Throughout history, people have always worried about new technologies. The fear that the human brain cannot cope with the onslaught of information made possible by the latest development was first voiced in response to the printing press, back in the sixteenth century. Swap “printing press” for “internet” and you have the exact same concerns today, regularly voiced in the mainstream media, and usually focused on children.
But is there any legitimacy to these claims? Or are they just needless scaremongering? There are several things to bear in mind when considering how our brains deal with the internet.
The human brain is always dealing with a constant stream of rich information - that’s what the real world is
First, don’t forget that “the internet” is a very vague term, given that it contains so many things across so many formats. You could, for instance, develop a gambling addiction via online casinos or poker sites. This is an example of someone’s brain being negatively affected via the internet, but it would be difficult to argue that the internet is the main culprit, any more than a gambling addiction obtained via a real world casino can be blamed on “buildings”; it’s just the context in which the problem occurred. However, the internet does give us a far more direct, constant and wide ranging access to information than pretty much anything else in human history. So how could, or does, this affect us and our brains?
It’s important to remember that the human brain is always dealing with a constant stream of rich information; that’s what the real world is, as far as our senses are concerned. Whether staring at a video being played on a small screen or watching people playing in a park, the brain and visual system still has to do the same amount of work as both provide detailed sensory information.
It’s too detailed, if anything. The brain doesn’t actually process every single thing our senses present to it; for all its power and complexity, it just doesn’t have the capacity for that. So it filters things out and extrapolates what’s important based on experiences, calculation and a sort of “best guess” system. The point is, the brain is already well adapted to prevent damaging information overload, so it’s unlikely that the internet would be able to cause such a thing.
Do our brains have extraordinary untapped powers?
Is Google destroying my memory?
Another concern is that the constant access to information stored online is atrophying or disrupting our memories. Why bother to remember anything when you can just Google it, right?
Memory doesn’t quite work that way. The things we experience that end up as memories do so via unconscious processes. Things that have emotional resonance or significance in other ways tend to be more easily remembered than abstract information or intangible facts. These things have always required more effort to remember in the long term, needing to be rehearsed repeatedly in order to be encoded as memories. Undeniably, the internet often renders this process unnecessary. But whether this is harmful for the development of the brain is another question.
Doing something often and becoming good at it is reflected in the brain’s structure. For example, the motor cortex of an expert musician, proficient in fine hand movements, differs from that of non-musicians. An argument could be made that constantly committing things to memory rather than just looking them up as and when needed would enhance the brain’s memory system. On the other hand, some evidence suggests that a more stimulating, varied environment aides brain development – so maybe the constant, interesting information found online is better for you than rehearsing dry facts and figures.
But, counter to this, other evidence suggests that the detailed presentation of even simple web pages provides too many features for the human brain’s small-capacity short-term memory to handle, which could have knock-on effects for the memory system. It’s a mixed picture overall.
What about my attention span?
Does the internet impact on our ability to focus on something, or does having 24/7 access to so many things prove too much of a distraction?
The human attention system is complicated, and so again, it’s an unclear picture. Our two-layer, bottom-up and top-down attention system (meaning there’s a conscious aspect that enables us to direct our attention, and an unconscious aspect that shifts attention towards anything our senses pick up that might be significant) is already something that can make focusing 100% on something quite a challenge. It’s for this reason that a lot of people prefer to have music playing while they work: it occupies part of the attention system that would otherwise look for distractions while we’re trying to do something important.
The internet, however, provides a very quick and effective distraction. We can be looking at something enjoyable within seconds, which is a problem, given that much work in the modern world is done on the same device we use to access the internet. It is such a concern that apps and companies have sprung up specifically to address this.
Does music really help you concentrate?
But it would be unfair to say that the internet is responsible for distracting us from work. The brain’s attention system and preference for novel experiences existed long before the internet did, the internet is just something that makes these aspects particularly irksome.
Competing for likes
Social interactions with other people are a major factor in how we develop, learn and grow at the neurological level. Humans are a very social species. But now the internet has allowed social interactions and relationships to occur between vast numbers of people over great distances, and for them to occur all day, every day.
This means that everything we do can be shared with others at the press of a button, but this has consequences. The positive feelings gained from social media approval are said to work on the same neurological basis as drugs do; providing rewards via the dopamine system. Thus, social network addiction is slowly becoming an issue. By creating a situation where we’re constantly trying to impress and being judged by others, perhaps the internet isn’t doing our brains much good after all.
But, as with most things, the actual problem comes down to other people, not the net.
Dean Burnett’s first book, The Idiot Brain, all about the weird and confusing properties of the brain, is available now.
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