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Internet and the Human Brain

LAKSHMI on March 05, 2015

The brain is a neuroplastic organ that is constantly changing in response to external stimuli. Given the enormity of the stimulus caused by the Internet, it seems logical that it can cause significant cerebral adaptations. Or is the digital era too recent to be able to cause significant changes in brain structure yet?

Graphic for human brain

On one hand are neuroscientists such as Susan Greenfield, who believe that the digital era could be detrimental to the human brain. Greenfield argues that the prefrontal cortex would be damaged, underdeveloped or underactive in technology addicts, just as it is in gamblers, schizophrenics or the obese. Researchers from Xidian University, China have recently reported that long-term Internet addiction does result in brain structural alterations, which could contribute to chronic dysfunction in subjects with Internet Addiction Disorder.

There are others who differ. Jeff Jarvis,  author of “Public Parts: How Sharing in the Digital Age Improves the Way We Work and Live” believes that technology will not change our brains and how we are ‘wired,’ but affects and changes how we cognate and navigate our world, which could in fact, be beneficial. A study by Gary Small at UCLA in 2008 showed that Internet browsing activities triggered key centers in the brain that control decision-making and complex reasoning. It is little wonder then that digital natives are better at snap decisions and juggling sensory input than digital immigrants. This could indicate that technology and gadgets do possibly rewire the brain to function better, especially during adolescence, which is considered a sensitive period for cognitive developments. Studies have also demonstrated that playing action video games can enhance visual attention and improve decision making skills for youth and the aged alike. It is the content of the video games, i.e. the amount of violence and/or inappropriate, unethical scenarios that could adversely affect the player’s psych.

Sparrow and co-workers of Columbia University recently studied the memory of college students vis à vis Internet use and found an interesting pattern. While extensive users of Internet (search engines, in particular) could not recall information itself, they could easily and accurately recall where to find that information online. Thus, the Internet has become an external or transactive memory, where information is stored collectively outside us. But this in and of itself is not a new concept. The notion of “transactive memory” proposed by Wegner has been around since 1985 (“no need to remember birthdays, just remember that the wife does”) and the Internet merely subscribes to this form of memory.

Gary Small and co-workers have also reported that Internet searching engages more neural circuitry than, say, reading text pages. Thus, among middle-aged and older adults, Internet use may favourably alter the neural circuits controlling short term memory. However, since our brains use information stored in the long-term memory to facilitate critical thinking, there may be a certain loss in this area upon extensive Internet usage.

There have also been studies on the connection between brain and technology-induced multitasking.  Multitasking does not mean “performing multiple tasks at the same time”, which is not possible, but “switching between tasks at an extreme rate of more than four switches per minute”. Kaiser Family Foundation reports that 8- to 18-year-old youths carry out extensive “media multitasking” and the compulsive need to rapidly switch between multiple media has led to the belief that there may be a greater incidence of ADHD type disorders among youth.  There is also the school of thought that given the brain’s limits to the ‘‘cognitive load’’ it can handle, multitasking leads to loss of efficiency. Switching attention across tasks occurs in the prefrontal cortex, the region of the brain that is one of the last regions to mature in children and one of the first to decline with aging. However, Carrier and co-workers of California State University, Carson, did not find any relationship, positive or otherwise, between brain function and media multitasking.

Kep Kee Loh and Ryota Kanai of the University of Sussex report differently. They have demonstrated that brain structure CAN be altered upon prolonged exposure to novel environments and experience. They have confirmed through MRI studies that people who extensively media-multitasked had smaller gray matter density in the anterior cingulate cortex of the brain. This could possibly result in decreased cognitive control performance and socio-emotional regulation in heavy media-multitaskers. However, the researchers also disclaim that it is not yet clear if media-multitasking causes changes in the brain or whether people with less dense gray matter are attracted to media-multitasking in the first place - a classic chicken-egg scenario.

The digital era has, since its conception, continuously elicited various types of moral panic that have engaged scientists, psychologists, sociologists, educators, policy makers and most importantly, media. The anxiety around technology and Internet has provoked intense debate on its effects on the biology of the brain. ‘‘Neuroplasticity’’ has been a powerful word in arguments both for and against the effect of technology on the brain. Studies in neuroscience have supported and challenged the proposed negative effects, thus leading to neuro-alarmism and neuro-enthusiasm respectively. But the real situation lies probably somewhere in the middle. Before succumbing to media frenzy in denouncing or hailing technology/Internet as bane or boon in terms of human evolution and brain conditioning, it is important to remember that the human cognition is distributed across brain, body and the tool (digital or otherwise) and is not a stand-alone quality, but one that is critically influenced by the surrounding as much as by the system itself.

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