Yes, the Internet Is Changing Your Brain
By Mark McGuinness | October 4, 2010 | 47 Comments
As you read these words, your brain is being changed.
Every day, as you surf the internet, clicking on hyperlinks, opening new tabs and windows, flicking between e-mail, Twitter, Facebook and whatever it was you were reading just now, your patterns of thought are changing. And neuroscientists have amassed solid evidence that when we change our thinking, we change our brain.
In recent years, several prominent thinkers and writers have become concerned that heavy internet use is eroding their concentration, memory and capacity for deep thought. And as they have become aware of the findings of ...view middle of the document...
He laments the fact that “[no-one] bothers to write down or memorise detailed information any more”, and canvasses the views of a panel of writers and academics, several of whom share his unease:
Sometimes I think my ability to concentrate is being nibbled away by the internet; other times I think it’s being gulped down in huge, Jaws-shaped chunks.
(Geoff Dyer, quoted in The internet: is it changing the way we think?)
So how worried should we be?
Your Plastic Brain
Let’s start with the science. Nicholas Carr is absolutely right to make a connection between mental activity and the structure of his brain. The phenomenon of neuroplasticity means that when we learn a new skill, or change our patterns of thought, we are rewiring our brains, with new connections forming between neurons:
For a long time, it was believed that as we aged, the connections in the brain became fixed. Research has shown that in fact the brain never stops changing through learning. Plasticity IS the capacity of the brain to change with learning. Changes associated with learning occur mostly at the level of the connections between neurons. New connections can form and the internal structure of the existing synapses can change.
(Brain Plasticity: How Learning Changes Your Brain by Dr Paschale Michelon)
I’m no neuroscientist but I gather this view is uncontroversial within the field, and supported by a lot of research evidence. The way we think affects neuronal structure. Change your thinking and you change your brain.
Your Monkey Mind
I can relate to Carr’s experience of switching from a book culture to a digital culture. I’ve been a bookworm from an early age. Over the last five years, since I started blogging and marketing my business via the web, I’ve become a heavy internet user. I now spend several hours online every working day, using Gmail, Twitter, WordPress, Google Reader and a whole range of different websites.
When I sit quietly, close my eyes and observe my mind, it’s like gazing into a rainforest full of criss-crossing branches and overlapping leaves, flickering, swaying and shifting in the breeze. Thoughts, images, words, and feelings come and go apparently at random, one triggering another with little semblance of logical thought or progression.
Did you notice the journalistic trick I just pulled?
By placing the last two paragraphs next to each other, I implied that my heavy internet use was responsible for the illogical jumble of thoughts in my mind. In fact, the second paragraph is based on an experience I had about 15 years ago, when I’d barely encountered the internet, and started practising meditation for the first time.
What I discovered was that, although we like to think of our minds as logical, ordered sanctuaries of reason, the reality is very different.
The undisciplined mind is easily agitated, nervous, wanting, fearful, preoccupied, distracted, scattered, and confused. In meditation we can begin to see just how busy and distracted our...