Like most things, the Internet has its good and its dark side. And, considering the pervasiveness of the Internet in society, it is certainly having an effect on our brains. After all, everything we do affects our brain. Though up until the 1980’s, it was universally believed that the steam engine was the foremost invention of the Industrial Revolution, technology and science historian, Lewis Mumford, had long before proposed that that clock was in fact the key machine of the modern Industrial age. And, just as people began operating and planning according to seconds and minutes, in the age of the internet, we are rewiring our “plastic” brain to function more and more like computers. Processing, decoding and storing floods of information at a rate faster than we ever have before, our brains are becoming highly adapted to taking on scores of tasks at once.
Browsing Makes You Smarter
A 2008 study conducted by the Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior at UCLA found that middle-aged and older adults who spent time browsing the web not only boosted their brain power but also could help prevent cognitive decline such as Alzheimer’s disease and dementia later on in life.
The study looked at the brain activity of 24 neurologically normal volunteers between the ages of 55 and 76. Half had experience web surfing, the other half did not. Using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scans the scientists recorded the brain-circuitry changes (the blood flow through the brain) and compared them as the patients performed web searches and as they read book passages.
A remarkable finding was that though all participants showed significant brain activity during book-reading tasks, which correspond to language, reading, memory and visual abilities, the web-savvy group also registered activity in the areas of the brain which control decision-making and complex reasoning. With the wealth of choices available on the net, knowing how to perform the most effective searches and making decisions on what to click on, engages important cognitive circuits in the brain. This finding also demonstrated that our brains are sensitive, or, “plastic”, and can continue to learn as we grow older.
So spending time on the Internet can be beneficial as you get older, but what about when you’re young? According to researchers from Michigan State University, home Internet access can be a good educational tool, especially for hard-to-reach populations. Also, it has had positive effects on the academic performance of low-income, mostly African American children and teenagers.
On a whole, there have been significant improvements in reading achievements which are attributable to the fact that spending more time online means spending more time reading (typically). source. Moreover, findings indicate that children who used the Internet for an average of 30 minutes a day, had higher standardized test scores in reading and higher grade point averages, compared to those who used it less. However, Internet use had no effect on math scores.
Too much of something is bad enough
Nowadays, the majority of businesses are on a hosted exchange server and likely use web based CRM software in order to plan and store critical information and this is an interesting phenomenon when we look at how the human brain processes information on the Net. The Internet is definitely keeping our brains active and also doing a great deal to improve our efficiency, but some researchers and psychologists worry that the impact of information overload can also have its damaging effects on our lives. Atlantic Monthly’s article Is Google Making Us Stupid questions the flipside of the complex information system. According to developmental psychologist at Tufts University, Maryanne Wolf, “We are not only what we read. We are how we read.”
“Wolf worries that the style of reading promoted by the Net, a style that puts “efficiency” and “immediacy” above all else, may be weakening our capacity for the kind of deep reading that emerged when an earlier technology, the printing press, made long and complex works of prose commonplace. When we read online, she says, we tend to become “mere decoders of information.” Our ability to interpret text, to make the rich mental connections that form when we read deeply and without distraction, remains largely disengaged. Deep reading, as Maryanne Wolf argues, is indistinguishable from deep thinking.”
Just because we have more information, doesn’t necessarily mean that the information is better. In fact, it could even be argued that information is being dumb-down and infantilized due to our ever-shrinking attention spans. This bombardment of information, according to some psychologists and researchers, could even end up “interfering with our sleep, sabotaging our concentration and undermining our immune systems”. [Source].
But the blame cannot merely be put on technology itself. The user does of course play a big role in how they choose to use, or misuse what is available to them. The Internet is not some extraneous force that is just happening to us; it develops and evolves to cater to our demands. With a large number of users spending hours on Web searches that aren’t particularly mind enriching (hello Facebook!), the user is ultimately the one in control.
Information technology is still a relatively new concept for most people. We are still in beginning stages of developing our own unique methods of sifting through the trash (so to speak). But like a commercial on television, we will soon be able to tune out what is extraneous and eventually make the best of this powerful tool.