Has the Internet made us dumber and simply become an external storage device for our brains?
Larry Greenemeir, writing in a Scientific American article, speculates that "with Google, Internet Movie Database and Wikipedia at beck and call via smartphones, tablets and laptops, the once essential function of committing facts to memory has become little more than a flashback to flashcards."
Columbia University psychology professor Betsy Sparrow and her team conducted a series of experiments aimed at addressing this question. They found that people go to the Internet to get answers to questions, are less likely to commit information to memory, compared to those that don't. Sparrow concludes this means people are storing information outside their brains on the Internet. So what's the danger in that? Sparrow doesn't think there is any: "the part of the brain responsible for memorization [of such things as phone numbers] has not been atrophied."
The Internet as a source of information however, can't be relied upon for accuracy. John Suler, a psychology professor and author of the book, The Psychology of Cyberspace, says that people will "find a Web site that validates almost anything you might want to believe, whether it's true or not."
UCLA professor of psychiatry Gary Small conducted an experiment with three experienced Web surfers and three novices to study their brain activity using an fMRI while they surfed the Internet. He reported that the 2 groups showed marked differences. The brain activity of the experienced surfers was far more extensive than that of the novices, particularly in the areas of the prefrontal cortex associated with problem-solving and decision-making. He repeated the experiment using only written text, and found no differences between the two groups in brain activity. Small concluded that the experienced Internet users had developed distinctive neural pathways because of the Internet. Small concluded "the current explosion of digital technology not only is changing the way we live and communicate, but is rapidly and profoundly altering our brains."
But what kind of changes to the brain? Another study showed that Internet users surfing the web tended to surf aimlessly when reading something that included hypertext links to other selected pieces of information and that some could not remember what they had and had not read. A 2007 study of hypertext experiments concluded jumping between digital documents impedes understanding. Some psychologists refer to this as overloading our "cognitive load," meaning we're unable to retain the information or to draw connections with other memories or translate the new material into conceptual knowledge. And the ultimate price may be a deteriorating ability to concentrate or focus our attention.
So clearly, the nature of information on the Internet does not negate the need for critical thinking and due diligence.
Writer Nicholas Carr, writing in The Atlantic ("Is Google Making us Stupid?") and author of the book, The Shallows: What The Internet is Doing To Our Brains, argues that modern neuroscience, which has revealed the plasticity of the human brain, shows that our habitual practices can actually change our neuronal structures. The brains of illiterate people, for example, are structurally different from those people who can read. So if the technology of printing can shape human brains, then why can't the Internet, and particularly the social media subset, do something similar?
Carr and others argue that we may be losing some of our capacity for contemplated concentration, perhaps as a result of too much information. Some university professors complain that students who are unable to find answers to questions via Google, are often stymied.
A study conducted by scholars at The University College, London, concludes that we may be in the midst of a change in the way we read and think. They concluded that the people in the study predominantly read via the Internet by "skimming" and not reading in depth, hopping from one site to another. The researchers coined the term "power browsers" and this activity is not reading in the traditional sense. This reflects other research. For example, experiments demonstrate that readers of ideograms, such as the Chinese, develop a mental circuitry for reading that is very different from the circuitry found in those of us whose written language employs an alphabet. Carr sites another example from the past. When Friedrich Nietzsche's eyesight was failing, he began using a Malling-Hansen Writing Ball typewriter, which enable him to type with his eyes closed. Nietzsche's associates and friends noted that his writing style had changed to become more terse and compact, compared to when he wrote by hand.
Carr argues that even the media now is adapting to the Internet, so that news stories are getting shorter, with abstracts, headlines and easy to browse pages.
Thanks to the Internet, and smartphones and other devices, people are actually reading more today than they did in the 1970's and 1980's, Carr argues, but it is a different kind of reading, and behind it is a different kind of thinking. This view is reflected in the arguments of Maryanne Wolf, author of Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain. Wolf argues that we are "how" we read, and that Internet reading focuses on efficiency, immediacy and speed, so we become "decoders of information." This is a very different from traditional print reading which allows us to create complex mental connections. Wolf says that deep reading is indistinguishable from deep thinking, neither of which the Internet provides.
Susan Greenfield, writing in a Science article in 2009, reviewed over 40 studies on the effects of various types of media on intelligence and learning ability. She concluded that our growing use of the Internet and other screen-based technologies has led to "widespread and sophisticated development of visual-spatial skills," but a weakening of our capacity for "deep processing," that underpins "mindful knowledge acquisition, inductive analysis, critical thinking, imagination and reflection." In an address to the British House of Lords, Greenfield went even further: "As a a consequence, the mid-21st century mind might almost be infantilized, characterized by short attention spans, sensationalism, inability to empathize and a shaky sense of identity."
The critics of Google argue that, while the company promises to organize the world's information for human benefit, in essence, information is a commodity, a resource that can be mined and processed, it provides Google and other companies with opportunities to gain and collect information about us to feed us advertisements.
Harvard University's Steven Pinker sees no dangers in the Internet to brain functioning. And when Pew Research Center's Internet and American Life Project asked a panel of 370 Internet experts for their opinion, over 80% believed "people's use of the Internet has enhanced human intelligence."
A research report in the U.K., The Impact of Digital Technologies on Human Well-Being, and research by the non-profit organization Nominet Trust, concluded that there is no neurological evidence that the Internet is more effective in rewiring our brains than other environmental influences.
So while there may be conflicting evidence and opinions on the impact of the Internet on our brains, it's clear this will continue to be a controversial topic even while the world's population increases its dependence and use of the Internet.