Shiny new addiction

As an experiment reveals that frequent Internet use literally changes the structure of our brains, Adrian Shaughnessy considers his life as a specimen of Humanus Internetus

Today, thanks to the great throbbing brain that is the Internet, nearly all human knowledge is available in the time it takes to request it. Want to know how to make a deadly bomb? Want to know what your childhood home looks like from a satellite? Want to know who played Tom Hanks’ mother in Forrest Gump? This endlessly cascading Niagara of data is only a few finger jabs away on an iPhone. But just as the industrial revolution changed the fundamental nature of human beings, what if all this instantaneousness is also creating a new sort of human being?

A recent Wired article (The Web Shatters Focus, Rewires Brains by Nicholas Carr, 24 May) gives an account of a now famous experiment at the University of California, Los Angeles conducted by Gary Small, a professor of psychiatry. Using an MRI scanner, Small set out to measure brain activity among Web users and non-Web users.

’Brain activity of the experienced surfers was far more extensive than that of the newbies,’ writes Nicholas Carr in Wired, ’particularly in areas of the prefrontal cortex associated with problem-solving and decision-making. Small then had his subjects read normal blocks of text projected on to their goggles; in this case, scans revealed no significant difference in areas of brain activation between the two groups. The evidence suggested, then, that the distinctive neural pathways of experienced Web users had developed because of their Internet use.’

Web evangelists applauded Small’s findings. Here was proof that the Internet makes us smarter. But the professor was quick to point out that more brain activity is not necessarily better brain activity. For Small, the revelation was just how swiftly our neural pathways are reconfigured by Internet use. As the Wired article noted: ’Dozens of studies by psychologists, neurobiologists, and educators point to the same conclusion: when we go online, we enter an environment that promotes cursory reading, hurried and distracted thinking, and superficial learning. 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.’

I have long since felt personally transformed by the Internet: I have become a specimen of the new race of Humanus Internetus. Part of my relationship with the Internet feels like a mild addiction to a brilliant shiny new toy. Some of it, however, feels like engagement with darker forces.

The area where I have noticed most change is in my memory. I have always had an excellent memory. I used to drive my former business partner mad because I didn’t keep notes. But I never forgot anything – so why bother? Now, however, I have become forgetful. This may be partly attributable to advancing years, but I suspect the culprit is the realisation that I can safely forget facts, names and dates, secure in the knowledge that they are only a finger jab away.

My increasingly redundant memory banks aside, the other worrying side effect of Internet dependency is that although I read more online than ever before, I find that I skim: I find myself endlessly tempted to scroll, follow hyperlinks and drift off into new areas when I should be indulging in some deep reading. I also find it impossible to ignore the audio alerts that tell me a new e-mail has arrived. I constantly check Twitter – sometimes with only minutes between each visit. But I’m not addicted. Oh, no. I can handle it. I’m in control. I can stop anytime I want. Honest.

Adrian Shaughnessy is an independent designer, writer and broadcaster, and co-founder of publishing company Unit Editions

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