Wired

Published On June 4, 2012 | By Ethos |

Story by Joseph R. Faltyn
Illustration by Charlotte Cheng

According to recent scientific studies, there are at least 100 billion stars in the Milky Way. An amazing number, no doubt, unless it’s compared to the galaxy of connections that make up the human brain. Each nerve cell, known as a neuron, comes with a varied number of “branches” that transmit messages. Most neuroscientists believe a neuron establishes anywhere between 1 and 10,000 connections with other neurons, which makes the theoretical number of possible links within a single brain more than 40,000,000,000,000,000, or 40 quadrillion.

The brain’s connections mirror those of the Internet, where millions of computers and servers constantly communicate with one another. But instead of e-mails, YouTube videos, and Twitter feeds, the result of the billions upon billions of messages that neurons send and receive is our ability to see, smell, hear, feel, and generally make sense of the world.

“The brain is a dynamic, highly sensitive yet robust system that may adapt, for better or for worse, to almost any element of its environment,” writes John Ratey, professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. “Before people can really begin to understand why they think, speak, love, laugh, cry, or see the world as they do, they must first come to terms with who and what they really are.”

Given the fact that our brains are highly adaptable and malleable to outside influence, the question arises: does the Internet have any lasting effect on the ways in which we think and perceive the world?

It’s a compelling question to the many neuroscientists studying how digital technologies biologically influence human beings. Generally speaking, there are three schools of thought on the topic: that you embrace technology and the changes it brings, encourage others to approach the medium with a critical eye, or believe it’s too early to tell much of anything. As with all science, however, research doesn’t always produce clear and definitive results. Instead, like a never-ending Russian nesting doll, observations lead to questions, which lead to new observations, which lead back to newer, clearer questions. There is, however, one agreed upon point: the Internet is encouraging a new evolution of the mind.

“The technology of computers and the Internet is radically changing the ways that people learn and communicate,” writes Kurt Fischer, director of the Mind, Brain, and Education program at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. “People need to examine the changes to analyze how they are altering interaction and human culture.”

Prior to the twentieth century, the function of our brain was largely misunderstood. Aristotle believed that human intellect resided in the heart and that the sole function of the brain was to cool the fiery blood that the heart produced, while Hippocrates, widely regarded as the father of Western medicine, was far ahead of his time when he said the brain was responsible for facilitating sensation and intelligence.

In addressing the question of how humans learn, neuroscientists have discovered a significant relationship between attention and memory. A recent psychology experiment at Columbia University tracked the effects that Google has on memory acquisition and information processing. In one part of the experiment, participants were tested on whether or not they could remember random facts, such as “an ostrich’s eye is bigger than its brain.” Half of the participants were told they’d have access to that same information at another point later in time (the scientific equivalent of having the option to “Google it”) and half were told the information would be immediately deleted once reviewed. Of those two groups, the people who had been told that their information was going to be deleted had a significantly higher rate of recall.

In the study, appropriately titled “Google Effects on Memory,” researchers concluded that “we are becoming symbiotic with our computer tools, growing into interconnected systems that remember less by knowing information than by knowing where the information can be found.” Further clarifying their findings, the researchers wrote that the results “suggest that processes of human memory are adapting to the advent of new computing and communicative technologies,” adding “we must remain plugged in to know what Google knows.”

People, it seems, have become highly dependent on the Internet. We all get anxious when we can’t find our phone or a strong wireless signal. And some people even feel irritable when unable to check their Facebook or Twitter. One possible explanation for this fluctuation in moods is Internet Addiction Disorder (IAD). Earlier this year, Natural Science Foundation of China researchers published a study that referred to IAD as “a serious mental health issue around the world.”

Some scientists believe that the addiction in IAD comes from the brain’s release of the neurotransmitter dopamine, the chemical responsible for, among other things, a human’s “reward” system. When we get a thrill, drink a beer, or play a competitive sport, our brains intermittently release dopamine. The bits of excitement that come with receiving an e-mail, checking a Facebook page, playing video games, or tweeting are no different. Those “positive” activities lead to a chemical reaction to which people can become addicted.

For similar reasons, many scientists and educators believe that the Internet has spoiled the attention spans of students. They argue that because of the interactive and engaging nature of the Internet, the classic lecture style of teaching might be in need of a makeover. New technology also offers an easy distraction from work. A 2010 study by Duke University appears to confirm these fears: the fifth through eighth graders surveyed tested lower in class once computers and high-speed Internet were available at home.

But by no means is it all bad news. Some studies suggest that the Internet and digital technologies, if embraced, could lead to breakthroughs in creating more effective education methods. The reason is, once again, dopamine. Beyond pleasure, the chemical has been linked to a person’s ability to pay attention. When someone is involved in a rewarding activity, be it an intense basketball game, a final few holes of golf, or an attractive person sitting nearby, it’s partially thanks to dopamine that our minds focus on the task at hand.

However, the common denominator in these activities is that the final result—Will I make the shot? Will I get a hole in one? Will she give me her number?—is unknown. Humans are drawn to exciting and pleasurable experiences that lack a predictable outcome, meaning that, biologically, we like surprises. This, scientists and educators say, may in fact be the key to establishing a more productive and engaging educational curriculum.

When students are subjected to routine their attention is usually a mile away. Basically, their brains are producing very little, if any, dopamine and, as a result, the information being presented to them isn’t being passed on to their long-term memory—the crucial transference needed to solidify memories and, in this case, knowledge. By incorporating new methods of teaching including technology like the ever-dynamic Internet that barrier of boredom might be easier to cross.

Let’s face it: the Internet isn’t going away anytime soon so its potential effects on the human brain will likely continue. This makes Aristotle’s advice perhaps the best to take. He might have gotten it wrong on how the brain functions, but his oft-touted belief that a happy, fulfilling life comes from somewhere between total dependence and complete isolation certainly applies to the mind’s current evolution.

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