Is the Internet Warping Our Brains?

The Internet is no doubt changing modern society. It has profoundly altered how we gather information, consume news, carry out war, and create and foster social bonds. But is it altering our brains? A growing number of scientists think so, and studies are providing data to show it.

What remains to be seen is whether the changes are good or bad, and whether the brain is, as one neuroscientist believes, undergoing unprecedented evolution.

Texting and instant messaging, social networking sites and the Internet in general can certainly be said to distract people from other tasks. But what researchers are worrying more about are the plastic brains of teens and young adults who are now growing up with all this, the "digital natives" as they're being called.

"My fear is that these technologies are infantilising the brain into the state of small children who are attracted by buzzing noises and bright lights, who have a small attention span and who live for the moment," said Baroness Greenfield, an Oxford University neuroscientist and director of the Royal Institution, in The Daily Mail today. "I often wonder whether real conversation in real time may eventually give way to these sanitised and easier screen dialogues, in much the same way as killing, skinning and butchering an animal to eat has been replaced by the convenience of packages of meat on the supermarket shelf."

Odd analogy, but one worth pondering.

Inevitable brain change

Every generation adapts to change, and the brain gets used for different purposes. For ancient man there was the spear, the mammoth, and the rock to hide behind. Agriculture changed the world, as did writing. Then came gunpowder, the Industrial Revolution, radio, and TV dinners. Man would never be the same. Adapt or die, hiding behind a rock with no friends, no family.

The pace picked up. Cell phones changed everything. Smart phones made them seem quaint. Our brains adapted. I used to have dozens of phone numbers committed to memory. Now that they're all in my Blackberry (and before that the Palm, going back a decade now) I can remember only those I'd memorized when I was a child. I don't even know my wife's cell phone or work number. I'm not sure what all that brain capacity is being used for now, other than struggling to focus on writing columns like this while checking email several times and surfing from valid research sites to unrelated pages detailing the latest condition of Jane Goody, who I'd never heard of until recently, to reaching for my hip when my stomach gurgles but I think my phone is vibrating (a modern condition called phantom vibration syndrome).

But I digress. And I'm touching on the "Google is making us stupid" notion, written about last summer in the Atlantic by Nicholas Carr, who notes how he used to "spend hours strolling through long stretches of prose. That's rarely the case anymore. Now my concentration often 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."

Carr blames the lack of concentration on a decade of being online.

But forget us old folks. What about the kids, whose online use we, er, monitor?

The Daily Mail article today points out that students tend no longer to plan essays before starting to write: Thanks to computers and MS Word, they can edit as they go along. I grew up learning to do an outline on paper before writing any essay or story, a habit that was reinforced in journalism school. I rarely do so anymore (though when the writing doesn't go well, it's still a great tactic). Good or bad? I'm not sure. Change, yes. Nowadays I think with my fingers, and my brain bounces around a lot more when I write, outlining on the fly.

Yet I worry about my children and what skills they'll develop spending hours a day either on a computer, using a cell phone to talk or text or surf (while driving?!) or watching TV, and whether all that activity will enhance their well being, help them make lifelong friendships, find a mate, get a job. Teens have always hidden out (in the woods, under the grandstands, or in their rooms), but now, thanks to their various electronic social networks, a cell phone and perhaps a laptop tuned to Hulu, they can truly become hermits, harder than ever to coax out. The dinner bell, long ago replaced with a shout down the hallway, has now given way to an evening SMS.

Learning experience

On the assumption that technological progress can't be stopped, the flip-side to the inevitable digitalization of life is the simple argument that kids need to learn new digital skills to survive and thrive in our fast-changing society.

Researchers at the University of Minnesota last year asked 16- to 18-year-olds what they learn from using social networking sites. The students listed technology skills as the top lesson, followed by creativity, then being open to new or diverse views and communication skills.

"What we found was that students using social networking sites are actually practicing the kinds of 21st century skills we want them to develop to be successful today," said Christine Greenhow, a learning technologies researcher at the university and leader of the study.

One example Greenhow gave: A student might take up video production after seeing a cool video on MySpace. "Students are developing a positive attitude towards using technology systems, editing and customizing content and thinking about online design and layout," she explained. "They're also sharing creative original work like poetry and film and practicing safe and responsible use of information and technology. The Web sites offer tremendous educational potential."

It's up to educators [and parents?], Greenhow believes, to figure out how to leverage all this.

Evolution of a new human brain?

Meanwhile, much more research needs to be done to determine if social networking sites, and the Internet in general, are good or bad for children and teens, or neither. Studies going back to the late 1990s have flip-flopped on this as often as new social networking sites pop up.

For now, there are only hints and indications that all this change may indeed lead to young brains that work differently than those of previous generations. But evidence is indeed mounting.

"We are seeing children's brain development damaged because they don't engage in the activity they have engaged in for millennia," says Sue Palmer, author of "Toxic Childhood" (Orion, 2007). "I'm not against technology and computers. But before they start social networking, they need to learn to make real relationships with people."

Others think a profound evolutionary change is underway.

UCLA neuroscientist Gary Small thinks the dramatic shift in how we gather information and communicate has touched off a rapid evolution of the brain.

"Perhaps not since early man first discovered how to use a tool has the human brain been affected so quickly and so dramatically," Small contends. "As the brain evolves and shifts its focus towards new technological skills, it drifts away from fundamental social skills."

(Can you keep up? That may depend in part on how your brain is wired. People who welcome new experiences have stronger connections between their brain centers associated with memory and reward than people who tend to avoid anything new, scientists recently reported in the journal Nature Neuroscience.)

Small, author of "iBrain: Surviving the Technological Alteration of the Modern Mind" (Collins Living, 2008), puts people into two categories: digital natives (your kids) and digital immigrants (the rest of us who cope with varying degrees of success with all this). The former are better at snap decisions and juggling lots of sensory input; the latter are great at reading facial expressions.

"The typical immigrant's brain was trained in completely different ways of socializing and learning, taking things step-by-step and addressing one task at a time," Small says.

Interestingly, while Internet use causes changes in brain activity and wiring among people of any age, as a brain-scan study showed, the changes are most pronounced among digital natives. As Small puts it, just searching the Internet "appears to engage a greater extent of neural circuitry that is not activated during reading — but only in those with prior Internet experience."

For the sake of balance, perhaps we should require all children to learn how to skin and butcher an animal.

Robert Roy Britt is the Editorial Director of Imaginova. In this column, The Water Cooler, he takes a daily look at what people are talking about in the world of science and beyond.