Is the internet bad for our brains? Is it affecting our ability to remember things, form meaningful relationships, or make decisions? How is it beneficial? Isn't having so much information at our fingertips a good thing?
I think it's important to remember that in science, answers to questions like these are rarely straightforward. Without a doubt the time we spend online changes our brains, but then again, so does everything we do. Our brains are highly plastic, meaning that external experience shapes our neural structure and function. But exactly how the Internet induces those changes is still something of a mystery.
Nicholas Carr, author of The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains, is attempting to shed light in this very new area of research. I spoke with him to learn more. Watch the video above and/or click the link below to read the whole story. And don't forget to leave a comment. Come on, talk nerdy to me!
CARA SANTA MARIA: Hi everyone. Cara Santa Maria here. How are we affected by what Eric Schmidt, the executive chairman of Google calls "the first thing that humanity has built that humanity doesn't understand, the largest experiment in anarchy that we have ever had?" Nicholas Carr, author of The Shallows, has dedicated years of his life to understanding the complex relationship between the human brain and the Internet.
NICHOLAS CARR: I mean, more than any, I think, individual technology or medium ever, we spend more time interacting with the Internet and doing more things; more intellectual things, more personal things and so forth. And I think what we know about the brain is that it's very efficient in adapting to the way we use it. When we come to use a tool like the Internet for so many things, our brains adapt.
CSM: The environment shapes who we are and how we think. There's an ever-developing feedback mechanism, a rich and complex dance between our external world and our internal thoughts. And this isn't some ineffable partnership. All of our experiences -- even using the Internet -- physically change the structure and function of our brains. And this is most apparent during sensitive periods of development.
NC: I think one of the most important elements of brain development is to make sure a child, through the first 20 years of their lives, of their life, has a lot of different kinds of experiences, different kind of stimuli. My concern now as we push computer devices, network devices, to kids at ever younger ages (and we see this with cell phones and smartphones and ipads and ipod touches) we're stealing away some of that diversity of experience.
CSM: I'm not sure I'm convinced. Doesn't our modern Google culture, along with gaming and social media, increase our diversity of experience? Well, Nicholas argues that depth of thought--critical, conceptual, even creative thinking--is not a passive process. Information doesn't just flow in and stick. It takes time for new ideas to connect with old ideas, for a rich web of associations grow.
NC: If your brain is constantly distracted and constantly taking in new information, it can never hold any existing piece of information in its working memory. Because the capacity is so small, in order to make room for something new coming at you, you have to get rid of something else that's in there. The experiences that we get on the Internet are certainly compelling and a lot of us become almost compulsive in our need to check screens, but what it does is through this process of cognitive overload, of literally overloading our working memory, is it prevents us from weaving together information into knowledge. So we become just, you know, kind of pecking away at little bits of information without ever getting the big picture.
CSM: And apparently, that constant checking of the screens is reinforced by the little rush of dopamine we get every time there's a new bit of information available. It gives us a fix. In essence, checking Facebook, Twitter, whatever really is like crack to us.
NC: The more stimulated you are by things coming through your screen, the less able you are to distinguish important information from trivial information. What becomes important when you're constantly multitasking, constantly all following these streams of information, what becomes important simply is that information is new. And you don't care whether its important or trivial you just want to get the newest thing.
CSM: What do you think? Can we still be critical thinkers or make good decisions if we can't even separate important information from extraneous "noise?" How is the internet affecting your brain? You do realize that you're under the influence right now, right? Get your fix by reaching out to me on Twitter, Facebook, or leaving a comment right here on The Huffington Post. Come on, talk nerdy to me!