The Brain as Interweb

Many people are worried that too much internet use has been altering their thinking patterns. A villainous Cyberspace has been accused of shortening our attention span, eliminating our memorization skills, and overloading us with information. Critics even blame the Web for our inability to generate a single “big idea” that will revolutionize society, as argued in The Elusive Big Idea” (NYT here)  by Neal Gabler. Instead of us thoughtfully contemplating a question, we now have instantaneous access to search engines, which are at least one culprit in our information overload problem according to Nicholas Carr’s article Is Google Making Us Stupid?” (The Atlantic here).

Nicholas Carr (journalist) has documented his personal experiences with intrusive technology (namely the internet, email, cell phones) over the past couple of decades. He admits that the internet is not particularly unique in rewiring the brain. In fact, decades of neuroscience experiments have shown that any external stimulus can alter our brain plasticity! The more times a stimulus is repeated, the stronger the association becomes.

On the other hand, the founders of Google argue that the opposite is true: Google allows us to think faster and more efficiently. When interviewed for In the Plex, Larry Page and Sergey Brin strongly asserted that Google’s search tool provides instantaneous information, thus saving our brains the long process of fact-finding via traditional research. They believe speed is the key to their usefulness for users and provide search results as fast as we can come up with search terms! Google is pushing our brains toward limits of thought not previously possible.

But Gabler’s article (above) points out that there’s a difference between fact and synthesis:

“In the past, we collected information not simply to know things. That was only the beginning. We also collected information to convert it into something larger than facts and ultimately more useful — into ideas that made sense of the information.

Today, the time we spend browsing the internet increases even further with mobile devices, and permeates much of our waking day. Any student will affirm that a quick Wikipedia hit is more instantly rewarding than a day spent sifting through a dusty card catalog in the library. A cost-benefit analysis is always at work in our brains, trying to maximize gains while diminishing effort, and the internet provides a shortcut for us. Gabler notes,

“We prefer knowing to thinking because knowing has more immediate value. It keeps us in the loop, keeps us connected to our friends and our cohort. Ideas are too airy, too impractical, too much work for too little reward. “

Instant gratification obtained from immediate answers is rewarding, and some “internet junkies” behave like addicts that crave information 24/7. As Gabler states, “the most popular sites on the Web, are basically information exchanges, designed to feed the insatiable information hunger, though this is hardly the kind of information that generates ideas.” A primary question arises: is rapidly-accessible information intrinsically rewarding or are there aspects of this information that feed into our evolutionarily old brain circuitry? For instance, novelty and social cues are known to cause dopamine release, and these are two elements engineered into the core of Web 2.0. Perhaps we are hard-wired to be internet junkies (here). Or Pavlovian mutts clicking “refresh” on our email every few minutes, as strategy consultant Dorie Clark chides (in HBR) (also see The Guardian‘s article about email compulsion -here-). Harvard Business Review gives us some suggestions (link here) about how to minimize these distractions and focus. The WSJ recommends keeping track of how much time you spend on-line (see Employees, Measure Yourselves) as awareness is the first step toward change.

How to cut the information overload? The future is about focus. Here’s an overview:

A related problem is how social media has inadvertently hijacked our brain reward pathways. The simple biological explanation for Facebook’s success is that our brains find faces pleasurable. We are evolutionarily wired (NYT link) to respond and orient toward faces, be they friend or foe. We have “face-selective cells” in several regions of our brain (i.e. fusiform face area, temporal cortex, prefrontal cortex) which are excited by seeing faces (especially happy faces) and link them to a “reward signal” via connections to dopamine release or to prior emotional memories (amygdala, hippocampus). Clearly some people find it more rewarding than others, as measured by usage stats (see How to Tell if You’re Addicted to Facebook and HuffPost; backed by real data here). Also see “How Facebook Makes You Spend More” by breaking down your self-control. 

Is Facebook making us Lonely? (The Atlantic) 

So it seems the internet’s evolution into social networking is moving closer to working like a brain. At the same time, our brains are also rewiring to become more like the websites we visit. At a recent cocktail party, I was asked, “Is it just a matter of time before the two become intermingled? Can we download memories yet?” I replied that the answer is “Not Yet.”

Futurist Ray Kurzweil discusses how our brains will evolve in tandem with technology to make us smarter: “We are becoming merged with our technology!”

For more on persuasive technology and how you can disrupt habits:

More details here ->BJ Fogg Lab Stanford

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