Sunday, June 13, 2010

The internet: good or bad for the brain?

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.


  1. Interesting thoughts, and I absolutely accept your suggestion that reduced physical activity may be having an effect, but I don't really understand why sitting at a computer is any worse than sitting in an office, sitting in a car or public transport, and then sitting in front of a tv with ad breaks every 10 minutes. In other words, why blame the internet, specifically?

  2. Thanks for commenting... I agree - physical inactivity can be blamed on several technologies. However, within the context of the internet-brain debate, I found it to be a shame that not much is being said about exercise. The preliminary findings of cognitive benefits or deficits induced by internet use are merely interesting at this point. Our main concern should be physical activity habits, since we know that exercise affects the brain/cognition, and we know that the effects are significant. The public is well aware that exercise is good for physical health, but effects on mental health and functioning are less appreciated.

  3. Thank you for this - I have not seen any discussion so far relating to physical activity. Completely agree that with screens of any kind where our attention and fingers are being focused on generally flat or small areas. Even wii allows more flexible movement but we are focused again on a flat screen.

    I think how ideas / innovation is generated (or the lack of) in that in terms of technology improvements - so much is designed that is little more than an adaptation from before rather than a complete rethink. I have some hope with flexible OLED and other hardware advances that in the future this may change.

  4. I've followed up on the links you posted, and I have some thoughts on the "internet: good or bad" in general.

    I haven't read Carr's book (waiting for the paperback), but I have seen some in-depth reviews of what he has to say. Of course, I can't quibble with the research he's quoted, but it seems (again from what I've read) that he's claiming that it's the constant interruption and 'multitasking' that's at issue. The problem with this, as I see it, is that it's taking too narrow a view - which is why I asked about the other technologies previously.

    The two obvious arguments I can see against his thesis are that, firstly, when we're talking about the internet, we're mostly talking about reading, and reading, throughout human history (never mind pre-history) has been a minority pursuit.

    In his response to Pinker on his blog [I tried linking to it here, but Blogger won't accept it], Carr says, "...the Net and related digital media may be reducing the depth and rigor of our thoughts". I find this completely baffling. Who is this 'we'? Are pre-literate and non-literate cultures less profound and rigorous in their thinking? Are all the many generations of humans in the 'West', the Orient, the Middle East, and elsewhere who couldn't read to be dismissed as irrelevant, superficial dabblers? He's promoting a style of reading - the "deep, richly interpretive reading" he talks about - which has only ever been the domain of a select few. Who, apart from the rich and the lucky, has ever had the time or ability for that? Frankly, this smacks of intellectual snobbery and aristocratic disdain.

    Secondly, and leading on from this, how can we draw any real conclusions that things are getting worse, rather than better, or, as I would suggest, just different? I accept that fewer people are reading books than, say, 50/40/30/20 years ago, but does that really, actually, matter? Yes, reading a book can involve deeper thinking, reflection, and involvement in a complex narrative, but is reading a Dan Brown novel or, if you prefer something more classic, "Tristram Shandy" or "Morte d'Arthur", in any quantitative way better than surfing the internet to read blogs on neuroscience, or cooking, or video games? And if so, why? To repeat my question from the previous comment, why is flitting from website to website any different from watching a film on television with ad breaks every 10 minutes, or channel hopping (both of which have been around far longer than mass internet use)? How is facebook worse than turning from our work to chat with a colleague? Is there actually anything new going on here apart from the technology?

    As I say, though, I haven't read the book.

    Finally, I wouldn't want anyone to draw the conclusion from all this that I'm a Pinker fan. By education I'm a linguist, and as such I've long had a problem with Pinker's view of the 'mind' (whatever that is), and his sideswipe at Carr hasn't changed that view (of course it wouldn't, if recent research is to be believed).

    Thanks for the dialogue :-)

  5. Interesting discussion... I agree that the scope and severity of the possible problem with internet use is being heavily exaggerated (not just by Carr, but by media sources as well). Some of your points remind me of an interesting blog post on this topic by Neuroconscience.

    I occasionally enjoy reading what might be considered 'complex narrative' novels, and I know that many avid internet users do too. Is the internet harming our ability to engage in these sorts of activities? We can't really say at it this point since the question hasn't rigorously been studied. We do know, however, that physical activity programs in schools are linked with better academic performance (including verbal cognitive abilities).