BBC Future column: Does the internet rewire your brain?

My column for BBC Future from a few days ago. The original is here. Mindhacks.com readers will have heard most of this before, thanks to Vaughan’s coverage of the Baroness and her fellow travellers.

Being online does change your brain, but so does making a cup of tea. A better question to ask is what parts of the brain are regular internet users using.

This modern age has brought with it a new set of worries. As well as watching our weight and worrying about our souls, we now have to worry about our brain fitness too – if you believe the headlines. Is instant messaging eroding the attention centres of our brains? Are Facebook, Twitter and other social media tools preventing you from forming normal human bonds? And don’t forget email – apparently it releases the same addictive neurochemicals as crack cocaine!

Plenty of folk have been quick to capitalise on this neuro-anxiety. Amazon’s virtual shelves groan with brain-training books and games. (I confess I am not entirely innocent myself). You can fight the cognitive flab, these games promise, if you work that grey matter like a muscle.

But is this true? Are sudoku puzzles the only thing stopping the species turning into a horde of attention-deficient, socially-dysfunctional, email addicts – part human, part smartphone?

Fear not, there is some good news from neuroscience. But first, it is my duty to tell you the bad news. You may want to put down your phone and take note, this is the important bit.

The truth is that everything you do changes your brain. Everything. Every little thought or experience plays a role in the constant wiring and rewiring of your neural networks. So there is no escape. Yes, the internet is rewiring your brain. But so is watching television. And having a cup of tea. Or not having a cup of tea. Or thinking about the washing on Tuesdays. Your life, however you live it, leaves traces in the brain.

Brain workout

 

Worrying about the internet is just the latest in a long line of fears society has had about the changes technologies might bring. People worried about books when they first became popularly available. In Ancient Greece, Socrates worried about the effect of writing, saying it would erode young people’s ability to remember. The same thing happened with television and telephones. These technologies did change us, and the way we live our lives, but nothing like the doom-mongers predicted would stem from them.

But is the internet affecting our brains in a different, more extraordinary way? There is little evidence to suggest harm. Here we are, millions of us, including me and you, right now, using the internet, and we seem okay. Some people worry that, even though we cannot see any ill-effects of the internet on our minds, there might be something hidden going on. I am not so worried about this, and I’ll tell you why

We regularly do things that have a profound effect on our brains – such as reading or competitive sports – with little thought for our brain fitness. When scientists look at people who have spent thousands of hours on an activity they often see changes in the brain. Taxi drivers, famously, have a larger hippocampus, a part of the brain recruited for navigation. Musicians’ brains devote more neural territory to brain regions needed for playing their instruments. So much so, in fact, that if you look at the motor cortex of string players you see bulges on one side (because the fine motor control for playing a violin, for example, is only on one hand), whereas the motor cortex of keyboard players bulges on both sides (because piano playing requires fine control of both hands).

So practice definitely can change our brains. By accepting this notion, though, we replace a vague worry about the internet with a specific worry: if we use the internet regularly, what are we practicing?

 

Get a life

 

In the absence of any substantial evidence, I would hazard a guess that the majority of internet use is either information search or communication, using email and social media. If this is so, using the internet should affect our brains so that we are better at these things. Probably this is already happening, part of a general cultural change which involves us getting better and better at dealing with abstract information.

Internet use would only be a worry if it was getting in the way of us practicing some other life skill. If Facebook stopped people seeing their friends face to face that could have a harmful effect. But the evidence suggests this is not the case. If anything, people with more active internet lives have more active “meat-space” lives. Most of us are using the internet as a complement to other ways of communicating, not as a substitute.

So there is no magic extra risk from the internet. Like TV before it, and reading before that, it gives us a way of practicing certain things. Practice will change our brains, just like any habit. The important thing is that we are part of this process, it is not just something that happens to us. You can decide how much time you want to put into finding pictures of funny cats, bantering on Facebook or fitting your thoughts into 140 characters. There will be no sudden damage done to your brain, or great surprises for your brain fitness. You would be a fool to think that the internet will provide all the exercise your brain needs, but you would also be a fool to pass up the opportunities it offers. And those pictures of funny cats.

11 Comments

  1. Posted May 2, 2012 at 12:38 pm | Permalink

    Nice post, Tom. Good foray through how our thought-world has changed radically over years (as always, I’d be happier talking about how our minds have changed, as that seems to be the real topic of interest here, but that’s an irascible quibble on my part, not on

    Like you, this concern isn’t currently top of my list, so I’m not well-read on the matter, but I think the concerns expressed about internet use aren’t confined to what we do on it (as you suggest, a lot of communication).

    To take a well-known example, The Shallows

    http://www.theshallowsbook.com/nicholascarr/Nicholas_Carrs_The_Shallows.html

    is titled with respect to *how* we do things online – in Carr’s view, shallowly. Following this, performing activities that can be loosely grouped as “communication” does not mean we become better communicators per se. It might mean that we become better at managing + responding to high levels of surface information, for instance (and I’m not slating this) but getting out of practice with the habit of long afternoons of reflective, intimate dialogue. Needless to say, perspectives on whether this is “better” communication or not are going to be bounded by context.

    All the above is just conjecture, of course. I wrote a longer thought about this earlier this year, but it got lost on my phone after a factory reset (yes, should have put it online…). Your post makes me want to return to this.

  2. vieome
    Posted May 2, 2012 at 1:39 pm | Permalink

    I have read your many post with a keen interesting, in your post on the Baroness. What I have observed in my own life, is that my kids (18- 14) even when they have friends round, they(all the kids) tend to ignore each other and spend time on their phones connected to the internet. They have said to me they enjoy the internet comm more then normal comms. They also dont seem to have time for activities that require them to put down their phones. To some extent I feel like they are losing social face to face skills and becoming more skilled at internet social skills.

    The tell me the beauty of internet social skills is that they can share so much more information with their peers. So I am thinking if the internet is affecting our brains, it is making us less real life socially skilled, but our brains are changing in the amount information it recieves.

  3. tomstafford
    Posted May 2, 2012 at 2:23 pm | Permalink

    Hi Alex, Vieome

    I certainly wouldn’t want to exclude the possibility that the internet (and modernity generally?) is proiritising shallowness of some kinds. For the BBC article i was just concerned to undermine a sort of neuroessentialism that is often put into service to pander to techno-panic.

    But, yes, there has to be a real space to discuss the reality of the changes (to ourselves, our minds and to culture) generally of the internet.

    Maybe we should have a reading group where we consider The Shallows, SBJ’s “Everything Bad is Good for you” and Turkle’s “Alone Together”.

    The last of which I hated with a passion, by the way http://idiolect.org.uk/notes/?p=1449

  4. FMP
    Posted May 2, 2012 at 6:54 pm | Permalink

    In context, even that whole idea of shallowness seems ridiculous to me. From my understanding of how communication has changed, it hasn’t gotten more superficial. Wasn’t there a time when people used to have to say a bunch of courtesies, like a lot? That’s something I’ve seen in a lot of other countries. However, thanks to the internet, I’ve had pretty deep conversations even with random strangers online thanks the whole ability to be “anonymous.” Not that that is intimacy. However, there was plenty of shallowness before (going through a conversational song and dance with people) and, yes, there is plenty of shallowness now (happy birthday messages on Facebook).

    I just wish people would stop constantly stating how much worse everything is as if everything was great before. For one, it’s probably not worse and it would be hard to prove that it is. However, it would make sense that our communicative abilities with a new technology would be hindered until we figure out how to use it, live with it, and communicate well with it.

  5. Posted May 3, 2012 at 3:22 am | Permalink

    “Computers[Internet] are like a bicycle for our mind.” Steve Jobs

    Kids find it interesting simply because there is very less interesting stuff out there in real “social” life communication. Kids wants something fascinating so that they can key their mind busy; this is why they are always on the virtual world.

    Cheers
    Happy browsing!

  6. vieome
    Posted May 3, 2012 at 6:29 am | Permalink

    I am in no way saying that technology is good or bad, there is no good or bad, it all comes down to our interpretation.

    Thanks for your response Tom, and thanks for a great book. I hope you don’t mind if I share some of my daughters thoughts with you on the brain and computer, what I find interesting is that she refers to the brain as a motherboard.
    They say the younger generation are born into technology and perhaps it is their opinions on the subject that matters. I apologize if this is the wrong place for such a post. Also note my daughter is a bit of a dyslexic typist, so edited it for her.

    The Human Being Animal
    Sabrinas thoughts
    Aged 14

    1. Preface
    2. The Brain
    3. The mind
    4. Tool Maker
    5. Programs of Men
    6. In the now
    7. Focus( Focus Trinity Focus and self talk)
    8. Will power( I will, I mean I do)
    9. The World Life WEB.
    10. Virus

    Preface
    In the last few years, this book has been brewing in my brain, stiring itself into being, and the time has come to put fingers to keyboard, and give life to the book. This book is for the lay-man, of which I am one. When it comes to matters of the human machine and the sum of its part, the scientific community make it ever so difficult for the ordinary to understand, be this on purpose on they have a vantage veiw of the world better then us.

    In this book I aim to explain the simple workings of the human machine, I will use alot of computer jargon to explains the parts of the machine, but in no means am I just saying the human machine is like the computer machine, I simply use the computer terminology, because the computer is one of our most advanced machines and many people familiar with its jargon.

    Chapter 1

    The Human Machine
    Our body, minds, hearts and souls, function together to create an organic machine, in this book called the human machine. Given that we have to live within the machine for the period of our lifes , it is important for one to know how to take care of the machine, and in terms of having a brilliant life, how to use the machine. We are all familiar with machines, they are our tools, but while some machines are easier to understand then others, most people never pay attention to their God given machine(The human body).

    Chapture 2
    The Brain( MotherBoard)

    The Brain is the motherboard of the Human Machine, and to this motherboard all the componants of the human machine are connected. The Brain is very delicate and housed within a protective bone covering called the skull.

    Chapter 3
    The mind(CPU)

    The mind is the central processing unit of the brain and is not a physical component of the brain but virtual construct, a place where the brain can carry out logic, reason, planning, thinking, feeling.

    The Mind is the holding area for information the brains recieves. WHen the brain recieves input from the senses it sends the input from the senses into Mind. The mind is made up of two parts, the brain mind and the iMind. When the Brain recieves input from a perepheral device like the eye, the brain first put the information in the Brain mind and the brain mind then checks with memory what it should do with the information, once the information is processed the brain mind sends a message back to the part of the brain(motherboard) instructing how it should respond to the information.

    The brain then creates a program of the information it recieves from the brain mind for use the next time such input is recieved. The more the program is used or requested by the brain mind, the brain then adds the program to most recently used list.

    The iMind is responsible for long term planning, while the brain mind is responsible for things that require a flight or fight response.

  7. Posted May 3, 2012 at 3:40 pm | Permalink

    I read

    “I just wish people would stop constantly stating how much worse everything is as if everything was great before. For one, it’s probably not worse and it would be hard to prove that it is.”

    and then

    “Don’t ask questions – questions are for Luddites!”
    (from http://dark-mountain.net/uncategorized/the-barcode-moment-part-2/ )

    and wondered: can we agree that statements of certainty are problematic, but so is closing down questioning?

    • FMP
      Posted May 4, 2012 at 2:06 pm | Permalink

      We can agree on both of those statements because I definitely didn’t say anything about “closing down questioning.” There’s a difference between considering whether something is affecting us in someway in context and the absurd decrees that everything and everyone is worse. It’s the boring allusion to some perfect time in the past. “Adam and Eve bit the apple of technology, internet, and whatever else and now we’ve ‘fallen’!”

      I’m aware of the concerns of the present: the shallowness, the generational increase in “egoism,” and such. But, it does us no good to talk about it as if it were some great decline from whatever arbitrary point someone wants to start.

      Put these concerns, questions, and evidence into historical context:
      Is English grammar really in decline and bringing down society with it? Or is it a typical change in language spurred on by the great increase in non-native English speakers worldwide?
      Is people’s knowledge becoming more superficial? Or are they becoming increasingly specialized with some knowledge while increasing the amount of superficial general knowledge they have (a little of everything and everything of a little)?
      Are kids today more shallow in their communication? Or are there communications with acquaintances shallow but in PRIVATE conversations with good friends it remains deep?

      Just because someone ends their diatribe, decrees, or blatant condemnation with a question (or puts it in the middle of a question sandwich), doesn’t mean that they were “simply questioning,” you know?

  8. terakristen
    Posted May 3, 2012 at 6:22 pm | Permalink

    Excellent perspective! I agree that simple use of the Internet is not going to erode our brains. The issue lies in improper use – such as feeling addicted to it or multitasking to the point of non-existant productivity.

  9. Robert
    Posted May 4, 2012 at 12:17 pm | Permalink

    I wonder if there’s been any research on the mental anguish caused by being ignored and/or unpopular on social media, such as Facebook, Twitter or dating sites?

    It’s one thing to conclude a few people in real life don’t care whether you live or die, but to say ‘Hi!’ to the world and get no response might have the potential to be far more distressing.

  10. Joss
    Posted May 14, 2012 at 7:08 pm | Permalink

    I’d like to know why some ways of using the internet cause me to feel more ill than others.

    I have a diagnosis of ME by a neurologist – I can’t ‘do’ Twitter or chatrooms – they make me feel much more feverish and malaisey (those are technical terms BTW) than, say, reading your blog or dealing with emails.

    I think it is that they are more ‘bitty’ and, thus, take more concentration? Or that you have to concentrate in a different way?


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