.  Over the years, reading and writing lots of novels did not seem to make her a better writer.  Under the Net is considered by most critics to be Murdoch’s best work (and one of the finest English-language novels of the 20th century), though she went on to write 25 more novels.

* * *

For a sample of related Situationist posts, see Banning Laptops in the Classroom – AbstractThe Situation of I.Q.,” “The Perils of “Being Smart” (or Not So Much),” “Wise Parents Don’t Have “Smart” Kids.”and “Just Me and My Friend, Sony.”

3 Responses to “Pinker and the Brain”

  1. Love that title! :)

  2. bahamund said

    Well, as you note, it is a ‘general’ statement. Isn’t it generally true that if you want to be a good writer, you need to be a ‘strong’ reader, and to be so you need to be an avid reader? It seems Prof. Pinker talks about necessary, not sufficient, condition of being a writer.

  3. Becca said

    I disagree with the idea that one becomes a better scientist by reading science and so forth. As a scientist, I’ve found that I’ve enriched my scientific mind by reading outside of my discipline (and yes, even novels). Similarly, I think good writers are well-read, but they also need to have done more than just read novels, otherwise it’ll be a pretty boring book.

    I think the (undersold) advantage of the Internet is how easy it is to get at least a basic education outside of one’s discipline. I can find loads of classical literature online, read blogs by people who work in other fields and quickly learn historical facts from wikipedia. I do think that the information age changes the way we think — and rightly so. For example, in my own field, medicine, even 20 years ago the emphasis was on fact memorization. Now, facts are always literally at our fingertips, so the emphasis has changed on how to analyze facts and synthesize new understanding. It makes for a much richer academic discipline.

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