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This Is Your Brain on the Internet


This Is Your Brain on the Internet

This article was a front-page feature on Medium.

The Earth has never witnessed a more seamless tool for knowledge-sharing than the internet. Word-of-mouth is a great way to send knowledge from one brain to another, and the internet allows us to do this with practically any source of information in an instant, from one side of the world to the other. But as Uncle Ben says in Spiderman, “with great power comes great responsibility.”

Our frictionless information sharing has become a bit of a pain. We’re reluctant to invest time in checking the validity of each piece of news we find, and this leaves a lot of dishonest or misleading material circulating around in our brains, potentially changing our behavior in dysfunctional ways. Learning is a great and productive tool when it teaches us what is true about the world, helping us to better navigate it. It’s not so great when it teaches us a falsehood. If we learn that marshmallows are good for building electronic machines, for example, we won’t get very far. But if we learn that silicon is good for building electronic machines, we get the smartphone.

True and false news spread differently across the world of social networks. Falsehoods tend to be more novel and unique in their messages (they are being invented after all), so they spread faster and wider across networks than truths. The way in which people interact with the messages also varies. False news inspires comments of surprise and disgust, while true news inspires comments of sadness, anticipation, and trust.

We cannot blame bots for this state of affairs. Although they amplify and accelerate the spread of news, they tend to do this equally for both true and false news. It is we humans, with our attraction to the unique drama, surprise, and disgust of false news, who are primarily responsible for the avalanches of misinformation that characterize modern information consumption.

The internet has changed the way that our brains work. Humans have always been good at learning and adapting to new environments. So given the internet’s dramatic impact on life in the developed world, it is no surprise that we have adjusted our thinking and behavior. The biggest impact has perhaps come from companies like Google, which make all knowledge available to us at a few keystrokes.

Our internet usage has “Googlified” our brain, making us more dependent on knowing where to access facts and less able to remember the facts themselves.

We can test how much technology has influenced our mental function by examining how and when the brain activates tech-related concepts. When words and concepts are readily accessible at the front of our minds, they often distract us and interfere with how well we perform behavioral tasks. Researchers have used this principle to test whether difficult trivia questions automatically activate internet-related concepts in our brain. If we don’t know the answer to something, our first thought is likely to be “Google.” When study participants took part in a behavioral task immediately following difficult trivia questions, their performance in that task worsened when words like “Google” appeared on a screen, distracting them.

There are other powerful indicators of Google’s impact on our mind. When we type out interesting trivia tidbits on a computer, our memory for the information is significantly better if we are told that the computer will delete rather than save the information. And if we type out tidbits and save them to a specific folder, we are more likely to remember where we stashed that information than details of the actual contents.

In other words, our internet usage has “Googlified” our brains, making us more dependent on knowing where to access facts and less able to remember the facts themselves. This might sound a little depressing, but it makes perfect sense if we are making the most of the tools and resources available to us. Who needs to waste their mental resources on remembering that an “ostrich’s eye is bigger than its brain,” when the internet can tell us at a moment’s notice? Let’s save our brains for more important problems.

Image:  sbtlneet/Pixabay / CC0 , modified by author.

Image: sbtlneet/Pixabay/CC0, modified by author.

The internet acts as a great aid, but our faith and reliance on it can make us overconfident in our own abilities. After using the internet to look up answers to questions, we begin to believe that our own general ability to understand and explain problems is better than it really is. Compared to those without recent internet access, we even insist that our brains are more active, reflecting our illusions of superior competency. We often fail to grasp just how much we are relying on sources beyond our own talents when we succeed in the world.

Photographs also have transformative effects on the way our memories work. When we walk through an art museum, we remember less about the display pieces if we take photos of them, even when it takes longer to photograph them than purely look at them. Our memory is less impaired if we zoom into specific details of the pieces while photographing them, but certainly no better than enjoying the pieces themselves without our paparazzi behavior.

The advantages of using the internet correctly are enormous, so we need to be careful about making any concrete recommendations on usage limits.

Photographs can be a great way to physically save a moment into your collection, and cameras may help visual memory if used as a tool to enhance how you engage with an experience. But don’t let them come at the expense of your own enjoyment and natural memory of the real thing in front you. It’s counterproductive and a little bizarre to take photos of the world’s wonders, but forget to look at them while they’re actually there.

In our modern digital world, we are using increasing numbers of different media at the same time. The effects of this on our general cognitive capacities are not yet clear, but there may well be some costs. A 2009 study showed that people who heavily engage in multiple forms of media at the same time (e.g., talking on the phone, while working on an essay, while listening to music, while watching TV), perform worse in standardized cognitive tests that measure memory, attention, and task-switching. (A 2013 study suggested the opposite effect for task-switching.)

Heavy media multitaskers may be more vulnerable to distraction and interference from irrelevant sources of information. When you constantly bounce between multiple sources of entertainment and work, you may well be training your mind to become more volatile and less able to sustain attention to the one important task you really need to complete.

Photo:  Erik Lucatero / Unsplash , modified by author.

Photo: Erik Lucatero/Unsplash, modified by author.

To fully understand the costs and benefits of the internet on our brains, we need to patiently watch how the research evolves over the next few decades. The reward-rich world of the internet may come with costs that include distractibility and impaired self-control. Recent studies even suggest that children who use the internet excessively may develop less gray and white matter volume in certain brain areas, and may harm their verbal intelligence. It is not yet clear if internet usage directly causes these effects or if children who are predisposed to the effects are just more likely to overuse the internet. For now, the evidence provides notes of caution and attention rather than conclusive insights.

The advantages of using the internet correctly are enormous, so we need to be careful about making any concrete recommendations on usage limits. However, as with practically everything in the world, moderation and thoughtful consumption are likely to go a long way.

When we pay careful attention to what the internet is doing to us in our own lives — how happy or sad it is making us, and how much it is helping or hindering our progress — we can make better decisions about optimizing our well-being. The internet is amazing, but the beautiful world outside is also waiting for us to directly experience, learn from, and appreciate it. The whole wide world and the world wide web may well compete for our time and attention. It is up to us to maximize the benefits in our own lives by choosing the right “www” when it matters.