There has been a lot of talk in recent weeks about the effects of technology on the brain. The New York Times has published a series of articles called “Your Brain on Computers,” which features interviews with neuroscientists as well as stories of people who are so “addicted” to the internet that it’s adversely affecting their family life and parenting habits. Furthermore, Nicholas Carr’s new book The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains was just released, and its ideas have sparked some interesting debates.
While some agree with Carr’s thesis that information overload and multitasking habits encouraged by internet use are bad for the brain, others contend that we are actually smarter as individuals because of the internet. Arguments against Carr have come from prominent thinkers Steven Pinker and Jonah Lehrer; Carr’s responses to some of their arguments can be found here.
I won’t summarize the arguments of either side of the debate, but I will make the following conclusions after reading through the material:
There are probably both positive and negative effects of internet use on the brain. To claim that using the internet is purely good or purely bad for you is to ignore the complexity of the issue, to ignore the complexity of the brain. Whether the internet is helpful or harmful depends on how you’re using it and what you’re using it for. We should be wary of the media when we read about “internet addiction” as if it shares features with drug addiction. Likewise, we should put on our skeptic goggles when we hear that internet use improves particular cognitive abilities that haven’t yet been demonstrated to have any practical value.
Using the internet indeed rewires your brain, but there are both good and bad ways that your brain can rewired. We’re not yet at a point where we can definitely say what aspects of internet use are good or bad (at least for most aspects). This is evidenced by the fact that well-informed, intellectual thinkers have made different conclusions from the same data about the effects of internet on the brain. Clear consensuses among scientists, such as the agreement on evolutionary theory, tend to arise from clear incontrovertible bodies of evidence. The effects of internet on the brain simply have not yet been studied in such depth (hence the existence of ‘evolutionary biologists’ but not ‘cognitive internet neuroscientists’).
Given such widespread use of technology that promises to make us more productive and efficient, parsing out which aspects of internet use are positive and negative is an important endeavour. But we mustn’t lose sight of the core issues surrounding technology overuse that are already known to be harmful to the brain. For example, there appears to be no talk within the internet-brain debate about a culture of physical inactivity that is encouraged and promoted by technology. We know that physical exercise has beneficial effects on cognitive function, which is linked to changes in brain structure and function. If this debate is about how internet use and technological reliance affects the brain, we can’t ignore the harmful effects of physical inactivity that accompany internet use.
The debate has focused so much on what your brain is doing while you focus your attention from place to place on your monitor or handheld screen, but there seems to be no talk about what your body is physically doing as you browse the internet. Physical actions (or lack thereof) cannot be thought of as separate from mental processing. A discussion of physical activity and the brain should be therefore integrated into the debate if it is to be comprehensive in addressing factors that affect our brains as we surf the web and tweet.
Of all the behavioural changes from our hunter-gatherer history that have been caused by internet and technology use, our reduced level of physical activity is perhaps the most significant – and this may be exerting the most significant effect on our brains.