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The Internet Changes Our Brains

January 2013

There have been an increasing number of studies done on the effects of the internet on our brains. The results of this research often seem contradictory. The studies that have gained the most attention are those that show some level off damage or brain function impairment. These have primarily looked at those with what is referred to as "internet addiction," and might be simply showing the same effects that many different addictions have. In one study, for example, teenagers who were addicted to the internet had their nerve wiring disrupted in the brains, something that has been found previously in those addicted to alcohol, and cannabis.

What about the normal use of the internet as a convenient tool? There has been some research into how normal processing of digital information can "rewire" the neurons in your brain. UCLA neuro-scientist Gary Small says that the ways in which we gather information and communicate has caused a rapid evolution which could change the human brain. As quoted in Newsweek magazine (October 14, 2008), he says, "As the brain evolves and shifts its focus towards new technological skills, it drifts away from fundamental social skills."

This is not all bad news. Among the many research findings it was discovered that those who are tech-savvy were found to have a greater working memory. Working memory is thought by some scientists to be one of the most important elements of intelligence. Discovering that being tech-savvy is either contributing to (or at least related to) intelligence might be unfortunate news for those like myself who are not good at the technical aspects of using computers and the internet. But if there is a causal relationship it suggests we can train our brains for higher functioning by using the internet and computers in certain ways.

Interestingly, in the Newsweek article and others, the idea that we are seeing this reorganization of our brains described as an evolutionary process. Of course it isn’t (at least not yet), and it isn’t likely to be. First, it is obviously too soon to say that human brains have been changed in inheritable ways by the use of computers and such, since the technologies just haven’t been around long enough. Secondly, these abilities would have to specifically selected for in the coming generations to make it an evolutionary process.

The latter is an interesting possibility. It does make sense that there is a survival benefit of sorts to having a brain which handles new technologies well. But that benefit is to the individual, and perhaps measured only in terms of better opportunities and income. There is no evidence that this would result in more offspring from those who have brains that are better suited to these skills, or a better survival rate for those offspring, and this is what would be necessary for the traits to be selected for in an biological evolutionary sense.

When we hear the phrase "survival of the fittest," in the context of evolution, it is easy to forget that the definition of "fittest" is those who survive. In other words, it's a circular definition. If non-tech-savvy people are busy having more babies, then their inheritable characteristics and tendencies are the "fittest," since their children are the ones who will populate the future. The question, then, is whether there is some reason to suspect that the most tech-savvy people will be the ones to have the most children. It doesn’t seem too likely, and so evolution in favor of those traits is also unlikely.

Getting back to the brain changes, it is interesting that there seem to be really changes in the brains of those who cruise the internet. The changes were found to be most profound the earlier in life one started using these technologies. It suggests a brain alteration that is a normal response to a new task, but not one that is evolutionary. The average taxi driver has been found to have a larger hippocampus, which is the part of the brain used to memorize hundreds of locations. Those who meditate have thicker cortexes in areas that are associated with awareness or sensory processing. Our brains change according to how they are used, and as the internet develops further, our brains (at least those who spend much time online) will continue to change.

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