How does the Internet change your brain and your behavior? (2023)

Index (click to enlarge)
  • Why should we care about the impact of the Internet?
  • Changes in attention span
  • memory effect
  • The impact on social life
  • one last word

The Internet has diminished our ability to sustain attention while concentrating on a task. It also made us less likely to remember facts.

If you can't remember the last time you memorized your friends' birthdays, you're not alone. You are simply one of the billions of typical Internet users worldwide!

Thanks to the Internet, you no longer need to memorize important dates, facts or even the lines of your favorite song. Why do that, when you can look it up so easily?

But is that all you're doing? Or does the Internet change your brain and behavior in more ways than you ever considered?

Let's find out!

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Why should we care about the impact of the Internet?

The answer to that is simple. The human brain is a remarkable organ capable of a property called "neuroplasticity". This gives the brain the ability to constantly change and adapt based on external information.

When you constantly do something, the brain changes in response to that action and strengthens the connections between brain cells that will help you carry out that action.

Considering that we use the Internet every day for hours, scientists believe that this behavior will have altered the brain and its connections in several ways.

In other words, the "plastic" brain will have transformed to become an "internet user". However, if we don't know what these changes are, we cannot correctly say whether they are "bad" or "good" adaptations.

(Video) How The Internet is CHANGING Your Brain

Another reason for scientists' interest in this area is that the Internet is an example of a supernatural stimulus, a stimulus that elicits greater responses than other natural stimuli.

The Internet is an example of a supernormal stimulus. A supernormal stimulus is any stimulus that attracts more to the brain than natural stimuli. For example, remembering the way to a place is a natural situation that requires memory usage, just like remembering a folder or a web page. However, the latter is artificial, and compared to route remembering, brain responses to remembering things on the Internet will be higher, or in other words, "supernormal".

These stimuli hijack our brains and result in more amplified brain responses than other stimuli.

Given this, scientists are interested in understanding how the human brain has adapted to meet the demands of the Internet.

Let's look at some findings about how the Internet has changed our brains and behavior.

Read too:Have you thought about your thoughts? What are they made of?

Changes in attention span

Heavy use of the Internet requires you to constantly monitor incoming information streams and switch between multiple streams.

Imagine this: while watching a video on Youtube, you get a notification from Instagram. When checking who liked your photo there, you get a message in your chat app and come back. The exchange process is endless while using internet.

How does the Internet change your brain and your behavior? (1)

A pioneering studyshowed that this kind of constant monitoring and switching between incoming streams of information affects our "cognitive control," or the way our brain allocates attention.

They found that people who multitasked with the use of media were less able to filter out distracting stimuli or information while performing a given task.

Furthermore, while performing a task (let's call it Task 1), their brains are constantly alert and ready to "turn on" the brain regions needed for the next task (Task 2). This makes them easily distracted by information relevant to Task 2 while performing Task 1.

These findings showed that constant multitasking due to Internet use teaches our brains that anything that "pops up" while working on a task might not actually be distracting, but could be useful information.

Eventually, this makes Internet users unable to concentrate on a task because they cannot filter out distracting irrelevant information.

(Video) What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains

Neuroscientists have discovered thatteenagers and young adultsthose who report being heavy media users perform worse on simple tasks of hearing and reading speech and exhibit greater activity in the right prefrontal cortex which deals with attentional control.

How does the Internet change your brain and your behavior? (2)

These users required more effort, using their prefrontal cortex, to keep their attention on a given task and filter out "distractors", notably more so than light media users.

So it's safe to say that the Internet does, in fact, change our brains!

Read too:How does the brain pay attention?

memory effect

If you were asked "What is the exact speed of light?" what would you do? Most likely, you "google".

This is so common and ubiquitous in our daily lives that we invented a new verb for it.

But how does it affect our brain?

Our brains store information or facts about objects, people and concepts etc. using his"semantic memory". All the information we have acquired over the years about the world is stored as semantic memory inthe left stormand parietal brain regions.

The use of the Internet has made the use of semantic memory in our daily lives somewhat non-essential.

How does the Internet change your brain and your behavior? (3)

in a studyTo understand how constant googling has changed our brains and behavior, participants were given trivial statements and the digital location where that information would be stored. When memory tasks were tested, participants were less likely to remember "what" the statements themselves were, but remembered "where" to look them up on the computer.

Scientists called itthe google effect”, and argue that our expectation that information is constantly available on the Internet has changed the way the human brain encodes information. It is a "transactive" memory medium, where we can "download" our semantic memory.

Curiously,a studyfound that more analytical people (those who reason better) are less likely to resort to this "download" using their smartphones than more intuitive people. Therefore, not everyone resorts to this process equally.

Constant "Internet search behavior" may change the anatomy of the brainchangingthe white matter connections (the long tails of nerve cells) in the superior longitudinal fasciculus of the brain.

(Video) 5 Crazy Ways Social Media Is Changing Your Brain Right Now

The good news is that this type of "flushing" has some positive effects. through an interestingexperiment, scientists found that "saving" information digitally to a file improved participants' memory for more recent information.

On the other hand, this improvement in memory was not observed in cases where the “digital” saving process was unreliable and forced to remember the oldest information.

Thus, the digital download of information allows our brain to be more economical in spending its resources. It frees the brain from the burden of memory so it can focus on more productive tasks. Not a bad exchange!

Read too:What is the “Google” effect?

The impact on social life

The Internet has moved our social relationships online. Although the Internet makes socializing easier and more global, it does not greatly increase the size of our social network.

This is because social relationships online, as well as in the real world, are limited by the availability of the same amount of brain resources (read more here). In other words, you can't magically "grow" more friends online than offline!

Read too:Is it possible to become friends with all your Facebook/Instagram connections?

one last word

The internet, by its supernatural nature, has changed our brains and behavior in many ways. Our ability to maintain attention and avoid being easily distracted during a task has diminished. While it technically reduced the "load" on our memory, making us less likely to remember facts, it also freed up the brain to engage in more useful activities.

Online social life, while more global than our real-world social network, remains largely unchanged and is governed by the same limitations as our offline social life.

Read too:Is your smartphone making your mind lazy?

It is undeniable that the Internet has changed the human brain and behavior, but it is difficult to say that all changes are "bad". However, it is helpful to be aware of these effects and to exercise caution when using the Internet.

References (click to enlarge)
  1. Ophir, E., Nass, C., & Wagner, A.D. (2009, September 15). Cognitive control in media multitasking. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
  2. Moisala, M., Salmela, V., Hietajärvi, L., Salo, E., Carlson, S., Salonen, O., … Garlic, K. (2016, July). Media multitasking is associated with distraction and increased prefrontal activity in adolescents and young adults. Neuroimaging. Elsevier BV.
  3. (2014) Semantic memory. -APA PsycNet. The American Psychological Association
  4. Binder, J.R. and Desai, R.H. (2011, November). The neurobiology of semantic memory. Trends in Cognitive Sciences. Elsevier BV.
  5. Barr N, Pennycook G, Stolz JA. and Fugelsang, J.A. (July 2015). The brain in your pocket: evidence that smartphones are used to supplant thinking. Computers in Human Behavior. Elsevier BV.
  6. Dong, G., Li, H. and Potenza, M.N. (June 29, 2017). Short-term Internet search training is associated with greater fractional anisotropy in the superior longitudinal fasciculus in the parietal lobe. Frontiers in Neuroscience. Borders Media SA.
  7. Sparrow, B., Liu, J. and Wegner, DM. (August 5, 2011). Google's effects on memory: cognitive consequences of having information at your fingertips. Science. American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS).
  8. Storm, BC, & Stone, SM (2014, December 9). Improved memory saving. psychological science. SAGE Publications.
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