Friday, July 16, 2010

Your Brain Online

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.


  1. Hi Debbie,
    Oy vey -- I shudder to think about my scattered brain as a result of my internet habits. I think about this a lot. Recently, I've been purposefully and mindfully limiting my time on the internet for these very reasons. I WANT to be introspective, I WANT to be able to be creative and think deeply about things. So, thanks for this wonderful post.

    All that said, it's good to read there are benefits, too. Thanks for discussing those as well. I recently read that the Generation Y (or Millennium) generation might be the most effective multi-taskers to date. But, what does that really say about our culture or society?

    I'm actively watching to see where all this leads. It's one thing for sure, it's all fascinating!

    Thanks, Debbie!

  2. Great blog. Our new mediums and the way they are presented are creating ADD and ADHD symptoms in many people. On the surface it looks like a problem for people. But whose to say that in the future, when we learn to harness these new energies, they won't propel humanity so even greater gifts. I guess we'll just have to wait and see.

  3. Hiya Lori and Tony,

    Thank you for your thought provoking comments. I too try to limit my time on the internet (don't always succeed) because of the effects on my brain. I have noticed especially on the net and otherwise, I tend to skim instead of read thoroughly. Oftentimes I have to go back and reread and, when reading a book, I have to totally, consciously alter my way of reading now.

    Tony, you bring out a very good point. This is creating a new way of thinking, and, as Lori says, it will create the best multi-tasking generation yet. Who's to say that is good or bad? We have to wait and see how it all unfolds. As with anything, I think there will be benefits and deficits. Balance.