The internet: The world’s brain and how it’s ruining yours

It is both large and small, infinite and instant, flexible and rigid. It is a vast conduit, an all-encompassing web; it is a bottomless expanse inside which trillions of gigabytes whirl past in a seething maelstrom of data. It is the internet, a massive, pulsing brain armored in a cranium of silicon and metal. Not…
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Sarah Feng

April 13, 2017

It is both large and small, infinite and instant, flexible and rigid. It is a vast conduit, an all-encompassing web; it is a bottomless expanse inside which trillions of gigabytes whirl past in a seething maelstrom of data. It is the internet, a massive, pulsing brain armored in a cranium of silicon and metal. Not only does it occupy almost every computer in the world—it now maintains a sort of omnipresence in our lives.

From searching the location of a Starbucks to Googling the end date of World War II, we depend on its unlimited capacity, using the web like an access key to an unlimited supply of information. It’s the reason that The Los Angeles Times High School Insider platform exists, and so, by extension, the reason you’re able to read this article right now. 

However, while the internet definitely has its positive facets, it’s undeniable that such an intense usage of it is negatively altering our brains. Its profusion of information and general complexity are reshaping our ability to read, encouraging memory loss, and substituting psychologically for friends and family members, hence subtracting from our cognitive abilities. It’s crucial that we learn about these effects and take action to prevent them from making homes in our minds.

Reconstruction of the way we read

Though seemingly an innocent source for digital reading, the internet is reconstructing the way we read. To begin, our brains are incredibly pliant, according to this article by Nicholas Carr, 2011 Pulitzer finalist and author of “The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains.”

Neuroscientist and Oxford professor Susan Greenfield agrees, stating that a core system of nerve cells can reshape themselves to respond appropriately to certain stimuli.

“As our bodies are shaped by the food we eat,” writes novelist Naomi Alderman, “our brains are shaped by what we put into them.”

In this case, the figurative food for our minds is the expansive influence of the World Wide Web, according to Greenfield. Its incredible amount of information, available at the flick of a thumb, is unprecedented in the history of mankind. In order to adapt, the brain is rapidly developing a way to accommodate the barrage of data.

In a study conducted at the French laboratory LUTIN, researchers studied the eye movements of readers by collecting results from special glasses. They concluded that the readers were swiftly skimming the text instead of maintaining usual reading patterns, which were being fragmented by A) the graphics situated around the page, such as ads, videos, and pop-ups, and B) a non-stop volley of incoming messages and notifications from social media platforms. The web’s non-stop distractions, says Carr, is converting us into disorganized, frivolous thinkers.

According to scientists, this perpetual torrent of information is beginning to erode our ability to focus. Results from a 2009 Stanford University study suggests that brains which are constantly inundated by electronic data are far less inclined to concentrate properly and switch topics competently than brains that aren’t. Thus, many experts have drawn a link between the internet’s sheer volume of information and the accelerated skim-reading so much of the web’s audience employs upon the text they encounter. They believe the rapid scan is intended to organize and select pieces of information deemed worthy by the reader.

However, because of its superficial nature, it impedes our ability to delve into, reflect upon, and form connections to the article or story. In typical cases, it is automatically engaged while reading an interesting specimen of text, according to Jackson Bliss, an English lecturer at the University of California, Irvine.

A 1992 study concluded that people read digital samples with reduced comprehension, accuracy, and speed compared to reading paper books. Our intake of the internet’s information, continuously disturbed by flashy graphics and gaudy formats, exists largely on the surface, erasing the depth of reading that is necessary to yield rich mental material.

“When we read online,” says Maryanne Wolf, cognitive neuroscientist and developmental psychologist at Tufts University, “we tend to become mere decoders of information.” We simply register the words without establishing any sort of meaningful link to them.

The Google Effect: Memory loss

While the web limits our reading capabilities, it also forms a mental dependence on the internet for information that would have been easily memorized in the pre-technology era. Psychologist Betsy Sparrow from Columbia University labels this “The Google Effect”: a loss of basic memories of information caused by the knowledge of where to find it. The situation is due to the web’s hyper-abundance of data and the ease of accessing it. It becomes less necessary to remember certain pieces of information when they’re so easily available online through Google and Yahoo.

The human brain seems to be adjusting to these modern search technologies by reorienting its routes of finding information. That is to say, it is lessening its self-dependence for information retrieval, relying more on the internet’s powerful search engines and less on raw memory.

After conducting several studies, the Kaspersky Lab concludes that we “don’t commit data to memory” because of this decreasing reliance on our own recall abilities. Sparrow records similar findings.

In her study published in the online journal Science, 60 Harvard students were instructed to type catchy factoids, such as “An ostrich’s eye is bigger than its brain,” into computers. Half were told that the data would be saved; half were told that it would be erased. The subjects who believed it was stored in the computer were significantly more likely to forget the information. Even when the students were explicitly instructed to remember the information, the tendency to off-load it to the computer recurred, suggesting that their predisposition to do so actually overrode their direct thoughts, according to the previous John Lindsley Professor of Psychology and a P.h.D psychology student at Harvard University. In this way, the internet has become a sort of universal crutch for our brains, and this is a vulnerability for us.

“It’s like having water poured into a glass continuously all day long, so whatever was there at the top has to spill out as the new water comes down,” said Tony Schwartz, productivity expert and author of “The Way We’re Working Isn’t Working,” in an interview with the Huffington Post in June 2013.

“We’re constantly losing the information that’s just come in — we’re constantly replacing it, and there’s no place to hold what you’ve already gotten,” said Schwartz.

Erik Fransén, computer science professor at Sweden’s KTH Royal Institute of Technology, adds that a brain on social media “can easily become hobbled by information overload,” lessening the amount of information that ends up stored in its memory.

Substitution for friends and family

Because of something called a “transactive memory system,” the web’s advancement upon our memory is allowing it to substitute psychologically for our friends and family. A transactive memory system is the storing of information in the people around us. It’s a mutually beneficial cycle of sharing: we allot information to others and, in turn, depend on them to remember in case we forget. They act almost like backup hard drives for our data. In addition, a heavy influx of new information would be divvied into more manageable chunks among members of a friend or family group for each to retain, corralling a store of memory that any member can access by simply asking the others, according to Clive Thompson, author of “Smarter Than You Think.” Each person’s memory becomes a sort of delegated prosthesis for the others.

In this way, remembering unites the group. But—why bother asking that friend when the answer only requires a simple remark to Siri? The internet’s omniscient search engines can produce the same information faster and more accurately, state Wegner and Ward, and they are consistently available by the tap of a home button. Its productive power is several times that of a fellow human, and it seems impractical to continue bothering others when you can just click the screen a few times and achieve the desired result.

Essentially, having a friend as a transactive memory partner becomes obsolete in the shadow of the web’s overwhelming capabilities. The web eventually becomes our new transactive memory partner, thus substituting for the members of our social group we once consulted for basic knowledge.

The internet’s inventory of information is damaging, and somewhat replacing, our cognitive abilities—specifically, our reading habits, our remembrance of basic memories, and our reliance on our family and friends for the aforementioned memories.

To prevent even more breakage to our brains, we should scatter our screen times into sporadic, shortened periods of times–and further educate ourselves on this rapidly proliferating problem. If the level of aggressive consumption we maintain right now persists, we might permanently harm the living, pulsing organ that makes us all human beings.