12 Ways The Internet Is Changing How We Think

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

    It's Shortening Our Attention Spans
    Photo: cactusbeetroot / flickr / CC-BY-NC 2.0

    People have been worried about the Internet's effect on concentration for years, and according to a 2015 study, those fears of becoming "digital goldfish" may have finally been realized.

    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

    It's Trapping Us In A State Of Perpetual Distraction
    Photo: Daniel Friedman / Flickr / CC BY 2.0

    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 Worse

    It's Making Our Long-Term Memory Worse
    Photo: 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."

  • It's Turning Us Less Empathetic

    It's Turning Us Less Empathetic
    Photo: FixersUK / flickr / CC-BY-ND 2.0

    Twitter beefs. Trolls. Cyber bullies. Pretty much every YouTube video comment section. Though there is data to back this theory up, you only have to spend a few hours on the Internet to see for yourself how it often taps into the darker side of humanity. But according to Nicholas Carr, it may also be responsible for exacerbating or even causing this continuing polarization:

    "I think there are some indications that this kind of culture of constant distraction and interruption undermines not only the attentiveness that leads to deep thoughts, but also the attentiveness that leads to deep connections with other people.

    One study I mentioned in the book [The Shallows] seemed to show that the more distracted you are - the more your train of thought is interrupted - the less able you are to experience empathy."

  • It Might Be Making Us Smarter... Or Dumber

    It Might Be Making Us Smarter... Or Dumber
    Photo: Lion's Gate

    The human brain is neuroplastic, a term that refers to "the brain's ability to reorganize itself by forming new neural connections throughout life." In other words, brains physically change and adapt. That malleability can have both positive and negative results. 

    Nicholas Carr thinks it's dangerous to assume that any change to a brain is always a change for the better: "A lot of people will assume that if our brains can adapt, then our brains will adapt to the flow of information and all will be well. But what you have to understand about neuroplasticity is that the process of adaptation doesn’t necessarily leave you a better thinker. It may leave you a more shallow thinker... we might get smarter or we might get dumber, we’re just adapting to the environment."

    Clive Thompson, author of Smarter Than You Think, offers a slightly more optimistic view on how the Internet affects human intelligence. During his talk at the 2014 IdeaFestival, Thompson asserted the importance of "connected thinking" to solving problems and exploring new frontiers. Essentially, he believes that knowledge can now be crowd sourced.