- The Internet is changing how we think, read, and remember.
Nicholas Carr argues that the Internet is changing the way we think, moving us away from the single?minded concentration that is the consequence of our reading books—the previously dominant medium.
For a UX designer who considers usability to be key, this is counterintuitive. This column examines the research underlying these conclusions and looks at some lessons UX designers can learn from them.
The Massively Plastic Human Brain
“Neurons that fire together, wire together.”—Courchesne, Chisum, and Townsend (1994)
For generations, we have debated the influence of nature versus nurture and which is more important in determining who we are:
- nature—the innate qualities we are born with
- nurture—our personal experiences
Research into the workings of the human brain shows that both nature and nurture are key factors in determining who we are. While we are all born with a brain that has certain regions that are devoted to particular types of mental processing, the structure of the brain constantly changes as the brain rewires itself in response to what we learn from our experiences—making stronger connections between some cells and weakening connections between others. This change in structure is called plasticity and happens as a result of all of our experiences—for example, as we form habits from our day-to-day experiences.
This plasticity is most apparent in extreme cases, when people lose limbs or senses. In the case of a lost limb, this rewiring of the brain gives rise to the temporary sensation of a phantom limb, as the part of the brain that was previously responsible for processing information from the missing limb instead processes sensations from another part of the body.
London taxi drivers, who are famous for The Knowledge—an intimate acquaintance with the streets of London within a 6?mile radius of Charing Cross—provide a much less extreme example of the plasticity of the brain. Research has shown that the hippocampus—the area of the brain that is associated with navigation—grows larger as drivers spend more time on the job.
While the brain’s plasticity is the basis of our ability to develop skills and knowledge, it is also true that, if we do not use parts of our brain sufficiently, the associated neural pathways start working less effectively. This is as true for user experiences as it is for any other experiences an individual has.