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Is the internet shaping our brains?

I recently watched Connected by Tiffany Schlain. For anyone who hasn’t seen this film yet, I recommend you download it right now on iTunes as you read this article. It will challenge the way you see the world and your own behaviour. While I didn’t necessarily agree with every point raised, the film made me sit up and take note of how technology (and notably the internet) is shaping the very brains that invented it. It also forced me to question the consequence of now living in a truly interconnected world.

In this article, I want to explore some of the key ideas this film sparked and questions it raises for the future. I hope it will equally spark some thoughts for you and begin a discussion about how we can harness the Internet’s power to create a better world for generations to come.

The internet has become our global nervous system

The analogy that the internet has connected humans in such a way that it has formed a global nervous system is powerful. I believe it has become a social nervous system, something we depend on for sharing and receiving information. Each webpage is like a neuron (cell in our nervous system), which sends messages from one body part to another via a synapse. Every hyperlink is like a synapse, connecting one webpage to another. As the internet has become woven into the fabric of everyday life, do those excluded from or resisting this system risk becoming ever more isolated? Will they become more vulnerable by missing out on essential information communicated in this virtual world?

The internet has become an extension of our brains

Thanks to a solid skull and the physical necessities of childbirth, our brains cannot grow any bigger. Could it be then that we have quite literally out-sourced our brain with technology so that it can expand and further the development of our species? The next time you see someone with a mobile phone in their hand, are you really seeing a new layer of the human brain?

We have a primal brain that has developed over many thousands of years of evolutionary history. It governs basic survival functions like breathing and digestion as well as processing emotions. This part of our brain runs like a very good piece of software and therefore needs minimal conscious support.  Our rational brain on the other hand allows us to think analytically, logically and to plan ahead. But this part of our brain is a relative infant in evolutionary terms.  So it is hardly surprising to find some bugs in our software and this is why we often hear “trust your gut instinct”. Do computers help meet this challenge by undertaking many of these rational tasks much more efficiently and accurately than humans ever could?

The internet has stimulated right brain thinking

Connected introduces us to the notion that there have been various seminal moments in history that have stimulated one hemisphere of the brain more than the other. The outcome of this has been a shift in power towards men vs. women because the left hemisphere is more aligned to typical male characteristics and vice versa.

In reality, our brains can’t be split this simply, with different tasks being assigned to each hemisphere. It’s much more complicated and ill-defined. However, there is some evidence to support the fact that our left hemisphere is more responsible for logic, reason, linear and rationale thinking (typical male traits) whereas our right hemisphere is more likely to be responsible for processing patterns, emotions, intuition and holistic thinking (typical female traits).

A key milestone in our brain’s evolution was linked to the advent of the alphabet and introduction of literacy, which stimulated the analytic left hemisphere. Then, in the age of enlightenment, we were introduced to science and reason. The scientific and industrial revolutions that followed compounded this “left brain dominance” and the growing influence of rational and analytical thought. They also compounded man’s quest to isolate everything down to a single variable rather than see everything as part of a more complex system of interconnected elements.

Could the internet’s discovery be another of these seminal moments tipping the balance back the other way? By clicking on information and searching for knowledge on the internet we stimulate rational, logical thought processes. However, at the same time, the proliferation of visual media by way of images and videos has stimulated our right brain much more and facilitated “systems thinking”. Will this put more value and influence back in female traits both socially and professionally?

The internet is changing the way we learn

The worldwide web has created a new global library and memory bank that we can all tap into instantly and, for the most part, free. Every time new information is received (every search, tweet, text or email), we get a little rush of a reward chemical called dopamine that makes us want to repeat that action again and again. In this way, the internet fuels our desire for continual learning whilst also giving us the option of being more choosy about what we remember.  Why would we take up space in our minds with non-essential information if we know exactly where to find it and can access it whenever we want? Will this lead to greater specialisation and change the way we process and store memories

The internet is redefining the way we seek relationships

We all know that the internet has expanded our virtual social networks through sites like Facebook, Twitter and Linked In. But do you know why? Every connection we make, ‘like’ we get, contact request accepted, email received is thought to trigger a burst of a happiness chemical in your brain called oxytocin. Among it’s many roles, one the key roles of oxytocin is in creating social bonds, empathy, trust and co-operation. In this way, making more online connections becomes self-propelling. However, does this desire to connect widely and virtually come with a warning label attached? Is there an opportunity cost of having less meaningful relationships? Does it inadvertently help to create a touch-deprived society and what are the implications of this? Touch after all is the one sense that reassures us that we actually exist.

Closing thoughts

We have invented a system, which has changed our world and the way we use our brains. The Internet and mobile technology have allowed us to expand our knowledge faster than ever before. Thanks to the interconnectedness of this social nervous system, we are creating a remarkable global brain that fosters co-creation and innovation. But with all this connectivity, we must be careful not to spread ourselves too thinly and forget to touch the real world. Everything has a cause and an effect and we need to remember that the consequences of this human invention are very real indeed.

What do you think? I’d love to know in the comments below!

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About Michelle Hawkins

Michelle is the Head of Happiness at The Flying Dodo. She designs spaces and experiences that promote greater Wellbeing and happiness in healthcare & hospitality using her knowledge of positive psychology, service design and behaviour change. Designing for happiness should be at the heart of every organisation. When people (staff and service users) feel happy, they become more resilient, motivated and engaged. To find out more about Michelle's story click on the icons below."

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3 comments

  1. Some interesting and general abstract ideas here… but surely the most practical aspects of our brains and the web are these:

    -we know are brains rewire constantly through learning and new experience, so the web can help us rewire and refresh
    -we all have what are known as ‘mirror neurons’ which have us copying each other constantly, consciously or not. On Facebook for instance with ‘likes’ these go into overdrive. Does so much copying lower our ability and capacity for creating the new or stimulate it?
    -our brain development is affected by habit. How does habit of flitting from site-to-site affect our thinking then?

    Sorry to be so specific about this… but it’s science you’re talking about here. It’s meant to be.

  2. Thanks for the excellent builds Philippa and specific is good! I wanted this piece to be a thought starter to stimulate some discussion and debate as there are so many different aspects of our brains and the web like the ones you added. There’s not a right or a wrong view on this and like any medium, it’s how you choose to engage with it as much as the medium itself.

  3. We are the inventor of this technology and we should not let this rule over us. We should maximize its advantages but not to the point of ruling over us.

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