How the Internet Is Changing the Way We Think, Read, and Remember
Over the past several years the author has had an uncomfortable feeling that someone or something has been altering his brain. First his memory started to slip, and then his attention wandered. He used to find it easy to immerse himself in a book, his mind caught up in the narrative, spending hours through long stretches of prose. But at some point this changed. Now, concentration drifts after a page or two, he gets fidgety, loses the thread, and looks for other things to do. Deep reading has become a struggle. He can no longer read War and Peace. Over a similar period of time he noticed his use of computers and the internet increased. He spent almost all of the family savings on an Apple computer, and then upgraded it year after year. Then came smartphones, an iPhone, social networking, a deluge of emails, and increasingly more and more time spent online.
Part of the reason for this cycle was that the computer, smartphone, and the internet inserted themselves as the medium of choice for the storing, processing, and sharing of information. They have become our typewriter, printing press, map, library, calculator, telephone, radio, and television all rolled into one. They are used for work, for business, commerce, education, communication, socializing, and leisure. In short, they have become our life. They are the place where we spend most of our time. No longer do we need to go to the store, to lessons, to libraries, to the countryside, or to visit friends. Instead, we read, we write, buy goods, laugh and play, all without moving from our chair, while staring at a screen. To facilitate this we increase year on year the time we spend on the web. In 2009 the U.S. average was seventeen hours a week; unless you’re aged between two and eleven, in which case you only spend eleven hours per week online. But these figures don’t include time on iPhones, Blackberries, Androids, and other smartphones. Nor do they include the time it takes the average U.S. teenager to send their 2,272 texts every month. Nor has the web sucked away our time from the television. Television viewing has held steady, we’re just spending additional time in front of a different screen. The time online has been taken from reading printed texts, spending time with family, wholesome real-world leisure activities, and even worship. It’s not just a simple case of spending time in front of our screens. Our time online is remapping our neural circuitry, weakening memory, fragmenting attention, changing our emotions and moral rectitude, reshaping habits, and altering the very way we read, think, and act.
Sometime in 2007 the author noticed his own habits were also changing. Inundated with emails, feeds, and social networking messages, he noticed the Net was exerting a hold and influence over him in a way his old standalone computer did not. He was distracted, yet his brain demanded to be fed a constant diet of messages, news, and blogs. He wanted to click links and surf, and his brain demanded to be connected to the online world. He missed his old brain that helped him to read, write, and focus, and so began to research the workings of the brain, which led him to the emerging science of neuroplasticity, to which we now must turn.
The brain contains neurons, and each neuron has a central core with two tentacle-like appendages called axons and dendrites, which transmit and receive electrical pulses. The tip of the axon triggers the release of chemical neurotransmitters, which travel across a contact barrier called a synapse into the dendrite of the neighboring neuron. This triggers or suppresses new electrical activity allowing neurons to communicate with each other. Our brains are extraordinarily complex, made up of around 100 billion such neurons, ranging in size from a few tenths of a millimeter to a few feet. The average neuron makes about one thousand synaptic connections, though some make as many as 100,000. This mesh of connected neurons, pulsing with electricity, gives rise to our thought, emotion, memory, and intelligence.
Until recently, biologists held that neurons formed circuits in childhood while the brain was malleable. They believed that this neurocircuitry was then unalterably fixed in place during adulthood. This view became scientific dogma, but there was problem: it was dead wrong. Following research published in the 1980s by Professor Merzenich of the University of Wisconsin, it was conclusively demonstrated that all our neurocircuitry is subject to change. Even in adulthood, the brain can rewire itself depending upon the experiences fed into it, and thus the idea of neuroplasticity was born.
The adult brain is not just plastic, it is massively plastic: our neurons are always breaking old connections and forming new ones. For example, experiments with blind people showed that the part of the brain associated with visual stimuli—the visual cortex—is quickly taken over by circuits used for audio processing, strengthening the hearing of a blind person. The reverse is true for people who are deaf. Similarly, stroke patients can make a good recovery through constant and prolonged repetition of different tasks. The repeated actions coax neurons and synapses to form new circuits to carry out functions previously performed by the damaged neurons.
However, the brain is not just altered by physical illness, accident, or disability. Thanks to the discovery of neuroplasticity, we now know that our actions and the technology we use also change our brain. Playing the violin or piano results in substantial physical changes in the brain. And London taxi drivers have a significantly larger hippocampus, due to the memorization of street locations. However, the news is not all good: neuroplasticity also has a dark side.
As we strengthen neurocircuits through the repetition of an activity, these circuits transform that activity into a habit. Neuroplasticity grants us flexibility, but it can also lock us into rigid habits. Once a new circuit is wired, we long to keep it activated, and the habit becomes routine. This can be either good or bad for us, depending on what habit has been wired into the brain. In the case of OCD, depression, and addiction, the more a sufferer concentrates on symptoms, the deeper the habit is etched into the brain. In the case of pleasurable or adrenaline-inducing activities, the flow of neurotransmitters, such as dopamine, is dramatically altered as it travels across the brain’s synapses. This brings an even stronger craving for the habit, leading to addiction. As these new habits are enforced, older, more beneficial habits or modes of learning are lost.
Neuroplasticity is the link to understanding how information media and other technologies influence the brain at the biological level. What we do and how we do it alters the chemical flow in our synapses. Given that we are spending so much time online, often repeating the same activities, the circuits in our brain are gradually being rewired, and not always favorably.
The pioneering research of Professor Gary Small of the UCLA Memory and Aging Center has confirmed the rewiring of the human brain by the internet. He found that computers, smartphones, and search engines, strengthen new neural pathways at the expense of older ones. His 2008 experiment using MRI scanners to track brain activity, demonstrated that web use creates new, distinctive neural pathways, specifically in the prefrontal cortex associated with working memory. The constant decision-making when surfing the web, evaluating links, and navigational choices, distracts the brain from interpreting text. Mental resources are directed from reading and adsorbing to just making choices. In doing so, we overload the prefrontal cortex and our working memory, preventing information from moving into our long-term memory.
Dozens of further studies by psychologists, biologists, neurologists, and educators further established that when we go online we enter an environment that promotes cursory reading, distracted thinking, and superficial learning. In fact, if a medium were to be invented to take advantage of the brain’s plasticity, and to rewire neurocircuits as quickly as possible, that medium would be the internet. People use it regularly and obsessively, and thanks to smartphones and laptops, are connected almost all of their waking hours. It engages the senses of touch, sight, hearing, and vision simultaneously and repetitively. It delivers sensory and cognitive stimuli, is repetitive, intense, interactive, and addictive. It may be the single most powerful mind-altering technology in general use. Through it we receive a steady stream of input into our visual, somatosensory, and auditory cortexes. Every time a news feed updates, a forum post is made, a blog entry written, or a tweet, email, or Facebook message is received, the brain is subjected to a high-speed delivery system of pleasurable reinforcement and reward, enhanced by the neurotransmitter dopamine, which further entrenches the habit. Heavy multitaskers of this technology find themselves distracted by irrelevant environmental stimuli, and have less control over the contents of working memory. The lead investigator of a 2009 Stanford University study concluded, “they are suckers for irrelevancy; everything distracts them; they train their brains to pay attention to trash.”
In contrast, people who read linear text in books remember more, learn more, experience deep thinking and a calm mind, while activating the parts of the brain that deal with language and memory. However, books are increasingly under threat. Scholarly publications are moving online, major booksellers are going out of business, and people are spending less time reading printed text. If book reading declines, we risk the decline of deep thinking, creativity, and memory. We also risk the fragmentation of our attention. But to understand this we need to understand a little about the nature of reading.
When we read we do not sweep our eyes across words on a page in a fluid way. Instead, visual focus jumps across the text in small hops, pausing briefly at different points along each line. These small, visual hops are called saccades. Following the increasing popularity of reading news, blogs, journals and all manner of texts online, researchers at Wichita State University studied the eye movements of people when reading from a computer screen. The results showed a marked contrast between online and printed text reading. Online readers do not read in a methodological line-by-line manner. They skim the text, their eyes jump around the page in a pattern that resembles the letter f. Moreover, their eyes move at amazing speeds taking just 4.4 seconds to read 100 words. In comparison, accomplished readers of print can only read 18 words in 4.4 seconds. This focus on speed is not limited to reading words. A 2008 international study of one million internet users found that people spend between 19–27 seconds per web page, including the page-load time. In the same year, researchers at University College, London—one of the U.K.’s elite universities—recorded the behavior of academics using two popular scholarly research sites. They found that academics were not immune to superficial reading. Users exhibited distinctive skimming activity, hopping from one source to another, rarely returning to a previously used source. Reading, in any traditionally understood sense of the word, was avoided.
The move from paper to screen doesn’t just change the way we navigate text, it also alters the degree of attention and depth of immersion. Search engines increasingly draw attention to snippets of texts or books. Hyperlinks make us jump from page to page without digesting the text. Multimedia such as video and audio further fragments attention. Added to this cacophony is RSS, email, twitter, Facebook, SMS messaging, instant messaging, iPhones, smartphones, and tablets, all clamoring for our attention, while pouring a seemingly never-ending stream of information into our overtaxed brains. It is a veritable ecosystem of attention-deficit-inducing interruption technologies.
Such an information environment has led to a change in how text is written, as authors and publishers adapt to readers’ new habits. Publishers and news agencies are encouraging authors to incorporate words, phrases, and ideas that are tailored toward web searches and page ranking. In 2007 the top three novels in Japan were all written on a mobile phone. One author explained their popularity: “sentences are too difficult to understand.” But it is not just authors who are changing their writing style. In sending SMS messages, instant messages, and emails we are in danger of making poorly crafted text the norm. Compare any letter written in the nineteenth century with a present-day email. Our current indulgence in speed and informality has led to a narrowing of expressiveness and a loss of eloquence.
Text is not the only intelligent cultural artifact being moved online. Increasingly, human memory is outsourced to the internet. Being constantly connected makes searching Google or Wikipedia for a fact easy, then second nature, then eventually habitual. There is no reason to make an effort to remember. A person only needs to know how to search. Some technology writers have openly stopped trying to remember anything, comparing their mind to a hard drive, which they have now outsourced to an external storage system. This analogy of biological memory storing data like a computer hard drive might seem compelling, however, it is flawed.
A memory is unstable for a period of time until it is forgotten or transformed into a long-term memory. When we store long-term memories, biochemical and anatomical changes occur as our brains physically change. As we memorize, the strength of existing connections between neurons changes, and new synaptic terminals grow. Therefore, when we store long-term memories we strengthen our mental prowess, and with each new memory comes an enlargement of intelligence. These physical and chemical changes strengthen our memory and also our higher-reasoning faculties, our capacity for thought, our creativity, and our intelligence. If we outsource our memory to the web, as if our memory was just a storage device, we risk losing our higher faculties of thought, and our working memory becomes overworked, further diminishing our attention span.
The idea of our memory as a storage device is false for another important reason: the brain cannot be full, it never reaches a point at which new experiences cannot be committed, and the amount of information that can be stored in our long-term memory is virtually unlimited. The more we build up this store the sharper our minds become.
In 2009, the author of The Shallows moved to Colorado in order to disconnect from the digital world, and concentrate on writing. Going offline was not painless. For months his synapses howled for their web fix, craving to go online. After a time, his brain circuitry began to change. The cravings diminished, he was able to write for hours on end, he was calmer, more in control of his thoughts, and he was able read lengthy and complex works again. He felt less like a lab-rat. But it took time and significant effort to change. Knowing what we do about brain plasticity, the time taken to rewire his over-stimulated brain is not surprising. However, psychological studies over the last twenty years have shown that spending time in a rural setting, close to nature, leads to greater attentiveness, stronger memory, improved cognition, and brains that are calmer and sharper. The mind is easier to control when not bombarded with external stimuli.
Extracting our mind from the internet, reducing external stimuli, and slowing our thoughts are important for reasons beyond improved cognition, rescued family time, and reclaimed attention. Researchers at the University of Southern California Brain and Creativity Institute discovered that higher human emotions emerge from neural processes that are inherently slow. When the brain is distracted or our attention compromised, we are less able to experience subtle, distinctive human forms of compassion, empathy, and other emotions. Our moral decision-making becomes flawed, and we care less about the social and psychological condition of others. As the internet reroutes our neural paths, diminishes our capacity for contemplation, takes more of our waking hours, destroys our attention, and cheapens our higher faculties, we not only change our thoughts, memory, and intelligence, we are also in danger of becoming emotionally unbalanced, less moral, and with it less human.