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Does the Internet Make Us Stupid? Here’s What Science Says

Have you ever wondered whether the Internet is making us stupid?

In a 2008 article published in The Atlantic, Nicholas Carr tried to answer the question, “Is Google making us stupid?” He argued that the Internet overall, not just Google, has diminished [his] capacity for contemplation and concentration. He further expressed in the article his concern that the Internet was “reprogramming us.”

However, Carr also pointed out that we should be skeptical of his skepticism, because perhaps he is “just a worrywart.” He emphasized that, just as there’s a tendency to glorify innovations in the technology field, there’s a countertendency to expect the worst of every new machine or tool.

The question on whether the Internet is making us stupid seemed hard, so Carr tried to explain at lenght how one of the biggest inventions ever made affects our brains. His subsequent book, The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains (you can find it on Amazon), ignited debate about how the medium is causing changes in the ways we think, how we interact with each other, and the very structure of society.

Carr’s point of view is that technology does induce intellectual decay in our brains. You may think it’s a provocative and perhaps counterintuitive claim, but the author backs it up with ample findings from neuroscience. Let’s find out whether the Internet is making us stupid!

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The Internet does good and bad things to our brains

Scientists tried to determine whether the Internet is making us stupid, so they conducted a study in 2008 in which the brains of 24 people were scanned while they used Google to search for different things.

The researchers found that those who had more experience with the search engine had increased activity in more areas of the brain, particularly the prefrontal cortex. “Wait, didn’t you just say that the author thinks technology is making us dumber?” you may ask.

That’s the thing, actually. The answer to the question of whether the Internet is making us stupid is a bit more complex. Yes, the study mentioned above showed that Web surfing may be beneficial as it engages many brain functions.

However, there’s a downside. You’ve most likely noticed, while reading stuff on the Internet, texts that you can click on, taking you to another website. These are called hyperlinks. You can actually find one above, when we mentioned Amazon.

What happens to your brain when you’re reading online

Well, according to experts, when you see hyperlinked text, your brain is already wondering whether to click on it or not. Since you’re constantly interrupted to make these decisions, your brain no longer allows you to get lost in the text you read on the Internet.

And here’s the downside that Carr, along with other experts, has emphasized: the information you read rarely becomes deep knowledge.

The same researchers that conducted the 2008 study to figure out whether the Internet is making us stupid instructed people with little Google experience to Web surf for one hour per day. After five days, experts rescanned their brains, and there was increased activity in the prefrontal cortexes.

This confirmed the fact that using the Internet, even for a short time per day, changes the neural pathways of your brain.

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The way we read on the Internet is different from the way we read a printed book

Perhaps the most interesting fact experts discovered when trying to see if the Internet is making us stupid is the one related to how we read. According to them, when you read a printed book, you comprehend more.

That’s because reading on the Internet usually shortens your attention span. You no longer focus on what you read, trying to understand the information in depth.

When we’re constantly interrupted and distracted, as we tend to be when surfing the Internet, our brains can’t forge the expansive and strong neural connections that give depth and distinctiveness to our thinking.

Our memories become weak and our thoughts disjointed. The Roman philosopher Seneca couldn’t say it better 2,000 years ago: “To be everywhere is to be nowhere.” Does this mean that the Internet is making us stupid?

When searching for a piece of information using a search engine, the average Internet speed allows you to find millions of results within seconds. On the other hand, using a library for the same purpose would take you hours to find relevant sources. Yes, the Internet accelerates the working process. But at the expense of what?

Let’s find out!

In one experiment conducted at a US university, half a class of students had to keep their computers shut during a lecture, while the other was allowed to use internet-connected laptops. The result?

Those who surfed the Internet performed worse on a subsequent test of how much information from the lecture’s content they remembered. This doesn’t necessarily mean that the Internet is making us stupid.

However, according to experts, every medium develops some cognitive skills at the expense of others. Our growing use of screen-based media has strengthened visual-spatial intelligence, which can boost the ability to perform jobs that involve keeping track of many changing signals, like monitoring a patient during surgery or piloting a plane.

But that has come bundled with new weaknesses in higher-order cognitive processes, including reflection, critical thinking, imagination, abstract vocabulary, inductive problem solving, and mindfulness.

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Our behavior online

The idea that the use of screen-based media affects our brain is another argument people make when arguing that the Internet is making us stupid, and they have evidence to prove that.

Studies of our behavior online support this conclusion. Researchers found that web browsers generally spend less than 10 seconds looking at a screen-based page. Even people doing academic research using the Internet tend to “bounce” quickly between different documents and articles, rarely reading more than a page or two.

Such mental juggling takes a big toll, say experts who believe the Internet is making us stupid. Moreover, they point out that this effect doesn’t simply go away as soon as we turn off our computers or smartphones.

Scientists have discovered that the cellular structure of the human brain adapts readily to the tools we use to find, share, and store information. By changing our habits of mind, each new technology we use strengthens certain neural pathways and weakens others.

These changes shape the way we think, even when we are not using technology. This doesn’t necessarily mean that the Internet is making us stupid.

The neuroscientist Michael Merzenich believes our brains are being highly remodelled by our ever-intensifying use of the web. In the 1970s and 1980s, he conducted several experiments that revealed how quickly and extensively neural circuits change in response to experience.

Moreover, Merzenich recently said that he was very worried about the cognitive consequences of the constant interruptions and distractions the Internet bombards us with. He believes these effects are long-term, affecting the quality of our intellectual lives. In other words, he agrees that the Internet is making us stupid.

Not all distractions are bad

Concentrating too intensively on a tough problem can make you get stuck in a mental rut. But if you let the problem sit unattended for a time, you often return to it with a burst of creativity and a fresh perspective.

Research indicates that such breaks in our attention give the unconscious mind time to deal with a problem, bringing to bear cognitive processes and information unavailable to conscious deliberation. People usually make better decisions if they shift their attention away from a mental challenge for a while.

So, claiming that the Internet is making us stupid without acknowledging the way it helps us find and absorb information quickly is a bit pessimistic. To summarize, the Internet shouldn’t be seen as a danger that turns society stupid.

While it can make us easily distracted, it also gives us access to more information than ever.

If you liked our article on whether the Internet is making us stupid, you may also want to read These 7 Things Increase Your Risk of Dementia… and You Can’t Control Them.


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