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The effects of the Internet on our brains

Posted on 03-28-16 in Cognition, Mental Health

The effects of the Internet on our brains

The 3.5 million online searches that occurred in 1998 have now astonishingly expanded to an overwhelming 4.7 trillion search queries every day. The vast impact of the Internet is undeniable, especially when it changes our lifestyle and thought process so quickly and monumentally.

Internet has altered the way our memory functions

The Internet has quickly evolved into a primary form of external memory, a collective storage of information outside our minds.

A study led by Betsy Sparrow, an assistant professor of psychology at Columbia, Daniel M. Wegner of Harvard and Jenny Liu of the University of Wisconsin, Madison, staged a number of memory experiments to prove so.

The first experiment shows that participants were more likely to think of Web terms like “Yahoo” or “Google” after being asked an array of hard trivia questions.

The next couple of experiments required participants to type 40 bits of trivia into a computer. Half of the group was made to believe the typed information would be saved in the computer, whereas the other half believed the items they typed would be erased.

The latter half was significantly able to remember information, believing they couldn’t access it later.
“Participants did not make the effort to remember when they thought they could later look up the trivia statement they had read,” the authors write.

The last experiment aimed to determine whether computer accessibility specifically affected what we remember. The participants for this task were asked to not just remember the trivia content but which computer folder it was saved in as well. The outcome was surprising: The participants were better at recalling the folder the trivia was saved in than the content itself.

This experiment explored the concept of transactive memory, which is our reliance on our family, friends and others to reference and store information for us. For example, many of us may rely on our mothers to remember the specifications of a certain recipe and ask her in case of need.

The initiative authenticates habits already established in our everyday lives. Instead of memorizing phone numbers, our cell phones have turned into a prime storage portal for these numbers. GPS devices in cars have taken over the necessity to remember directions.

As a consequence, the need to stretch our memories has diminished as we type our questions into Google.
“We become part of the Internet in a way,” Wegner stated. “We become part of the system and we end up trusting it.”

The flip side

Wegner remains undecided on whether our memories will be affected in a detrimental manner.

Where students may have trouble remembering distinctive facts, Wegner believes that the situation in itself is evolving, as dependence on computers is not just widening but being accepted at nearly the same pace. A good example would be the modern use of calculators in classrooms, which was once not allowed.

Despite the fact that the necessity to stretch our memories to recall distinct facts has been overtaken, we still use them to figure out the location and accessibility of these facts.

“We still have to remember things,” Wegner explains. “We’re just remembering a different range of things.”
Wegner strongly believes his study will encourage further research into the comprehension of computer dependence, and anticipate observing and tracking the degree of human interdependence with the technological world.

The effects of the Internet on our brains

An addict’s brain

As reported by The Telegraph, a 2001 study depicted an “addiction effect” on the brains of Internet users through MRI research. These Internet users countered and exhibited difficulty controlling their desires to be constantly online, quite similar to what has been observed in people addicted to drugs and alcohol. A study showed that distancing oneself from technology for even a single day garnered physical and mental withdrawal symptoms among users.

“The majority of people we see with serious Internet addiction are gamers, people who spend long hours in roles in various games that cause them to disregard their obligations,” Dr. Henrietta Bowden Jones, an Imperial College, London psychiatrist who runs a clinic for Internet addicts and problem gamblers.

Furthermore, underlying conditions of heavy usage such as depression, stress, loneliness or anxiety could actually further become exacerbated, as it takes over face-to-face interaction from daily lives.

The “addict’s brain” concept further gets fed into by the fact that too much exposure can open pathways to online compulsions such as gaming, gambling, stock trading, online shopping, bidding or cybersex addiction.

A face-off on the “Internet brain”

Experts have long been divided on determining the impact of excessive screen time on the human brains, especially in case of developing ones.

Susan Greenfield, Oxford neurobiologist, has made a powerful statement over the years regarding the impact of Internet usage, linking it to autism and the damaging of children’s brains.

Hilarie Cash, founder and psychologist at an Internet addiction rehab center in rural Washington, say she has observed the personality disorders described by Greenfield among her patients, such as dependence, narcissism, anti-social behavioral tendencies or isolation.

University College London psychologist Vaughan Bell, however, declares these claims to be outrageous. Bell believes that a major chunk of research does not support Greenfield’s claims. Social networking by adolescents has been observed to boost quality of relationships, and the use of social networking platforms to overcome challenges is seen to be particularly beneficial. Bell says that fear has revolved technological advancement since at least the advent of the printing press.

Both divided groups of scientists do unanimously agree upon one fact: most of the research on the topic is still preliminary.

Sovereign Health is a leading behavioral health treatment provider, devoted to the provision of evidence-based treatment for substance abuse disorders and mental illnesses. We aim to see our patients not just succeed in treatment but thrive in their daily lives as well. If you or a loved one is currently struggling to regain control of your life, help is just a phone call away.

About the author

Sana Ahmed is a staff writer for Sovereign Health Group. A journalist and social media savvy content developer with extensive research, print and on-air interview skills, Sana has previously worked as an editor for a business magazine and been an on-air news broadcaster. She writes to share the amazing developments from the mental health world and unsuccessfully attempts to diagnose her friends and family. For more information and other inquiries about this article, contact the author at