Nicholas Carr, author of The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains, wrote an important article for Wired Magazine in 2010 about the effect that our modern culture of distraction–specifically the Internet–is having on our brains. “When we go online, we enter an environment that promotes cursory reading, hurried and distracted thinking, and superficial learning,” Carr wrote. “Even as the Internet grants us easy access to vast amounts of information, it is turning us into shallower thinkers, literally changing the structure of our brain.”
Carr argues that although features of the online world such as hypertext, Twitter or instant messaging share knowledge, the distracting nature of these mediums makes them unmemorable to readers; online surfers are far less likely to remember what they’ve read than someone who spends hours with a single source of information like a book.
An MRI study conducted in 2007 by Gary Small, a professor of psychiatry at UCLA, scanned the brains of three experienced Internet users and three inexperienced users. Using a handheld computer, the participants searched various topics online while their brains were scanned. The brains of the veteran net users showed greater amounts of activity than the brains of the people new to searching the Internet.
Six days later, Small repeated the study, but this time the novice surfers had spent at least an hour a day searching online. Interestingly, their scans revealed that their brains now resembled those of the more experienced web users.
“When first publicized, [these] findings were greeted with cheers,” Carr wrote. “By keeping lots of brain cells buzzing, Google seemed to be making people smarter. But as Small was careful to point out, more brain activity is not necessarily better brain activity. The real revelation was how quickly and extensively Internet use reroutes people’s neural pathways. ‘The current explosion of digital technology not only changing the way we live and communicate,’ Small concluded, “but is rapidly and profoundly altering our brains.”