The internet has revolutionized the ways in which we communicate, gather information, make purchases, and consume entertainment. Nearly everything we could ever want — whether it be an out-of-print book or a babysitter for tomorrow evening — is available with the click of a button.
The constant accessibility and seemingly infinite nature of the internet has impacted humanity on a global scale. Perhaps just as importantly, however, are the changes on a more micro-scale — in other words, how the internet rewires our brain.
Some of these brain changes are beneficial, while others seem to cause detriment. One of the most important ways in which the internet may have harmful consequences is in reducing the abilities of our short-term memories. Some deem this phenomenon the “Google effect”: research shows that if we expect the search engine to be available to us later on, we’re less likely to remember information now.
Furthermore as Academic Earth reports, “neuroimaging of frequent internet users shows twice as much activity in the short term memory as sporadic users during online tasks. Basically, our brain is learning to disregard information found online, and this connection becomes stronger every time we experience it.”
Another study, by Betsy Sparrow, Jenny Liu, and Daniel M. Wegner, asked participants to enter random facts into the computer. Half were told that their results would be saved, while half were told it would be erased. Said Wegner, “Those who believed the computer had saved the list of facts were much worse at remembering. People seemed to treat the computer like the transactive memory partners that we started studying decades ago: off-loading information to this cloud mind rather than storing it internally.” (These “transactive memory partners” are a friend or family member who shares the daily tasks of remembering.)
An additional consequence of frequent internet use is our inability to adeptly switch from one task to another — ironic, when one considers that the way in which most people use the internet is ostensibly the epitome of multitasking (for example, skimming, switching quickly from tab to tab, etc.).
One study by Eyal Ophir, Clifford Nass, and Anthony D. Wagner found that “heavy media multitaskers are more susceptible to interference from irrelevant environmental stimuli and from irrelevant representations in memory. This led to the surprising result that heavy media multitaskers performed worse on a test of task-switching ability, likely due to reduced ability to filter out interference from the irrelevant task set.”
Nicholas Carr published a book on this phenomenon, entitled “The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains.” He theorizes that the internet’s “cacophony of stimuli” and “crazy quilt” of information have given rise to “cursory reading, hurried and distracted thinking, and superficial learning.”
Other researchers suggest that the neurological effects of the internet are not all bad; in fact, sometimes it can even enhance brain functioning.
Dr. Gary Small summarizes his findings in that the “results are encouraging, that emerging computerized technologies may have physiological effects and potential benefits for middle-aged and older adults. Internet searching engages complicated brain activity, which may help exercise and improve brain function.” Furthermore, Small says, “A simple, everyday task like searching the web appears to enhance brain circuitry in older adults, demonstrating that our brains are sensitive and can continue to learn as we grow older.”
It’s an unequivocal fact that the internet is often an invaluable resource for research and beyond. However, we must take conscientious measures to avoid becoming reliant on it if we hope to preserve some of our most advanced cognitive functioning.
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