Tuesday, 12 August 2008

Is the internet changing our brains?

We hear so much these days about the plasticity of the human brain - its ability to adapt to changing demands and circumstances. If our neural architecture is forever being redrawn to meet our daily challenges then it makes you wonder about the inordinate amounts of time many of us now spend surfing the internet, flicking feverishly from one link to the next. Writing in Atlantic Monthly, Nicholas Carr believes our new digital habits are having real psychological effects:

"I’m not thinking the way I used to think. I can feel it most strongly when I’m reading. Immersing myself in a book or a lengthy article used to be easy. My mind would get caught up in the narrative or the turns of the argument, and I’d spend hours strolling through long stretches of prose. That’s rarely the case anymore. Now my concentration often starts to drift after two or three pages. I get fidgety, lose the thread, begin looking for something else to do. I feel as if I’m always dragging my wayward brain back to the text. The deep reading that used to come naturally has become a struggle."
This description certainly strikes a chord with me. When I go on holiday and subject myself to a self-imposed internet ban, I'm sure it takes me several days to overcome the information withdrawal that ensues. Carr too thinks we're growing dependent on a constant stream of information:
"...the Net seems to be...chipping away my capacity for concentration and contemplation. My mind now expects to take in information the way the Net distributes it: in a swiftly moving stream of particles. Once I was a scuba diver in the sea of words. Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski."
Carr isn't the first person to recognise the possible psychological effects that the internet might be having on us. For some time, neuroscientist Professor Susan Greenfield has been warning that the immediacy and short-term excitement of screen interaction is stripping away our ability to follow a narrative and to understand context (you can hear Greenfield discuss her worries on Radio 4's Start the Week).

However, it's easy to forget that humans have always adapted to changing technologies. There's nothing to suggest that the impact of the internet or computer use on our brains and behaviour will be on a different scale to previous new technologies.

Indeed, over at Mind Hacks, Vaughan Bell recently uncovered an article about the 19th century neurologists George Beard and Silas Weir Mitchell who were worried about the pace of life and the harmful effect new technologies were having on the brains of American citizens.

As Vaughan says, the article provides "a lovely illustration of the fact that since the dawn of popular medicine, our cultural concerns about changes in society are likely to be expressed in the language of illness and disease."

"This is not to say that all fears about new technologies are unfounded," he adds "but it's clear that they are quickly medicalised and get far more prominence than the evidence supports, both in the 19th century and in the 21st."

Link to Atlantic Monthly article.
Link to Nicholas Carr's Blog.
Link to Susan Greenfield describing her concerns on BBC Radio 4's Start the Week.
Link to Vaughan Bell providing some historical context at Mind Hacks.

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.

3 comments:

  1. Susan Greenfield writes about the state of being “here and now” and the zeroing of personal identities through technology. It struck me that those are the goals of the spiritual paths toward self-knowledge, aspects not considered by neuroscientists.

    But the here-and-now condition and the lack of identity which occurs under the pressure of the media is a pale simulation of the transcended state of the personality on the spiritual level, maybe even an echo of that state which fascinates the mind, which seems free of inner burdens, involved only with what happens in the moment. I mused about how technology can loosen our identities in my article No identity

    I feel that we aren't giving enough attention to the impact of technologies on our psyche, maybe too distracted to follow the next link.

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  2. Nicholas Carr is right. I've been studying the psychology of the Internet for several years now and it is clear that it does change the way we think and the way we behave. For instance, business executives who would not normally allow a single supplier to dictate their business direction are happy to allow Google to be "in charge"; they equate Google with THE internet - they think Google IS the internet. Indeed in one small study I found that business executives were saying that customers HAD TO connect with them via Google. The otherwise independent thinking patterns that would normally exist in senior executives had been usurped by one online supplier.

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  3. Well, the only person I have observed through this change is my humble self. I follow dozens of blogs (mostly current affairs so lengthy posts are kind of the norm) and I can only say that my knowledge deepened to such extent I'll be forever grateful for those bloggers and my faithful rss reader. The key is to be able to filter out information and read what one finds interesting. I don't tend to watch the news on tv and have stopped reading the "dead tree press" years ago.



    True, I don't read as many books but when I turn to some fine literature I enjoy it just as much as before.

    Regarding Google as the internet is probably the result of Google's effort combined with a bit of newbie ignorance/enthusiasm I think.

    Nevertheless, I'm looking forward to more research on the psychology of the Internet.

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