SCIENCE

The Internet May Be Changing Your Brain In Ways You've Never Imagined

"Once I was a scuba diver in the sea of words. Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski."

10/09/2015 11:24 am ET
Visuals Unlimited, Inc./Scientifica via Getty Images

Five years ago, journalist Nicholas Carr wrote in his book The Shallows: How The Internet Is Changing Our Brains about the way technology seemed to be eroding his ability to concentrate. 

"Once I was a scuba diver in the sea of words," he wrote. "Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski."

In the book, which became a New York Times bestseller and Pulitzer Prize finalist, Carr explored the many ways that technology might be affecting our brains. Carr became particularly concerned about how the Internet seemed to be impairing our ability to think deeply and to focus on one subject for extended periods.  

Today, social media and digital devices have an arguably greater place in our lives and hold on our attention spans than they did in 2011.

So what has  changed since Carr wrote his seminal work five years ago? We chatted with the journalist and author about how our increasing interactions with mobile technology might be affecting the most important organ in our bodies.

Since you wrote this book, the Internet has only taken on a bigger role in our lives. What are some of the main changes you've observed in the way we interact with technology? 

When I wrote the book, the iPhone was still very new and the iPad had just come out. Social media wasn't as big as it is today. So when I wrote the book, I was thinking about laptops and computers but not so much about smartphones. Of course, now the main way that people interact with the Internet is through mobile devices.

In the book, I argued that what we created with computers and the Internet was a system of distraction. We got the great rewards of having basically unlimited information at our fingertips, but the cost of that was we created a system that kept us in a state of perpetual distraction and constant disruption. 

What psychologists and brain scientists tell us about interruptions is that they have a fairly profound effect on the way we think. It becomes much harder to sustain attention, to think about one thing for a long period of time, and to think deeply when new stimuli are pouring at you all day long. I argue that the price we pay for being constantly inundated with information is a loss of our ability to be contemplative and to engage in the kind of deep thinking that requires you to concentrate on one thing. 

To me, all the things I worried about have become much worse now that we carry around this permanently connected device that we're constantly pawing at. Things are very different in a way that makes the things I worried about worse. 

Research has found that millennials are even more forgetful than seniors. What do we know about how technology is impacting our memory? 

Technology definitely has an effect on our memory. What happens is that to move information from your conscious mind (what's known as the working memory) into your long-term memory requires a process of memory consolidation that hinges on attentiveness. You think about the information or rehearse it in your mind in order to form a strong memory of it, and in order to connect it to other things that you remember. 

If you're constantly distracted and taking in new information, you're essentially pushing information into and out of your conscious mind. You're not attending to it in a way that is necessary for the rich consolidation of memory. 

Since I wrote The Shallows, there have been some very interesting studies which show that we seem to be less able to form long-term memories than we used to, thanks to technology. One study out of Columbia University showed that when people know that they'll be able to find information online easily, they're less likely to form a memory of it. 

Are you also concerned about this lack of depth, or shallowness, in our social interactions? 

That isn't something that I've studied much, but I think there are some indications that this kind of culture of constant distraction and interruption undermines not only the attentiveness that leads to deep thoughts, but also the attentiveness that leads to deep connections with other people. 

One study I mentioned in the book seemed to show that the more distracted you are -- the more your train of thought is interrupted -- the less able you are to experience empathy. So distractions could make it more difficult for us to experience deep emotions. 

In the book you talk about the "dark side" of brain plasticity. What does that mean? 

Neuroscientists have discovered that the brain is plastic, meaning that it's very malleable or adaptable. Our brains are constantly adapting at a physical level to our environment. You can imagine that what's really changed our environment in the past 10 or 20 years is the Internet and social media. 

A lot of people will assume that if our brains can adapt, then our brains will adapt to the flow of information and all will be well. But what you have to understand about neuroplasticity is that the process of adaptation doesn't necessarily leave you a better thinker. It may leave you a more shallow thinker. 

What you have to understand about neuroplasticity is that the process of adaptation doesn't necessarily leave you a better thinker. It may leave you a more shallow thinker.

Our brains adapt, but the process of adaptation is value-neutral -- we might get smarter or we might get dumber, we're just adapting to the environment. 

Are you optimistic about any of the ways we currently seem to be adapting? 

No. It's the ease with which we adapt that makes me most nervous. It doesn't take long for someone to get used to glancing at their smartphone 200 times a day. We're creatures of habit mentally and physically. 

When you develop that habit of distraction, it becomes harder and harder to back away and engage our minds in deeper modes of thinking.

Is there anything we can do to keep our mental faculties intact, or is it pretty much hopeless at this point?

Well, you can use the technology less and set aside your phone and spend a good part of your day trying to maintain your focus and not be interrupted. The good thing about that -- because of the plasticity of our brains -- is that if you change your habits, your brain is happy to go along with whatever you do. 

What makes me more pessimistic is that we're kind of building our personalities and our entire societies around this new set of norms and expectations that says you need to be constantly connected. As long as we continue going down that path it's going to be ever harder for us to buck the status quo. 

There's a ton of research being done on technology and the brain. What sort of findings are you most troubled by? 

There are studies suggesting a loss of cognitive control -- not only a loss of attention, but a loss of our ability to control our mind and determine what we think about. One researcher from Stanford pointed out that the more you acclimate yourself to the technology and the constant flow of information that comes through it, it seems that you become less able to figure out what's important to focus on. Instead, your mind gets attracted just to what's new rather than what's important. 

We can see signs of that in the compulsiveness with which people become attached to the streams of information that swirl by your eyes. 

What do you say to people who argue that at every stage of history, we've been up in arms about new technologies that ultimately proved benign -- and that the Internet is no different?  

We've never had a technology like a smartphone before -- a technology that you carry around with you all day long and are pretty much constantly interacting with. Even television was traditionally segregated into different parts of the day -- it wasn't like people carried around a TV in their pocket. 

This is a very different kind of technology that we've created for ourselves that does interfere with our thoughts. We've never had a media technology that so shapes the way our mind works. 

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

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