The Effect of the Internet on the Brain

From my own personal experience, I find it more difficult to concentrate on something which requires sustained attention – when reading a book, for example – than I used to in the past. I believe that this diminishing ability to concentrate is a result of the internet; more specifically, the way in which I (and others) use the internet. Information on the internet is provided for in short bursts, so that you are constantly shifting your attention between different websites and links. Your mind then gets used to this mode of learning (especially if you spend a large chunk of your time on the internet) and when faced with an activity requiring constant concentration, you end up getting distracted and agitated. That’s my experience anyway. There is also a lot of anecdotal evidence from people reporting similar experiences, such as finding it difficult to fully concentrate on reading a book.

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Journalist Nicholas Carr wrote an article titled, Is Google Making Us Stupid? (read it here) and in it he describes the same worry that I have: “Over the past few years I’ve had an uncomfortable sense that someone, or something, has been tinkering with my brain, re-mapping the neural circuitry…I’m not thinking the way I used to think. I can feel it most strongly when I’m reading. Immersing myself in a book or lengthy article used to be easy…Now my concentration starts to drift after two or three pages. I get fidgety, lose the thread, begin looking for something else to do. I feel as if I’m always dragging my wayward brain back to the text…” Exactly how I feel.

Nicholas Carr has also written a book called The Shallows: How the Internet is Changing the Way We Think, Read and Remember. In his book, Carr argues that the invention of writing re-wired our brains so that we could focus all our attention on reading a book. The internet has essentially returned us to a more natural, native form of information gathering (which could explain why we get drawn into the online world so easily). In our ancestral environment, it was important to be able to rapidly scan or ‘skim’ the environment, to be constantly distracted, so that you were always on the look-out for possible threats. Carr says that this mode of thinking was useful for life-and-death situations in more primitive times, but that it is not suitable now. Our increasing use of the Web may make it more and more difficult to retain our deeper, attentive ways of thinking.

The writer Geoff Dyer has also been quoted as saying, “Sometimes I think my ability to concentrate is being nibbled away by the internet…” (quote taken from John Naughton’s coverage of this subject). So, is this just some form of collective paranoia, or is there some truth to it? As it turns out, this subjective feeling that the internet may be changing how our mind works does a scientific basis to it. Modern neuroscience has established that the brain is plastic, meaning that the neural connections within the brain can be re-wired depending on the information that they receive.

Evolutionary psychologist, Steven Pinker
Evolutionary psychologist, Steven Pinker

This phenomenon, known as neuroplasticity, means that when we learn a new skill or change our patterns of thought (as we do with the internet), we are basically re-wiring our brain. Dr Pascale Michelon wrote an article called Brain Plasticity: How Learning Changes Your Brain. He writes that, “Research has shown that in fact the brain never stops changing through learning…New connections can form…”

That said, we should take this conclusion with a pinch of salt. While there is evidence to suggest that the internet is negatively affecting our minds, there is also evidence to say that internet use can be beneficial too. The negative effect on concentration and memory seems to only apply to internet users who skim read through online information, only reading headlines for example. Research conducted by Dr. Gary Small from the University of California shows that active readers on the internet, those who are fully immersed in reading online information, are still making good use of their mental faculties.

Not only that, Dr. Small and his team found that experienced internet users showed significant brain activity in regions of the brain associated with memory. In addition, activity in these brain regions was more significant than the activity found in subjects who were reading books (brain activity was measured using fMRI scans while the subjects were either browsing the internet or reading a book). The researchers suggest that the internet can be a useful tool for maintaining healthy brain functions. Nevertheless, the study does overlook the fact that skim reading does characterise a lot of internet use.

The evolutionary psychologist Steven Pinker is sceptical about claims of the negative impact of the internet. As he writes in a New York Times article, “Yes, every time we learn a fact or skill the wiring of the brain changes; it’s not as if the information is stored in the pancreas. But the existence of neural plasticity does not mean the brain is a blob of clay pounded into shape by experience.” It could be the case, then, that non-scientists are making over-sensationalised and exaggerated claims about the fact of neuroplasticity. Sure, the internet probably is re-wiring our brains, but this does not mean that this re-wiring is fundamentally harmful or that the change is permanent. If you are worried that the internet is responsible for your short attention span, then there are evidence-based ways to correct this. Spend less time on the internet or use the internet in a way which involves complex thought processes.


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