Not long ago, your brain was altered.
You let it happen willingly, and you probably enjoyed it.
Your neural pathways rewired themselves, shutting down old routes that eventually decayed like underfunded county roads. New synaptic highways modified not only the physical makeup of your mind but the way you actually think.
You are not the person you were before.
For over a decade, neuroscientists have been studying the way screen technology — your computer, smart phone, video games, television, etc. — interacts with the brain. Technology has altered our culture, our habits, and our daily lives. No big surprise there.
In recent years neuroscientists have discovered that the changes are more drastic than one might believe, and the implications more far reaching.
Two things have quickly become clear to neuroscientists. First, spending time online — regardless of what device we use — changes the physical makeup of your brain. It also engages more areas of your brain than reading a book or staring at a painting.
This initially seems like a good thing, after all, who doesn’t want more lights going on upstairs? However the second thing that became clear was that the drawbacks are significant.
The issue rests with the way the brain actually functions. In spite of popular belief, no one — not even your mom — can multi-task. Instead what appears to be multitasking is actually your brain operating at cruising speed. Every decision, every new turn of thought actually requires your brain to pause, consider, and choose.
Pausing and choosing, even though it happens at lightning speed inside our minds, actually inhibits the brain’s ability to store information as long-term memory. In other words, it inhibits your ability to learn, remember, and obtain knowledge.
The amount of pausing and choosing required by the Internet is staggering.
Consider for a moment the number of choices that assail you during any jaunt on the information superhighway: webpage lists, hyperlinks, pop-up ads, video clips, email alerts, scroll bars, drop-boxes, video pop-ups, banner headlines, flashing screens, chat-bars … on and on and on.
The fact that you are not overwhelmed by this (that it feels perfectly normal) is a testament to the ingenuity of your brain.
Even though you don’t notice it, your brain is jerking around like a teenager learning how to drive a manual car.
Stop. Go. Stop. Go. Stop. Go.
It doesn’t really take a neuroscientist to imagine what might happen to someone whose attention is constantly divided by a multitude of inputs and decisions.
Here’s the short list: attention deficit disorder, inability to recall information, irritability, impatience with reading large chunks of text (like books), loss of focus, inattentive thinking, impairment of reasoning and memory.
This is your brain on the net.
For example, a 2007 study had two groups of volunteers watch a presentation about the country of Mali. One group viewed a text-only presentation. The second group watched the text presentation accompanied by an audiovisual screen that presented related material that could be started and stopped at any time.
The text-only group not only scored higher on assessments given after the presentation, it also found the presentation to be more interesting, more educational, more understandable, and more enjoyable than the second group.
The second group was more likely to conclude that: “I did not learn anything from this presentation."
What’s perhaps most fascinating is that audiovisual media not only resulted in distracting participants to the point that they had difficulty retaining information, but that it also crippled their ability to enjoy the presentation.
In 1964, the media scientist Marshall McLuhan wrote about how technology shaped human beings by changing the way they thought about the world. McLuhan wasn’t talking about computers, but rather older sets of technology such as clocks or language based upon a phonetic alphabet. McLuhan’s insight was acknowledging that it wasn’t the message these technologies carried that mattered (e.g. not the actual stories written down), but the fact that technology forced new ways of interpreting reality.
Consider for a moment how the simple clock has forever altered our understanding of time. Or better yet, how writing and reading shaped Western civilization. It is writing and reading, and the deep interior contemplation they require, that has given birth to literature, philosophy, religion, and science, all the pillars of the Western world.
Our most modern technology subverts and disables those very aims.
For a more in-depth examination of how the Internet and screen technologies affect your brain, check out Nicholas Carr’s “The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains."
One of the most stunning findings in modern neuroscience is that of brain plasticity. It was once believed that after adulthood the brain was static and never changed. Today we know that the brain changes constantly, remapping itself endlessly.
You can use plasticity to your advantage, because it means that even while modern technology is altering your brain, you can alter it back again.
Studies are conclusive about the positive benefits of spending time in nature. Even a short walk through the woods will have a direct effect on your brain. A recent study in Psychology Today concluded that being near a natural body of water can lower stress hormones in the brain 20 to 30 percent. In one study, even looking at pictures of nature improved brain function and memory ability.
Reading is engaging with old-school technology: the written word. Long, written narratives also physically reshape your brain, in this case giving rise to the perception of individuality, patience, and the accumulation of thought that leads to wisdom.
Interacting with other people is one of the things your brain is designed for. Set aside more time to spend with friends and family, but leave the cell phones at home. Instead of watching movies together or playing video games, play charades or Scrabble.
Just as people swear off meat certain days of the week, you can select a day to fast from technology. Turn off the gadgets for a full 24 hours, and see how you feel. It may just become the best day of the week.
Carr, N. (2011). The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains. WW Norton & Company. DeStefano, D., & LeFevre, J. Cognitive Load in Hypertext Reading: A Review. Computers in Human Behavior, 23, 1616-41.
McLuhan, M. (1966). Understanding Media. Signet.
Rockewell, S., & Singleton, L. The Effect of the Modality of Presentation of Streaming Multimedia on Information Acquisition. Media Psychology, 9, 179-91.