Scratching the Surface

Your Brain on the Internet

by Lara Killian

23 July 2009

What does the ubiquitous availability of digital text mean for the human brain as it processes ever-increasing amounts of information?
“Blah, Blah, Blah” (partial) by Mel Bochner 

Today we may marvel at the extraordinary technological advances of the digital age and how the high-tech revolution has dramatically altered our culture and our brain’s neural pathways. (Gary Small & Gigi Vorgan, iBrain, 2008)

What does the ubiquitous availability of digital text mean for the human brain as it processes ever-increasing amounts of information? When Nicholas Carr published his essay, ”Is Google Making Us Stupid?” in The Atlantic magazine last summer, I was deeply intrigued, as well as empathetic to Carr’s plight.

Carr postulated that reading online is a more shallow experience, in terms of the reader’s comprehension, than traditional reading in print. The more we become accustomed to clicking on links, following snippets of text, and quickly deciphering the presumed meaning behind ambiguous messages merely a few words in length (I’m looking at you, Twitter), the less information many of us retain.

Carr’s metaphors of skimming across text and the overall message in the article pointed to a suspicion that we may be unable to put this process in reverse: our brains and neural pathways may actually be changing with this new information processing behavior. We have no way of telling at this point whether the change will be permanent. We also have no way of measuring the impact this potential change may have on human productivity, creativity, or quality of life.

Some of us have grown up surrounded by all things digital, while others have joined the Internet age later in life, after already forming personal reading habits and mental patterns of information retention. But whether an individual chooses to immerse himself in digital text or merely dip in occasionally, digital information is nearly ubiquitous and we are only starting to understand the repercussions of our interactions with it.

Those who have grown up with the Internet are often referred to as ‘digital natives’, while those who came to the party later are sometimes called ‘digital immigrants’. Born in 1980, I feel my reading habits lay on the cusp between these two groups of information users, and perhaps that is why I am so interested in the concept of the changing brain. Are we being rewired, as Carr suggests?

cover art

Grown Up Digital: How the Net Generation is Changing the World

Don Tapscott

US: Oct 2008

Don Tapscott writes in his recent book Grown Up Digital:

There are many reasons to believe that what we are seeing is the first case of a generation that is growing up with brains that are wired differently from those of the previous generation. Evidence is mounting that Net Geners process information and behave differently because they have indeed developed brains that are functionally different from those of their parents.

Tapscott started writing on this subject a decade ago, in his previously published Growing Up Digital: The Rise of the Net Generation (1998). In the late ‘90s it was still difficult to see the more subtle effect the constant availability of the Internet might have on the way people process information, but Tapscott presented some intriguing thoughts about the possible effect on our brains of interacting with digital text. At the very least, he recognized that young people were handling digital text differently from those who did not grow up with a mouse in hand. A decade later, more research, and a whole lot of commentary, is available on the topic.

Preliminary investigation suggests that the physical makeup of the brain of a digital native functions and develops in a different manner from that of a digital immigrant. One way to examine whether our brains are changing in the way they process information (and thus potentially physically, as certain neural pathways are reinforced and others neglected) is to look at information seeking behavior in Internet users.

cover art

iBrain: Surviving the Technological Alteration of the Modern Mind Author: Gary Small, Gigi Vorgan

US: Oct 2008

Early in 2008 a report was released based on a University College London (UCL) study, Information Behaviour of the Researcher of the Future, which examined how young people and school children look for information in comparison with older generations. The report was commissioned by the British Library and Joint Information Systems Committee (JISC) as part of the British government’s effort to understand how information literacy is changing alongside technological developments.

The UCL report concluded that the majority of online information seekers look at only a percentage of an e-book or electronic journal article’s content before moving on, usually never to return. The study also points out that young people (born after 1993) “tend to move rapidly from page to page, spending little time reading or digesting information and they have difficulty making relevant judgments about the pages they retrieve.”

Spoiled for choice when it comes to finding content online, digital natives often have difficulty evaluating the information they find, according to the UCL report. Meanwhile, Carr argued in the Atlantic article that members of all generations are coming to rely on Google to sift through mountains of digital information because it is so hard to process as an individual. Frequently, Carr proposes, we start reading one piece of text only to get distracted and move on before we finish what we started.

Skipping from textual crumb to snippet to fragment, many of us, even digital immigrants, are falling out of the habit of devoting our full attention to long sections of text, let alone full-length books. And the generation the UCL study focuses on may have never needed or wanted to train their mental faculties on the task of processing lengthy swaths of text.

It’s possible that the more we reinforce the new pathways formed in our brains by spending ever-increasing amounts of time online, albeit while decreasing our actual engagement with text, the more other areas of the brain become weakened (Small, iBrain, 2008). It’s worth reflecting on how the human brain has evolved to develop the ability to read at all, before pondering the direction our brains may be headed, as exposure to digital text continues.

We all know how critical it is to keep independent voices alive and strong on the Internet. Please consider a donation to support our work. We are a wholly independent, women-owned, small company. Your donation will help PopMatters stay viable through these changing, challenging times where costs have risen and advertising has dropped precipitously. PopMatters needs your help to keep publishing. Thank you.

//Mixed media

Authenticity Issues and the New Intimacies

// Marginal Utility

"The social-media companies have largely succeeded in persuading users of their platforms' neutrality. What we fail to see is that these new identities are no less contingent and dictated to us then the ones circumscribed by tradition; only now the constraints are imposed by for-profit companies in explicit service of gain.

READ the article