What is the Internet’s Impact on our Cognition?
The Internet has become an indispensable part of our daily life. In fact, 95% of US teens have access to a smartphone and 45% are online “almost constantly” (Firth et.al). Since we have begun living in such a digitally-immersed society, how have our brains adapted to the Internet? In a recent review, researchers at the University of Manchester attempted to investigate the cognitive consequences of the Internet from three aspects: attentional capacities, memory processing and social cognition.
A seemingly unending stream of notifications pops up on your phone every minute, and it doesn’t help when companies make all these notifications customized to pique your interest. With such an abundant supply of information, we learned to constantly interact with multiple inputs simultaneously. One would think that heavy media users who are experts of multitasking would perform better at attention switching tasks. However, in several cross sectional imaging studies, researchers found that heavy media users performed worse in attention switching tasks (Ophir et.al, Yeykelis et.al). They are more susceptible to irrelevant environment stimuli in attention switching tasks due to decreased gray matter in the prefrontal regions, which are associated with maintaining goals in face of distractions. The amount of research suggesting that the Internet negatively impacts our ability to delegate our attention outweighs research that suggests otherwise.
In addition to being our window to the world, the Internet has become the primary storage of our transactive, or external memory. Most people rely on the Internet for recalling random trivia. When comparing brain activations during an Internet search compared to an Encyclopedia search, researchers found reduced activations in the ventral stream, which is in charge of the “what” aspect of information, among people conducting Internet searches (Firth et.al). This implies that people are less likely to retain the content they are searching for, but rather they are more likely to remember how they retrieved the information from the Internet. Since we no longer have to remember specific facts, such as the date the Treaty of Paris was signed, there is a possibility of ultimately replacing the cellular reservoirs for semantic memory.
Social media has also changed the way we communicate with each other. We can see hundreds of faces in online networks daily, such as people we subscribe to on YouTube or strangers we swipe past on dating apps. These experiences seem to increase the volume of our right entorhinal cortex, which is responsible for associative memory of name-face pairs (Loh, Kanai et.al). Despite these nuances, the constraints in social cognition in the real world also exist in social media. The average number of friends made online is around the same as one would make offline, since social media does not reduce the time one needs to nurture friendship (Fuchus et. al). However, social media does make relationships quantifiable. Features such as the like buttons and the count of followers have become metrics of social success. Those who were perceived as less “successful” are more likely to fall victim to low self-esteem and cyberbullying (Common Sense Media).
In summary, the Internet does change the way our brain interacts with itself and with the outside world. However, we cannot predict its long-term effect since it is still a relatively new perturbation? to human society, only becoming prevalent at the turn of this century. Therefore, it is crucial to harness the benefits and understand the adversity of the Internet at its early stages before long-term effects start kicking in.
Firth, J., Torous, J.B., Stubbs, B., Firth, J.A., Steiner, G.Z., Smith, L., Alvarez-Jimenez, M., Gleeson, J.F., Vancampfort, D., Armitage, C.J., & Sarris, J. (2019). The “online brain”: how the Internet may be changing our cognition. World Psychiatry, 18.
Fuchs, B., Sornette, D., & Thurner, S. (2014). Fractal multi-level organisation of human groups in a virtual world. Scientific Reports, 4(1). https://doi.org/10.1038/srep06526
Ophir, E., Nass, C., & Wagner, A. D. (2009). Cognitive control in media multitaskers. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 106(37), 15583–15587.
Yeykelis L, Cummings JJ, Reeves B. Multitasking on a single device: arousal and the frequency, anticipation, and prediction of switching between media content on a computer. J Commun 2014;64:16792.
Loh KK, Kanai R. How has the Internet reshaped human cognition? Neuroscientist 2016;22:50620. Common Sense Media. SocialMedia, social life: teens reveal their experiences. https://www.commonsensemedia.org