Guest Post by Helene Schmidt
Noted science-fiction writer Isaac Asimov predicted that one day, we’d “have computer outlets in every home, each of them hooked up to enormous libraries where anyone can ask any question and be given answers, be given reference materials, be something you’re interested in knowing, from an early age, however silly it might seem to someone else,” and with this appliance, be able to truly enjoy learning instead of being forced to learn mundane facts and figures. His insight has proven to be amazingly accurate, as we now live in a world with the Internet, where nearly the entire wealth of human knowledge can live at our fingertips or even in our pockets. Such an amazing feat, of course, doesn’t happen without impacting our lives, and scientists have begun to note that the Internet has not only served to fulfill our brains’ curiosities, but also rewired them. So what exactly is the Internet doing to our brains? Read on to find out.
The Internet is our external hard drive
We don’t have to remember phone numbers or addresses anymore. Instead, we can just hop on our email or Google to look it up. According to a study by Science Magazine, “the Internet has become a primary form of external or transactive memory, where information is stored collectively outside ourselves,” and our brains have become reliant on the availability of information.
Children are learning differently
Remember all of the history lessons that required you to remember dates, names, and finite details? Kids don’t do that nearly as much as they used to. With online libraries, “rote memorization is no longer a necessary part of education” according to Read Write Web. Educators are beginning to understand that information is now coming at us through a fire hose, quicker and faster than we can digest it, and memorizing facts wastes valuable brain power that could be used to keep up with more important information that can’t be quickly Googled.
We hardly ever give tasks our full attention
Have you ever updated your Facebook while listening to music and texting a friend? If so, you’ve experienced the phenomenon of continuous partial attention and its impact on your brain. It remains to be seen if partial attention is a distraction as most believe, or an adaptation of the brain to the constant flow of stimuli.
We don’t bother to remember
In a study by Science Magazine, students were asked to type in pieces of trivia, and depending on their group were told that their information would either be erased or saved. The group that was told their data would be saved were less likely to remember. This study indicates that people have lower rates of recall when they can expect to be able to access information in the future.
We’re getting better at finding information
Although we can’t remember it all, we’re getting better at finding the information we need. It seems that the brainpower previously used to retain facts and information is now being used to remember how to look it up. Professor Betsy Sparrow reports, “We remember less through knowing information itself than by knowing where the information can be found.” She indicates that this isn’t necessarily a bad thing, and may even be “kind of amazing,” as we’re adapting to new technology and becoming highly skilled in remembering where to find things.
Difficult questions make us think about computers
When faced with a difficult question, people rarely consider the encyclopedia or history books, but rather, think about computers. It’s a brand new impulse that exists in our brains. For many, this means we don’t have to trek to the library, or, with the ubiquity of smartphones, even go much farther than our own pockets. It’s no longer a big deal to find an old classmate or remember the name of an actor in a movie — all you have to do is Google it.
IQ is increasing over time
In the age of MTV and video games, parents and experts worried that the new and flashy technologies would fry our poor brains into oblivion. But the exact opposite has happened: after MTV, after video games, after Twitter, Facebook, and Google, we’re getting smarter. Are we smarter because of technology, or in spite of it? No one’s answered that question yet, but it’s interesting to think about.
Our concentration is suffering
In an article for The Atlantic, Nicholas Carr relates his growing difficulty in deep reading. Like so many others, he finds that “deep reading that used to come naturally has become a struggle.” It’s not hard to figure out why. Our time online is often spent scanning headlines and posts and quickly surfing links, never spending much time on any one thing. So of course, when it comes to reading more than a few minutes, or even moments, of information, your mind will often begin to wander. (If you find your concentration is getting worse, try brushing up on your memory skills with sites like The Original Memory Gym.)
We’re getting better at determining relevance
With so much information, it’s only natural that some of it is junk. After all, we’re no longer in a world bound by printing presses and editors: just about anyone can put information out there and promote the heck out of it. It’s up to us as readers and consumers of information to determine what’s relevant and reliable, and with so much practice, our brains are getting better at this task every day.
We’re becoming physically addicted to technology
Even after unplugging, many Internet users feel a craving for the stimulation received from gadgets. The culprit is dopamine, which is delivered as a response to the stimulation — without it, you feel bored. The wife of a heavy technology user notes that her husband is “crotchety until he gets his fix.” After spending time online, your brain wants to get back on for more, making it difficult to concentrate on other tasks and “unplug.”
The more you use the Internet, the more it lights up your brain
In 2007, UCLA professor Gary Small tested experienced surfers and newbie Internet users, asking them to Google a variety of preselected topics. In his experiment, he monitored brain activity, noting that experienced surfers showed much more activity than novice users, especially in the areas typically devoted to decisions and problem solving. He brought them all back six days later, this time having the newbies spend an hour each day searching online in the period before they came back. In the second test, the novice surfers’ brains looked more like the intermediate Internet users. “Five hours on the Internet and the naive subjects had already rewired their brains,” noted Small, suggesting that over time, Internet use changes neural pathways.
Our brains constantly seek out incoming information
Tests at Stanford indicate that multitaskers, such as heavy Internet users, often tend to overlook older, valuable information, instead choosing to seek out new information. Clifford Nass of Stanford observes, “we’ve got a large and growing group of people who think the slightest hint that something interesting might be going on is like catnip. They can’t ignore it.” Instead of focusing on important tasks, or putting information to good use, we’re distracted by incoming email.
We’ve become power browsers
Online browsing has created a new form of “reading,” in which users aren’t really reading online, but rather power browsing through sites. Instead of left to right, up to down reading, we seem to scan through titles, bullet points, and information that stands out. Comprehension and attention are certainly at risk here.
Online thinking persists even offline
When you’re online, you’re frequently attacked by bursts of information, which is highly stimulating and even overwhelming. Too much, and you can become extremely distracted and unfocused. Even after you log off (if you ever do), your brain remains rewired. A lack of focus and fractured thinking can persist, interrupting work, family, and offline time.
Creative thinking may suffer
Some experts believe that memorization is critical to creativity. William Klemm, a neuroscience professor at Texas A&M University insists that “Creativity comes from a mind that knows, and remembers, a lot.” Although creativity seems to have grown with the use of technology, it’s certainly being done in new and different ways. And Klemm’s assertion is certainly true for creative thinking and brainstorming born out of memorized knowledge, which so many of us now store online.
First published here