The in­ter­net has changed the way we com­mu­ni­cate, shop and do busi­ness. And now it could be in­flu­enc­ing the way our brain func­tions, says Nick Hard­ing

Friday - - News -

Eric Sch­midt, the ex­ec­u­tive chair­man of Google and an in­ter­net guru, is wor­ried. The tech bil­lion­aire who has been de­scribed as one of the most in­flu­en­tial peo­ple on the web, is con­vinced we have still not been able to fathom what the in­ter­net is.

“The in­ter­net is the first thing hu­man­ity has built that hu­man­ity doesn’t un­der­stand; it is the largest ex­per­i­ment in an­ar­chy that we have ever cre­ated,” he says.

If that is not dis­turb­ing enough, new re­search is com­ing out that says the way we use the net could be dulling our senses and al­ter­ing the way our brain func­tions.

Eric isn’t the only one who has sent out a warn­ing sig­nal. His cau­tion is in­creas­ingly be­ing mir­rored by sci­en­tists, writ­ers and com­men­ta­tors who worry that our in­ter­net­con­nected dig­i­tal world is hav­ing a pro­found ef­fect, not just on the way we con­duct our lives, but on the way we think. They fear that our in­creas­ing re­liance and use of screen tech­nol­ogy is rewiring our brains and ar­gue that the very ar­chi­tec­ture of the in­ter­net and the de­vices we use to ac­cess it – from iPads and lap­tops to smart­phones and games con­soles – are erod­ing our abil­ity to con­cen­trate and to un­der­stand and com­pre­hend in­for­ma­tion. In­stead of ed­u­cat­ing and in­form­ing us, the in­ter­net, with all its dis­trac­tions and diver­sions, is dumbing us down.

This web-wary move­ment has its roots in a 2008 es­say by US writer Nicholas Carr ti­tled

Is Google Mak­ing Us Stupid? Carr re­ported then that the more he used the in­ter­net, the more he felt un­able to fo­cus on any­thing that re­quired

deep con­cen­tra­tion, such as read­ing books. He sur­mised that he wasn’t think­ing the way he used to. He sub­se­quently pub­lished a well­re­searched book, The Shal­lows, which looked at the is­sue in depth and the­o­rised that un­like tra­di­tional printed text-based me­dia, such as news­pa­pers and mag­a­zines, which re­quire and so pro­mote con­cen­tra­tion, the in­ter­net makes us think dif­fer­ently be­cause it is de­signed to be in­stantly ac­ces­si­ble and de­liver jolts of in­for­ma­tion in a range of di­vert­ing ways – through text, video, au­dio and pic­tures. Text it­self is in­ter­spersed with hy­per­links and popup boxes that draw read­ers away in dif­fer­ent di­rec­tions. Carr be­lieves that be­cause we now spend so much time on­line and use dig­i­tal de­vices and on­line ser­vices such as so­cial net­work sites so fre­quently (54 per cent of the UAE pop­u­la­tion is on Face­book), our brains have been changed and no longer reg­is­ter, store and ac­cess in­for­ma­tion in the way they used to.

Build­ing new neu­ral path­ways

The prob­lem is ex­ac­er­bated be­cause com­mer­cially the in­ter­net is de­signed to di­vert at­ten­tion. On­line ad­ver­tis­ing works on a clickby-click ba­sis. More clicks equals more rev­enue so web­sites are de­signed with lots of ex­tra diver­sions.

As UK writer Oliver Burke­man wrote in an es­say on the sub­ject, “More and more of us are knowl­edge work­ers, do­ing jobs that re­quire deep con­cen­tra­tion, yet we do so on ma­chines that seem de­lib­er­ately de­signed to in­ter­rupt us all the time and keep us on edge. Then in the evenings we try to re­lax us­ing sim­i­lar ma­chines, which all too of­ten whip us up into a state that isn’t re­lax­ing at all.”

The brain works by adapt­ing to its en­vi­ron­ment. Ev­ery day it builds new neu­ral path­ways and makes new con­nec­tions be­tween brain cells as a re­sult of the stim­uli it re­ceives from the en­vi­ron­ment around it.

The brain gets in­for­ma­tion from the senses and the more stim­u­lated it is, the more con­nec­tions it can make. New in­for­ma­tion con­nects with old ideas and as­so­ci­a­tions grow, which al­low us to de­velop crit­i­cal thought and

If our ex­pe­ri­ence of the world is only cur­sory, we will de­velop fewer neu­ral con­nec­tions

in­tel­lec­tual depth and un­der­stand­ing. This process is called plas­tic­ity. It is the process by which we learn and evolve.

And so with each his­tor­i­cal tech­no­log­i­cal de­vel­op­ment, the hu­man brain has been al­tered – from lan­guage to the writ­ten word, through to ra­dio and tele­vi­sion and sub­se­quently the in­ter­net. Medi­ums that re­quire con­cen­tra­tion to ac­cess the in­for­ma­tion they con­tain, such as books, strengthen the brain’s abil­ity to con­cen­trate.

Get­ting in­for­ma­tion from the in­ter­net, on the other hand, re­quires lit­tle crit­i­cal thought; it is in­stant, com­pul­sive and, more of­ten than not, what we re­ceive from it is a del­uge of su­per­fi­cial data de­signed to grab at­ten­tion. Carr ex­plains that this leads to a process of cog­ni­tive over­load.

“If your brain is con­stantly distracted by new in­for­ma­tion it can never hold any ex­ist­ing piece be­cause in or­der to make room for some­thing new, you have to get rid of some­thing that is al­ready in there,” he says.

“The ex­pe­ri­ences we get on the in­ter­net are com­pelling and a lot of us be­come com­pul­sive in our need to check screens; lit­er­ally over­load­ing our work­ing mem­ory. It pre­vents us from weav­ing to­gether in­for­ma­tion into knowl­edge so we peck away at lit­tle bits of in­for­ma­tion with­out get­ting the big­ger pic­ture.

“The more stim­u­lated you are by in­for­ma­tion com­ing from the screen, the less able you are to dis­tin­guish im­por­tant in­for­ma­tion from triv­ial in­for­ma­tion. When you are con­stantly multitasking and fol­low­ing all th­ese streams of in­for­ma­tion, what be­comes im­por­tant is sim­ply that in­for­ma­tion is new and you don’t care whether it is im­por­tant or triv­ial, you just want to get the new thing.”

Carr’s de­scrip­tion will res­onate with those who feel the need to com­pul­sively check emails at short in­ter­vals and get anx­ious when they are away from a mo­bile phone or Wi-Fi sig­nal and un­able to con­nect to an in­box.

There are few phys­i­o­log­i­cal stud­ies into what hap­pens in the brain when we en­gage with the dig­i­tal world. Baroness Su­san Green­field, pro­fes­sor of synap­tic phar­ma­col­ogy at Ox­ford Univer­sity in the UK, be­lieves dig­i­tal tech­nolo­gies af­fect the frontal cor­tex – the area of the brain re­spon­si­ble for cog­ni­tive anal­y­sis and ab­stract thought. She sug­gests that ‘mind change’, brought on by in­creas­ing in­ter­net use and the pop­u­lar­ity of so­cial me­dia sites, will be an is­sue as se­ri­ous as cli­mate change.

“As you form neu­ronal con­nec­tions, they give you a ba­sis to make the checks and bal­ances to eval­u­ate what in­for­ma­tion is com­ing in and ap­pre­ci­ate it in a wider con­text so you can make sense of the world around you and un­der­stand what is hap­pen­ing and have a unique and cog­ni­tive view of the world rather than a purely sen­sory one,” she ex­plains.

Th­ese con­nec­tions in our brains make us who we are, the rich­ness of ex­pe­ri­ences that cre­ate them cre­ate our per­son­al­ity. If our ex­pe­ri­ence of the world is only cur­sory, we will de­velop fewer neu­ral con­nec­tions.

“Will this be changed by an un­prece­dented 21st cen­tury en­vi­ron­ment that ap­pears to be

go­ing from three di­men­sions to two and from five senses to just mere hear­ing and vi­sion?” asks Green­field. She con­tin­ues, “If your iden­tity is de­rived by no­to­ri­ety on Face­book, by the amount of com­ments you get; if you define things as Face­book-wor­thy, if you are ob­sessed and in­ces­santly con­nected, might you not ac­tu­ally feel more iso­lated?”

So, are Carr and Green­field cor­rect? Are we be­com­ing a species of dig­i­tal zom­bies?

The ev­i­dence is in­con­clu­sive. There is no doubt that the in­ter­net does af­fect the way we be­have in some in­stances. For ex­am­ple it has been dis­cov­ered that around 80 per cent of peo­ple un­con­sciously hold their breath when us­ing com­put­ers, a con­di­tion that has been la­belled ‘email ap­nea’. It is thought they do this to heighten the feel­ing of ap­pre­hen­sion and an­tic­i­pa­tion they get from the web.

Ex­plor­ing the pros and cons

For adults, so­lu­tions of sorts are be­ing de­vel­oped through a move­ment called ‘the slow web’ or ‘con­tem­pla­tive com­put­ing’.

Stan­ford Univer­sity in the US has a calm­ing tech­nol­ogy depart­ment that de­vel­ops hard­ware and soft­ware de­signed to aid re­lax­ation and con­cen­tra­tion for peo­ple us­ing the in­ter­net. Th­ese in­no­va­tions in­clude sen­sors that give the wearer re­wards for breath­ing well while work­ing at a screen, apps that aid med­i­ta­tion and ‘zen­ware’ de­signed to block dis­trac­tions.

In some cases the net-ef­fect is pos­i­tive. A study by re­searchers at UCLA, who tested a group of mid­dle-aged adults, mea­sured brain ac­tiv­ity lev­els while par­tic­i­pants surfed the web. It found that each time par­tic­i­pants en­gaged in a new ac­tiv­ity, their stim­u­la­tion lev­els rose. Re­searchers also found that surf­ing the in­ter­net was, in some ways, more stim­u­lat­ing than read­ing a book. And com­puter games have been de­vel­oped to help peo­ple; sci­en­tists at the Univer­sity ofWash­ing­ton de­vel­oped a game called SnowWorld de­signed to dis­tract burns pa­tients from their pain while their wounds were dressed.

For some too much screen time can be ad­dic­tive, how­ever, and re­search has shown that this ad­dic­tion can cause suf­fer­ers to have more white mat­ter in their brains, which has the ef­fect of re­duc­ing the value of real-life ex­pe­ri­ences. But a re­cent study con­ducted by the So­cial and Pub­lic Health Sciences Unit at the Univer­sity of Glas­gow con­cluded that ex­po­sure to tele­vi­sion but not games pre­dicted a small in­crease in con­duct prob­lems in young chil­dren.

One of the most com­pre­hen­sive stud­ies into the ef­fect in­ter­net use and dig­i­tal de­vices have on chil­dren was car­ried out by Pro­fes­sor Tanya Bry­ron, a clin­i­cal psy­chol­o­gist. It ac­knowl­edges the link be­tween chil­dren’s ex­pe­ri­ence and their brain de­vel­op­ment.

Prof By­ron wrote, “Any sig­nif­i­cant changes in chil­dren’s early ex­pe­ri­ences in life, such as a sig­nif­i­cant change in the amount of tech­nol­ogy used dur­ing child­hood, could po­ten­tially have a big im­pact on how the struc­ture and func­tion of the brain de­vel­ops. De­vel­op­ment in the brain is thought to in­volve a “Heb­bian” process [cells that fire to­gether, wire to­gether], which in­volves the strength­en­ing of con­nec­tions that are used and the prun­ing of ex­cess con­nec­tions that are not used, so some skills could show a sig­nif­i­cant in­crease based on chil­dren’s tech­nol­ogy use dur­ing child­hood and this could ei­ther be neg­a­tive (for ex­am­ple, skills such as throw­ing are less well de­vel­oped as chil­dren are spend­ing so much time en­gaged in screen time) and/or pos­i­tive (for ex­am­ple, skills such as at­ten­tion that ben­e­fit from game play­ing could be bet­ter de­vel­oped).”

The re­port looked into whether there was any science to sup­port the the­ory that chil­dren who fre­quently played vi­o­lent games or wit­nessed dis­turb­ing con­tent on­line would be prone to copy in the real world what they saw in the vir­tual world. How­ever, af­ter re­view­ing re­sults from the most re­cent re­search into the sub­ject the re­port con­cluded that, in the case of games, there was no ev­i­dence to sug­gest this was the case.

The re­view did ac­knowl­edge that there are is­sues around in­ter­net use and child de­vel­op­ment but pointed out that the in­ter­net can be a pos­i­tive fac­tor if used sen­si­bly.

More re­search is called for. While there is no hard proof, the anec­do­tal ev­i­dence from peo­ple re­port­ing symp­toms rang­ing from loss of con­cen­tra­tion to un­con­scious breath-hold­ing con­tin­ues to stack up. And even the tech pi­o­neers have con­cerns.

“I worry that the level of in­ter­rup­tion, the sort of over­whelm­ing ra­pid­ity of in­for­ma­tion is in fact af­fect­ing cog­ni­tion. It is af­fect­ing deeper think­ing. I still be­lieve that sit­ting down and read­ing a book is the best way to re­ally learn some­thing and I worry that we are los­ing that,” con­cludes Eric Sch­midt.

From top: Eric Sch­midt, Su­san Green­field and Nicholas Carr are all con­cerned about the side ef­fects of in­ter­net use

A re­search find­ing says the in­ter­net could be a pos­i­tive fac­tor in child de­vel­op­ment if

used sen­si­bly

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