There is no question that the internet has greatly boosted any person’s ability to find a really good authentic Italian restaurant or to figure out where to get moccasins for a Pocahontas costume or to meet the person of their dreams specifically with red hair and green eyes (if you can believe the stuff they put on their bio) or to research how to make their car run on solar power or just about anything else you can imagine. Ever stop to think about what this is doing to our brains?
When culture changes the way we engage our brains, our brains, in turn, change. While this subject can get very in depth and many studies are being done and will continue to be conducted, the jury is still out. Like almost anything, there are proving to be both good and bad consequences to becoming a society of online addicts.
On the upside, all this information at our fingertips improves the brain’s speed and accuracy. Studies show that the brains of experienced web surfers have higher activity in the prefrontal cortex associated with problem solving and decision making. After just 5 hours online, people showed increased brain activity. Boy, mine must be buzzing.
However, even as the internet gives us easy access to huge amounts of information, it is turning us into shallower thinkers who are easily distracted, with weaker concentration and much less control over our working memories. Research has shown that people who read something the old fashioned way, linearly, remember more and learn more.
Our intelligence is largely dependent on our ability to transfer information from working memory, the scratch pad of the mind, to long term memory, the filing system. When we have information in front of us along with numerous links and advertisements, all screaming at us at one time, it leads to cognitive overload.
Short term memory is very fragile, and a break in attention can wipe the slate clean. I bet you have experienced this. Ever been reading something and an interesting link catches your eye? You click on it to explore and, when you go back to the original piece, you have no idea what it is about.
Our ability to focus is being attacked. Every time something changes or moves in our environment, a primitive, physical impulse to respond to immediate opportunities or threats called the orienting response is triggered - hence, all the flashing and moving internet ads. This stimulation results in a dopamine squirt. Dopamine is the reward neurotransmitter which aids in making habits addictive and in making permanent neuroplastic changes in the brain.
Every medium develops some cognitive skills. Surfing the web strengthens brain functions involved in fast paced problem solving and and finding information. Playing Super Mario improves hand-eye coordination, reflex response time and visual cue processing. Our growing use of the internet and other screen-based technologies is weakening our capacity for deep processing necessary for analysis, complex thinking, imagination, and reflection. The gain in some areas is always at the expense of others.