This is your brain. This is your brain on Twitter.

My colleague Ellen Shearer posted a link to the Medill faculty listserv yesterday  about a recent academic study in Scotland with a headline-grabbing conclusion.  In fact, let me quote the headline from the Telegraph:

Facebook ‘enhances intelligence’ but Twitter ‘diminishes it’, claims psychologist

Dr. Tracy Alloway, from the University of Stirling in Scotland, did the study with 11- to 14-year-olds. It indicates that, more specifically,

Playing video war games and solving Sudoku may have the same effect as keeping up to date with Facebook . . . But text messaging, micro-blogging on Twitter and watching YouTube were all likely to weaken ”working memory.”

”On Twitter you receive an endless stream of information, but it’s also very succinct,” said Dr. Alloway. ”You don’t have to process that information. Your attention span is being reduced and you’re not engaging your brain and improving nerve connections.”

This matter of how the brain processes information is of great interest to many people. One of them is my former Tribune boss Jack Fuller, who in fact has devoted the last several years to this topic himself, particularly to the piece that explores how people absorb and understand news. Indeed, he has a book coming out next April from the University of Chicago, What Has Been Happening to News, that explores the topic in depth.

He allowed me to read it in typescript, and I won’t steal of any of its thunder now.  But more than two years ago, in a Tribune Perspective piece entitled “Reasoning With Feeling: Boosters of the Internet see it as a perfect forum for reasoned debate. But neuroscience tells us that emotions keep popping up,” he began to explore what he was learning.

Neuroscience came into its own at about the same time the Internet did. In the past couple decades, new techniques for peering into brain processes haveled to extraordinary advances in understanding the mind. These have profoundly refigured the picture that came down to us from philosophers and early generations of psychologists.

One area is particularly fascinating: The new model of the mind offers important but unsettling insights into why people respond to today’s media as they do.

The archived piece is worth a spin (though the parser that put it up on the Tribune archive site does a lousy job with word spacing every 80 characters or so). Essentially, Jack is exploring a different issue than the Scottish researcher: not the diminishment of intelligence, but the primacy of emotion “[w]hen the brain is challenged to process very difficult information – let’s say, multitasking amid an overload of information.”

Come the spring, you will want to read Jack’s book.  In the meantime, however, I guess I will feel good that I spend more time on Facebook than either Twitter or YouTube.

Though you could argue it might be a better demonstration of intelligence, diminishing or otherwise, to spend less time with both.

About Owen Youngman

Professor Emeritus of Journalism and formerly Knight Chair in Digital Media Strategy, Medill School of Journalism, Northwestern University. Formerly senior vice president/strategy and development and director of interactive media, Chicago Tribune.