Net's making us smarter, let's make our peace with it

We are what we post, share or tweet. Our brains are being rewired.

By Shalini Verma (Real & Virtual)

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Published: Mon 28 Jan 2019, 8:14 PM

Last updated: Mon 28 Jan 2019, 10:16 PM

It's been three decades since Tim Berners-Lee invented the World Wide Web. Since the first email was sent and the first word was typed in a search engine, our lives have been completely transformed. The library became a thing of the past as humans started to enjoy a more widespread access to information. The explosion of online information and social interactions is having an abiding impact on the human brain - on how we think, process information and solve problems. The brain never tires of adapting to a changing environment.
Neuroscience has taken a long hard look at subtle ways in which the Internet is altering the functioning of our brains. Researchers Evan F. Risko and Sam Gilbert have studied the Internet's precipitous effect, which they termed cognitive offloading. This is how Google Maps has slowly suppressed our sense of direction. I need not memorise my friend's birthday because Facebook does the job for me. Studies show that we have lower rates of recall of the most trivial information that we know will be accessible online. In a sense, this amounts to offloading our memory into the cloud. Futurist Ray Kurzweil suggests that our neocortex, the part of brain involved in higher-order brain functions such as sensory perception and cognition, is getting extended to the cloud. In essence, we are backing up our brains in the cloud, making our cognitive process more extensible.
Not everyone is impressed. In 2009, Nicholas Carr's book The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains, advanced a theory that the Internet and more specifically Google has been tinkering with his brain, remapping the neural circuitry, reprogramming the memory.
He strongly believes that the Internet is slowly reducing our ability to form long term memories. But perhaps his most interesting commentary in 2013 was on 'the death of deep reading'. He notes that the new style of writing on blogs and Twitter reflects our preference for absorbing information in small chunks because we are unable to pay attention to an idea or a story for an extended period.
On the Internet, human attention is a scare resource. As netizens, we are experiencing continuous partial attention that dithers between our brain's heightened distraction and its incessant adjustment to continuous stimuli of 'the new', rather than 'the important'. Yet the most disturbing development is the diminishing human connection at a deeper empathetic level that is more plausible when socialising in the physical world. The provocative culture of trolling that lacks empathy altogether has unfolded in the absence of real-world contact.
There is science behind our need for self-disclosure. On New Year's Eve when Burj Khalifa burst into a stunning visual delight of fireworks, most of us standing below the world's tallest building were feasting our eyes through our phone cameras, to be later shared on social media.
But then again concerns about our changing cognitive process is not new. Every new medium of information has had its share of doomsayers. Printed books initially attracted the criticism that they destroyed our ability to reflect. The abacus and the calculator had already initiated the process of cognitive offloading. The Luddites of today call out the scourge of mindless scrolling brought on by social media, thus inhibiting us from socialising in the physical world.
While parts of our brains are getting subverted by cognitive offloading, other parts are getting more developed because of heightened neural activities. For example, we may not be as good at remembering information, but we are definitely better at finding it. In 2007, UCLA professor Gary W. Small monitored the brain activity of experienced and novice users of Google search. He found that experienced users exhibited much more mental activity than novice users, especially in the areas of the brain reserved for decision making and problem solving.
Risko and Gilbert reckon that people will use technology when they think it is superior to their own capabilities. My driver initially refused to take directions from Google Maps. He eventually made peace with the app after he recognised his inability to compete with Google's routing algorithm to find the fastest route. Cognitive offloading allows humans to extend beyond their cognitive boundaries, which in many situations may not be a bad thing.
With the increase in life expectancy, the aged can use the Internet to remain engaged and self-reliant. Strategy games hold the promise of reducing chances of dementia and Alzheimer's disease.
Our fleeting experiences immortalised by Instagram and Facebook posts are sources of both social rewards and dissonance. Social media has revealed the overwhelming impact of a great photo or a video for telling a story. This is because visual memory is retained in the brain's medial temporal lobe, where emotions are also processed. Hence visuals have a more lasting impact on us. We should be self-aware and discerning, when we fill our lives with views, tweets, posts and check-ins because our brains are getting visually induced stimuli.
The long-term effect of the Internet on our brains will be understood long after we are gone.
One way or the other the Internet is undoubtedly rewiring our brains. We are what we browse and post.
-Shalini Verma is the CEO of PIVOT technologies

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