Nature, Pixelated


Nature, Pixelated

How the Virtual World Is Rewiring Our Senses

By Diane Ackerman

January/February 2015


We may possess the same brain our prehistoric ancestors did, but we’re deploying it in different ways, rewiring it to meet 21st-century demands. The Neanderthals didn’t have the same mental real estate that modern humans enjoy, gained from a host of skills and preoccupations—wielding laser scalpels, joyriding in cars, navigating the digital seas of computers, iPhones, and iPads. Generation by generation, our brains have been evolving new networks, new ways of wiring and firing, favoring some behaviors and discarding others, as we train ourselves to meet the challenges of a world we keep amplifying, editing, deconstructing, and recreating.

Through lack of practice, our brains have gradually lost their mental maps for how to read hoofprints, choose the perfect flints for arrows, capture and transport fire, tell time by plant and animal clocks, navigate by landmarks and the stars. Our ancestors had a better gift for observing and paying attention than we do. They had to: their lives depended on it. Today, paying attention as if your life depends on it can be a bugbear requiring conscious effort. More and more people are doing all of their reading on screens, and studies find that they’re retaining 46 percent less information than when they read printed pages. It’s not clear why. Have all the distractions shortened our attention spans? Do the light displays interfere with memory? It’s not like watching animals in ordinary life. Onscreen, what we’re really seeing isn’t…

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