The Internet has fundamentally changed human life. It helps humans navigate. It connects them to other people across the world. And it's having some unexpected effects on the human brain.
How does the Internet impact thinking? Some experts suggest that easy access to all the information stored on the World Wide Web is shortening people's attention spans, and potentially making their memory worse. It might even be making people less empathetic, since they're communicating more through screens. But while it's tempting to write off all the ways the Internet changes how people think as negative, that's just not the case. Surfing the web can possibly make users more intelligent, and it helps them become more aware of others' viewpoints as well.
Researchers are still determining exactly how the Internet affects the human brain. Thanks to innovations like smartphones, tablets, and social media, that technology will likely continue to re-shape the way people communicate, feel, and think. Though society is (probably) still some ways off from plugging straight into the mainframe a la The Matrix, the Internet has most definitely impacted everyday life.
It's Shortening Our Attention Spans
The average goldfish famously has an attention span of approximately 9 seconds, but humans had an attention span of 12 seconds - until 2000, when it suddenly dropped to 8 seconds. Researchers have traced that startling change back to the advent of the mobile phone.
There seems to be a generational divide when it comes to attention spans, too. Nearly 80% of 18-24 year olds surveyed admitted to picking up their smartphone "when nothing is occupying [their] attention," compared to only 10% of people over 65.
It's Trapping Us In A State Of Perpetual Distraction
How often do you check your phone? A 2016 study found that the average smartphone user checks their phone over 2,600 times a day. That adds up to a million times per year, and that number is likely to keep increasing as people become ever more dependent on their devices.
In a 2015 interview, Nicholas Carr, author of The Shallows: What The Internet Is Doing To Our Brains, described this addictive habit as, "a state of perpetual distraction and constant disruption," the price people pay for having "unlimited information at our fingertips."
"If you exist in a perpetual state of distractedness," Carr warns, "you'll never tap into the deepest sources of human insight and creativity."
It's Making Our Long-Term Memory WorsePhoto: Walt Disney Studios/Pixar
Constant browsing, scrolling, and clicking can potentially impact a person's ability to retain and remember information. "[Moving] information from your conscious mind (what’s known as the working memory) into your long-term memory requires a process of memory consolidation that hinges on attentiveness," Nicholas Carr explains. "If you’re constantly distracted and taking in new information, you’re essentially pushing information into and out of your conscious mind. You’re not attending to it in a way that is necessary for the rich consolidation of memory."
Carr's thoughts were backed up by a 2011 study published by Scientific American. Researchers noted how subjects remembered less information, since they knew they could easily Google it later. In other words, access to the Internet can encourage a lazy mind.
It's Making Us Feel More Connected And Totally Alone At Once
In terms of socialization, the Internet can make users feel more connected to each other than ever before - and also more alienated from each other than ever before. As Professor Fritz Nordengren observes:
"At first glance, having many friends or contacts on social networks implies a great sense of connectedness. However, you likely have experienced the downside of electronic social circles, such as the recent party or lunch where other guests were staring into their digital devices and tapping messages to others. The connectedness of one-on-one conversations may be lost to the digital connectedness."
Studies suggest that "the more time people spend on the Internet, the less they interact with family and friends physically and over the phone, the smaller their social circles become, and the more they feel depressed."