Suzanne Fields

WOODS HOLE, Mass. -- Three generations inhabit the summer house, and an extended family gathers each evening at the dinner table to talk about the events, reflections and encounters of the day. The adults worry about the growing scarcity of doctors who take insurance because they fear lower fees when Obamacare kicks in. Both children and adults lament the dying fish and birds on the beaches of the Gulf of Mexico 1,500 miles away, and talk warmly of the pleasure of swimming in the cool, clean Atlantic. The boys, ages 11 and 14, taking summer science classes in marine biology, describe how certain parasites look under a microscope, and marvel at the distinctive colors of feldspar and quartz in the neighborhood.

Despite the chatter about computers, iPods and iPads, Twitter and Facebook, the circle of family around the table might have stepped off a cover of the old Saturday Evening Post. The elders at table take a reassurance that maybe the changes wrought by electronics and the mass media might not be quite as bad as they thought. It's clear that the boys who seem to spend an inordinate time with video games and computer surfing nevertheless read books, some even on paper and others on their Kindle, and the conversation reveals that their young minds have not yet turned to mush.

Still, there are those alarming observations from scientific laboratories that the new media are rewiring our brains, forever altering the way we compute information, and this is especially damaging to children and teenagers. We would all like the reassurance of chilling out, but it's impossible to stifle the nagging concerns about the new ways young brains process information.

In "The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains," Nicholas Carr, a science-tech writer, argues that the Internet is the most mind-altering conceptualizer for learning since the invention of the alphabet and numbers. He thinks it's turning us into "lab rats, constantly pressing levers to get tiny pellets of social and intellectual nourishment."

Advertisers are betting on our clicking their links, encouraging us to buy not what we necessarily need but whatever they have to sell. Links connect us to an endless chain of Websites until the constant repetition narrows rather than expands consciousness. A study of 3,500 voters between ages 18 and 24 found that 2008 voters typically looked for sites they expected to agree with, to reinforce opinions. No one was much interested in getting new and contrary information.

Carr's most alarming observations are drawn from discoveries in neuroscience showing how brains change -- the evolutionary term is "adapt" -- on encountering new information, expanding certain neural pathways in the brain while others atrophy.

Suzanne Fields

Suzanne Fields is currently working on a book that will revisit John Milton's 'Paradise Lost.'

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