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Today, 5.4 billion people worldwide use the internet in their daily lives, and this number will only continue to grow. I am sure you would not be surprised at all to know that internet usage has a significant impact on our brains.

The deeper questions are how and what it changes within our brains. And should we be worried at all?

For most of my life, I have tried to be conscious of what and how I like to utilize the internet. As much as a boon it is, mindless usage of the internet can be damaging.

But I wasn’t fully aware of just how harmful it could be. After all most people believe they can control how much time they spend online. Perhaps this is no longer true.

I was reading this book named ‘The Shallows‘ by Nicholas Carr and found it interesting. It provided some answers I was seeking about internet usage. I will share more about the insights I gained and my personal experiences with the internet.

Let’s get some facts straight. Most of us today can’t live without the internet. And why should we, the Internet is such a great thing. But as they say ‘with great power, comes great responsibility‘.

To comprehend the deeper implications of using the internet, you need to get an overall idea of how the human brain generally works.

Just like cells in our body, the brain has nerve cells called neurons. Like normal cells in the body, neurons carry out similar functions but unlike normal cells, neurons have tentacle-like appendages- axons and dendrions that receive and transmit electric pulses in the brain. Neurons communicate with each other through the flow of neurotransmitters that are chemical messengers (Dopamine, serotonin, glutamate, etc.).

Neurons communicating with each other

There are only a few things in the world as complex as the human brain. Billions of complex neural connections. All these electrochemical interactions among brain cells define you as a human being.

For hundreds of years, the common belief was that adult brains don’t change. Once you cross a certain age, your brain stops making new neuron connections. For this reason, people believe that learning new stuff becomes more challenging with age (as your brain is not malleable).

But today it is being proven by numerous scientists that our brain does change and make new neural connections even after our 20s.1 Brain is like a plastic (neuroplasticity) that breaks old connections and forms new ones. With age, this plasticity diminishes, but it never goes away. Next time if you want to learn something new, don’t blame your age or brain.

The plasticity of the brain means that you can rewire (or reprogram) your brain through your physical and mental actions. What you do physically and how you think mentally defines the neural connections in your brain (and you).

It is not hard to imagine that usage of the Internet would have a huge effect on reprogramming our brains. The effect is different based on people’s mode of usage.


There was a time when knowledge used to be transmitted orally. This is true for most civilizations. The example of Socrates and Plato is an interesting one. Whereas Socrates firmly believed in the oratory medium as being best for knowledge transmission, his student Plato preferred writing to be the best.

For the same reason, you won’t find any written document from Socrates. For most of us, it is baffling to grasp how oral communication could be better than writing for transmitting knowledge from one generation to another.

A famous story narrated by Socrates was between the Greek God of Theuth and the king of Upper Egypt Thamus. According to the story, King Thamus received from the god Theuth the knowledge of writing, but decided not to use it too often, as he reckoned this would damage the ability to remember extensively. Thamus further said-

“The written word is a recipe not for the memory, but for reminder. Those who rely on reading for their knowledge will seem to know much, while for the most part they know nothing. They will be filled not with wisdom but with the conceit of wisdom.”

Even in ancient Indian civilizations, it was more common to rely on invoking inner wisdom via contemplation than just looking for new information.

In a purely oral culture, thinking was governed by the capacity of human memory. Knowledge was about the ability to recall and remember.

This gives rise to an interesting debate of do we control the medium or the medium controls us. The evolution of different mediums would probably look something like this-

When electricity was discovered, many people were skeptical of it’s influence on changing human interaction with knowledge. Whenever a new medium comes, people get caught up in the content that that medium offers. Like we care about shows on TV but about the medium of TV. We care about information on the internet but not how information is provided.

Understanding any medium and its influence is not straightforward so most of us care about the content it provides. But most of us missed the key point that Nicholas Carr described aptly in his book-

” In the long run a medium’s content matters less than the medium itself in influencing how we think and act.”

The key factor in the long term is not whether you explore good or bad content over the internet but how internet usage has changed the patterns of perception and process of thinking without much resistance.

When was the last time you just randomly wandered/contemplated something?

When was the last time you were immersed in some activity without involving your phone or computer?

While we console ourselves by saying that it’s not technology but how we use it that matters most, this isn’t the entire truth. Technology itself changes us in profound and defining ways.


A few years back, I bought a Kindle to read new books. One debate that I specifically found interesting was whether reading is better in physical books or a Kindle (e-device). I have to agree that Kindle does provide a lot of convenience like buying a book instantly, carrying as many books as you want anywhere, changing the style of pages (font, size), etc.

But there is something about physical books that just seemed missing in an e-device like Kindle. I instantly got my answers as soon as I read this book by Nicholas Carr. Change in the medium’s form also changes the process of thought (how we perceive information).

So when people tell me ‘How does it matter if I read on a phone, tablet, laptop, or a physical book, reading is the main point not where I am reading’ I feel inside how they have fallen victim to the blindness that change of medium changes the way we read and process information.

The effect of the Internet on humans is a subject of great study. It is no secret today that the internet is probably the strongest drug available for humans.

When we type on our keyboards, click on links, like some photos, open a website, or reply to a comment, what happens inside the brain?

The brain gets bombarded with visual, auditory, somatosensory inputs. The internet engages almost all of our senses simultaneously. We become like lab rats constantly pressing levers in pursuit of small rewards of social or intellectual satisfaction.

Not everything is bad of course, without the internet how would we access new information or find so many amazing things? We don’t (and can’t) want to go back to the age before the internet.

The problem has been this constant bombardment of information. To contemplate and think deeply, our brains need to relax sometimes. Things are just getting worse with the shorter format of content.

Tyler Cowen, an economist says-

“When access to information is easy, we tend to favor the short, sweet, and bitty.”

That’s what we are witnessing now. Exposure to bite-size content is bombarding our brains even more. In a minute, we are getting exposed to 10 different topics. No wonder, the average human attention span is decreasing day by day. The depth of our thoughts has become shallower.

Many people argue that the new generation of kids is smarter because they have been exposed to the internet from an early age. However, Nicholas Carr argues that they are not smarter, they are just smart in different ways.2 Just like we are not smarter than our parents. Our parents are better in different ways.

Technology is neither our enemy nor our friend. We must individually assess how much of it is beneficial and how much is harmful. Every new tool comes with its advantages and drawbacks.

We must not let the wonders of technology blind our inner conscience to the extent that it distorts essential parts of our identity.

References

  1. Is it worth going to the mind gym? ↩︎
  2. IQs rise, but are we brighter? ↩︎

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