/Culture/ What’s the web doing to our ?

The web is a source of data and distraction – but what’s it doing to our minds? Gary Marshall asks whether browsing is bad for your brain

Since we came out of the caves, every new technology has been greeted with alarm and disdain. When we invented fire, people moaned that we’d forget the art of making salads. When we invented the wheel, people moaned that we’d forget how to walk. And when we invented the internet, people moaned that we’d forget how to think.

The difference is, the internet moaners might be right. The 2008 report Information Behaviour of the Researcher of the Future, commissioned by the British Library and the Joint Information Systems Committee, found clear evidence of the negative effects of internet use. “Deep log studies show that, from undergraduates to professors, people exhibit a strong tendency towards shallow, horizontal, ‘flicking’ behaviour in digital libraries. Society is dumbing down.”

If that’s true, things are only going to get worse. The endless amusements of the internet are no longer limited to desktop PCs. Thanks to smartphones, we’re online whenever we’re out and about too – and convergence means we’ll soon be tweeting from our TVs. So what is browsing doing to our brains?
Pavlov’s blogs

For all our fancy shoes and flat-screen iMacs, it turns out that we’re not that different from Pavlov’s dogs: we race from link to link because our brains have been conditioned to associate novelty with pleasure. The more we do, the faster we think; the faster we think, the better we feel about ourselves and about the world around us.

In a series of experiments conducted at Harvard and Princeton universities, people were asked to think as quickly as possible by brainstorming ideas, speed-reading things on computer screens or watching video clips on fast-forward. As Scientific American reports, “Results suggested that thinking fast made participants feel more elated, creative and, to a lesser degree, energetic and powerful. Activities that promote fast thinking, then, such as whipping through an easy crossword puzzle or brainstorming quickly about an idea, can boost energy and mood,” says psychologist Emily Pronin, the study’s lead author.

Pronin and her colleagues suggest that we may associate fast thinking with being in a good mood, and that “thinking quickly may unleash the brain’s novelty-loving dopamine system, which is involved in sensations of pleasure and reward”.

Dopamine is a neurotransmitter, a chemical that’s released whenever we do anything pleasurable such as enjoy food, have sex or take drugs. It’s long been implicated in various forms of addiction and may explain why some people are so keen on risky behaviour such as extreme sports or high-stakes business decisions. It could be the reason why we’re constantly distracted. Dr Gary Small is a professor of psychiatry at the UCLA Semel Institute, directs the Memory and Aging Research Center and the UCLA Center on Aging and is the author of iBrain: Surviving the Technological Alteration of the Modern Mind. As he explains, what many of us do on our PCs isn’t multitasking. It’s something rather different, which he calls Partial Continuous Attention. “With Partial Continuous Attention or PCA you’re scanning the environment, looking for new bits of information that might tweak your dopamine reward system and be more exciting [than what you’re doing],” he says.
Magpie minds

Dr Small and his colleagues at UCLA have found positive results from using technology, particularly with older people. As Dr Small puts it, “Searching online may be a simple form of brain exercise that might be employed to enhance cognition in older adults.” But there’s an important caveat. “The problem is that it tends to create this staccato quality of thought, where you jump from idea to idea as you jump from site to site. You get a lot of breadth of information, but you sacrifice depth.”

The British Library study focused purely on scholars – that is, people with an interest in the things they were researching – but even they had magpie minds. “The figures are instructive,” the report says. “Around 60 per cent of e-journal users view no more than three pages and a majority (up to 65 per cent) never return … It’s clear that users are not reading online in the traditional sense, indeed there are signs that new forms of reading are emerging as users ‘power browse’ horizontally through titles, contents pages and abstracts going for quick wins. It almost seems that they go online to avoid reading in the traditional sense.”

The British Library study revealed another concern: “The speed of young people’s internet searching indicates that little time is spent in evaluating information, either for relevance, accuracy or authority. Researchers have similarly found young people give a consistent lack of attention to the issue of authority. In one study, many teenagers thought if a site was indexed by Yahoo it had to be authoritative.”
Good tech, bad tech

So are we raising a generation of internet-addled kids with zero attention spans? Perhaps not. The study of 3,001 English and Scottish schoolchildren by the National Literacy Trust found that children who blog or post on social networks “have higher literacy levels and greater confidence in writing”, with 61 per cent of bloggers and 56 per cent of social networkers claiming to be “good or very good at writing” compared to 47 per cent of non-blogging, non-networking children. “Pupils who write online are more likely to write short stories, letters, song lyrics or a diary,” it reports.

Technology isn’t good or bad; it just is. When we use it wisely it improves our lives, and the very distractions that ruin our attention span also make us amazingly good at juggling massive amounts of information. “That’s why we love it and use it,” Dr Small says, “because it really enhances our lives … for the most part it’s not going to harm us as far as we know, but I do think there are these subtler effects to which some people are more sensitive. Some people do have problems, some people are addicted, and some people find it interferes with their lives. The issue is: how do we maximise the benefits and avoid some of the potential risks?”


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