How the Internet Is Changing Your Brain

Beatrice Tauber Prior, Psy.D.,

When Google was founded in 1998, it processed 10,000 search queries per day. It now processes, on average, over 40,000 search queries every second. That is 3.5 billion searches per day. And those numbers don’t include all the searches people complete using other search engines. 

With instant access to each other and a world of information, there is no question that the internet has changed our society. But how has it changed us as individuals? More specifically, have our daily clicks on the internet changed our brains? 

The brain is a remarkable and complex organ. The day you were born, you entered the world with approximately 100 billion brain cells. Those brain cells, called neurons, connect to each other by pathways. Over time, you strengthen those pathways between brain cells in a number of ways, including repeated exposure to something. This ability for the brain to make connections between neurons is sometimes referred to as the ability of the brain to wire itself. After a brain injury, the brain has the ability to rewire itself, a process known as neuroplasticity—and this rewiring occurs into old age. 

The internet provides repeated, intense exposure of stimuli. It also provides positive rewards on an intermittent basis—enough to keep people coming back for more, enough to say the internet can be addictive. 

In 2008, Gary Small and his colleagues were one of the first groups of researchers to show the impact of internet use on the brain. In one study, researchers split up volunteers into two groups—one group included experienced internet users (computer-savvy subjects), and the second group had no internet experience (computer-naïve subjects). Using functional MRI scans, the researchers monitored the brains of the participants while they searched the internet. The scans showed that the two groups used different brain pathways as they searched the internet. The MRI scans were repeated six days later after the computer-naïve subjects were given one hour a day to practice spending time on the internet. What was remarkable about this study was that after just five days of practice, the same brain pathways were active between the two groups. The computer-naïve group had rewired their brains after just five hours on the internet.

On the one hand, this is wonderful news. It confirms the brain’s ability to rewire itself, even as we age. It is also good news for those who have had a brain injury. The brain can experience healing with repeated, continuous exposure to stimuli. However, does this rewiring pose concerns?

 In The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains, Nicholas Carr writes that the internet marks a radical departure from traditional media in many ways. The distractions in our lives have been proliferating for a long time, but never has there been a medium like the internet that can so widely scatter our attention and do it so insistently. In addition to changes in attention, Carr points out that the internet is also impairing our ability to think deeply, focus for long periods of time on one subject, and form new memories. The calm, focused, undistracted, linear-thinking mind seems to be changing to a mind that wants and needs to take in and dole out information in short, disjointed, and often overlapping bursts. Not only are we more distracted, but the distractions lead to impairment in taking in new information, which in turn impacts memory.

According to Small’s findings, the high-tech revolution has plunged us into a state of continuous partial attention. We keep tabs on everything while never truly focusing on anything. Continuous partial attention differs from multitasking. When we multitask, we have a purpose for each task. When we partially attend, and do so continuously, we may place our brains in a heightened state of stress. We no longer take the time to make thoughtful decisions. That’s the very state of mind that leads us to send a thoughtless text or make an impulsive purchase online. 

Fortunately, with the right perspective, it is possible to reap the benefits of the internet without adding unnecessary stress to your mind and life. Here are some guidelines for how to build a healthy connection with the internet: 

Participate in activities each day that strengthen attention and critical thinking

Spend time each day completing a single, uninterrupted task. This may include reading a chapter or two in a book, playing a musical instrument, or working on a project. You may be surprised at how quickly you feel the need to check your phone or return to the internet. Resist the urge, and complete the project before looking at your screen. Another way to strengthen critical thinking skills is to read an article and then think about the article. Ask yourself questions about what you just read. 

Return to nature. 

Taking a break from technology and spending time in nature may improve creativity, according to researchers at the University of Utah and University of Kansas. In a study, researchers separated subjects into two groups: one group went on a backpack trip, and the other did not. They were all given a 10-item test measuring creativity following the trip. The group that had been backpacking for days answered more questions on creativity correctly than the group who did not participate in the backpack trip. Spending time in nature also provides for opportunities for exercise—another way to rewire the brain naturally.

Create technology-free zones. 

Think about the times in your day or the places in your environment when you can turn off or separate yourself completely from technology. You may decide to turn off your technology devices during dinnertime, or designate the bedrooms in your house as “technology free.” Wherever and whenever it is, find a time and place in your environment that you will keep free from the distractions of the internet.

Beatrice Tauber Prior, Psy.D., is a clinical psychologist based in Cornelius, North Carolina.

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