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Effects of the Internet on Human Cognition Essay


Many theorists have come up with different definitions of cognition. Whether it is in education or psychology, the word cognition has continued to elicit much attention from people seeking to understand the working of the human brain. While trying to examine the effects that the internet has on human cognition, I sought to know the real meaning of cognition from a psychological point of view.

From the many definitions that I encountered, the one that I found most intriguing was one by psychologist Kendra Cherry who describes cognition as “the mental processes involved in gaining knowledge and comprehension, including thinking, knowing, remembering, judging and problem solving.” (Cherry) According to Cherry, these are “higher-level functions of the brain” and they include speech, thoughts, observations and even planning. (Cherry)

The definition might sound complicated to most people but what Cherry and other psychologists are trying to say is that cognition from a psychological point of view deals with the information processing part of the mind.

This processing of information can also be extended to include how the mind applies knowledge and how our preferences can change owing to the knowledge that the mind possesses. The reason why I am saying that acquiring knowledge can lead to change of preferences is because the cognitive processes can be innate or artificial, and it can even be cognizant or unconscious.

This is in accordance with Cherry’s observation who states that the cognition process incorporates “higher-level functions of the brain.” By higher, what is being insinuated here is that the cognitive process can lead a person to make “unconscious” decisions that they would otherwise not have made without an outside influence. If we ignore the natural part of the cognitive process, we are left with the artificial aspect, which is my main area of concern.

In short, what I am trying to say is that the information that we gather from various sources can affect the way we understand, think, remember, judge, or even the way we solve problems. In order to understand this point in a deeper way, I would like to look at the internet and its effects on human cognition. (Wilson & Keil 201)

In order to understand how the internet affects human cognition, I sought the help of two renowned authors Clay Shirky and Nicholas Carr.

In their respective books titled Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age and The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains, both authors seem to dwell on cognition although they arrive at different conclusions. In his book titled The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains, Carr claims that each one of us has a reason to be worried for constantly wanting to “Google” something up simply because we could not remember it off head.

Carr claims that our constant desire to check out our e-mail, send some “tweets” or even check out our favorite blog instead of reading a book is a reason for concern. Well, Carr does not claim that the reason why this has to get us worried is because we waste our precious time doing so but instead he claims that the constant deluge with the electronic media is apparently changing the way our brain is wired. (Carr 23)

In short, what Carr is trying to politely say is that every time we are trying to decide which Web page to settle on, respond to those flashy online advertisements, or even try to check what is latest on Facebook, we are actually depleting our neurological ability to memorize facts or concentrate long enough to completely assimilate what we read.

According to Carr, the older generation who lived before Google revolutionized our lives paid more attention to their fellow men. What is shocking is Carr’s observation that this same generation, which has now been overtaken by Goggle, has changed and now it finds it hard to concentrate on the interests of their fellow men. Throughout The Shallows, Carr cites enough academic research to dispel any doubts in the minds of those who think that he is anti-technology. (Carr 26)

A study that Carr quoted showed that the more links an editorial has, the lower the understanding of the reader. As though this is not intriguing enough, the author quotes another study showing that our brains tend to place much value on information simply because it is latest. What is even more shocking is the finding of a research presented by Carr, which shows that the brain of a person who has been surfing the internet takes a longer time to register traces of caring on a neurological scan. (Carr 32)

What Carr concludes on this study is that “The more distracted we become, the less able we are to experience the subtlest, most distinctly human forms of empathy, compassion, and emotion.” (Carr 35) I strongly believe that Carr’s observation is the same artificial aspect of the cognitive process that Cherry presents in her definition. This is because I cannot possibly get a plausible way to explain Carr’s observation other than in Cherry’s words that these are “higher-level functions of the brain.” (Cherry)

Carr claims that the internet has rather obliterated people’s working memory and now they have to rely on the website to select the information that is incorporated into their long-term memory and approaches.

While the mind of a person reading a book reflects on what is important at its own speed, the “Netizens brain” as Carr puts it has to choose in a rapid and random manner. As a result, this diminishes our aptitude to maximize the input, and we become monotonous “consumers of data.” This clearly explains why on occasion it becomes hard to keep concentration after spending much time browsing the Web. (Carr 46)

In order to give us something we can relate to, Carr gives us the example of Twitter whose very motto “Discover what’s happening right now” is an indirect ad for a “neurological heroin” that coaches ones brain to be distracted further. Well, let us forget Twitter for a moment, which after all has not caught up with each one of us and think about Google.

According to Carr, while Google’s initiators may actually believe in their avowed goal “to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful,” (Carr 48) what they are actually doing is to literally bring distraction in to people’s lives.

Although Carr believes the Internet has revolutionized how we find information, he cautions us that it might become a potentially dangerous drive to groupthink.

In arriving at this conclusion, he relies on the findings of the National Institute of Neurological Disorders & Stroke, which suggests that sampling different Websites makes people “more likely to rely on conventional ideas and solutions rather than challenging them with original lines of thought.” (Carr 58) I believe this fits the description of cognition outlined by psychologist Kendra Cherry in that the internet has affected the way we speak, think, observe or even plan our daily lives. (Cherry)

Another author who addresses the issue of the internet and its effect on human cognition is Clay Shirky. In his book titled, Cognitive Surplus, Shirky introduces a new perspective on the link of social change and the internet.

In an explanation that almost fits the book’s topic, Shirky begins by claiming that Americans have experienced a “surplus of time” in the recent past. According to Shirky, this surplus time has always been in existence but it took the emergence of new technology and the social media for Americans to use the spare time in a more innovative and helpful approach.

Indeed, Shirky equates this surplus time to the 1700s Gina Craze where people did away with the consumption of beer and wine and instead concentrated with the consumption of gin. Further, the author claims that in the recent past people have been concentrating on watching sitcoms to fill in their free time. Currently, young people according to Shirky are spending most of their free time in interactive sources of media such as You Tube, Facebook, Twitter and My Space. (Shirky 21)

Well, may be this does not appear to any of us as an issue of cognition. However, Shirky changes the whole scenario when he claims that the internet has made the “unpredictable events to become predictable” (Shirky 24) In essence, what Shirky is trying to tell us is that the internet makes us to begin behaving in a predictable way.

To reinforce his argument, the author gives us an example of a case where people are in a rush to buy surplus pizza simply because someone said that all the pizza would be gone. In short, the internet has transformed the way we do things and how we respond to every day issues. (Shirky 28)

According to Shirky, the social media is creating cognitive innovative solutions for man’s problems where television had previously failed. In order to keep confusion at bay, Shirky gives an example of a situation where a drunk can decide to buy beer and drink it at home or simply go to a pub and enjoy his favorite beer with other patrons. According to the author, this is what happens with social media since one can decide to watch television at home or decide to interact with other “viewers” via You Tube. (Shirky 31)

In summary, Nicholas Carr’s new book tries to prove that human thinking changes with the technology we use and the technology we use changes our thinking and consequently our lifestyle. In fact, the essence of the book can be summed up in this quote “Every intellectual technology embodies a intellectual ethic, a set of assumptions about how the human mind works or should work.” (Carr 39)

On the other hand, Clay Shirky’s book argues that the internet has turned us from “passive users in to active producers” thus transforming the world in to a democracy. Unlike television that produces little results, Shirky claims that the internet as a medium has brought positive meaning to people’s “surplus time.” (Shirky 41)

If we match what Shirky is trying to say with the views expressed by Carr in The Shallows, we tend to get different meanings but in essence, both authors are presenting the same argument but in different reporting. I believe that Shirky’s observation largely denotes a paradigm of the social building of technology.

Although there are relics created for specific social groups, most of these relics according to Shirky are apparatus for social change. With the innovations of publications, it is now possible to obtain the press at any place and the public can participate in any ongoing debate. While Shirky agrees that the social media provides an avenue for social change, he disputes claims that the media is something that we consume but rather tries to prove that it is something we use. (Shirky 51)

In their books, both Nicholas Carr and Clay Shirky have addressed the issue of the internet and its effect on human cognition in different ways. In The Shallows, Carr is of the opinion that the Web has interfered with the thinking pattern of people. Instead of relying on their minds to make conclusions, Nicholas Carr alleges that today’s society tend to turn to the media for a solution to their problems. (Carr 61)

On his part, Clay Shirky agrees with Carr that the internet has interfered with the way we do things but quickly adds that this change has been for better and not for worse as Carr concludes. In order to prove his point, Shirky gives examples of previous happenings to prove that what is happening with social sites is nothing but a kind of “new surplus.” (Shirky 12)

Personally, I tend to agree more with Nicholas Carr opinion since he goes to great pain to prove his points by citing credible researches done on the subject.

Additionally, Carr gives a step-to-step analysis of how the internet ends up affecting our cognitive process in the end. Unlike Shirky who only tries to prove why the internet is a new “form of surplus” in our lives, Carr uses the book to show how the different tools that we use affect our brains. At the end of everything, Carr ends up bringing out the true meaning of cognition as outlined by Cherry.

Conclusion

Both Nicholas Carr and Clay Shirky’s books fit the description of cognition as outlined by psychologist Kendra Cherry. Although the authors give different conclusions on their findings, they all agree that the internet ultimately interferes with the mental processes involved in the manner in which people gain knowledge.

In staying in line with Cherry, both authors agree that in light of the internet people now look at things in a different perspective and they are now more informed. Even to a skeptic like Clay Shirky who does not entirely agree with Nicholas Carr that the internet has changed the way people think, his observations fall in line with Cherry’s description when it comes to making judgments and solving problems.

The issue of cognition is not a new theory in the society. Throughout history, people have tried to come up with different definitions for this word. With the emergence of technology, psychologists have tried to come up with new definitions to match the people’s changed status. According to these new definitions, cognition is described as the mental processes involved with how man reacts and addresses the issues surrounding him.

Most authors have emerged trying to prove that the internet, which has become the new way of life, has greatly interfered with the way people react and address issues around them. However, other theorists have also come up trying to prove that what is happening with the internet is nothing but another big break in people’s life. However, these opposers have failed to provide tangible evidence to prove their point thus making their observations invalid.

Works Cited

Carr, Nicholas. The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains, 2010. W.W. Norton, 2-100. Print.

Cherry, Kendra. What is Cognition?, 2011. Web. <>

Shirky, Clay. Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age, 2010. Penguin Press, 3-72. Print

Wilson, Robert & Keil, Frank. The MIT encyclopedia of the cognitive sciences, 2001. MIT Press, 201-202. Print.

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