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The effect of the Internet on the brain

Never in history has a means of communication had such a far-reaching effect on our thoughts as the Internet today. A recent study by University College London shows that we are moving towards a broader change in the way we read and think.

The internet has now become the universal means of communication, the global channel of unthinkable until recently information, which with a few “clicks” reaches our eyes and ears and from there to our brain. Who can question the benefits of instant access to such a wealth of knowledge – and who doubts that the crowning achievement of this process is the now famous Google search engine?

But it is becoming increasingly clear that all this “gift” comes at a price. As Marshall McLuhan, a leading media theorist, has observed since the 1960s, when the Network did not exist, the media are not just passive information channels, providing material for thinking in the form of information, but shape the very process of thought. And this is exactly what the Internet already seems to be doing: it undermines our ability to concentrate, think deeply and meditate. The mind is addicted to convenience: it knows that it will find whatever it wants on the internet. Once our minds were immersed in an ocean of words, now “jet skiing” on the surface of the water!

Many people have the same experience: the more they use the Internet, the more they have to struggle to stay focused on their thoughts or long written texts. The more you engage with blogs, either writing or just reading them, the more often it becomes difficult to read books. The ability to read and understand books or major articles in magazines is undermined by the Internet invisibly. The mind becomes addicted to fishing and reading small pieces of its choice from the Internet and slowly loses the patience and concentration to read something bigger and concentrate on it.

Although the results of long-term neurological and psychological experiments are expected to give us a clear picture of the impact of the Internet on the cognitive capacity of the mind, a recent University College London (UCL) study already finds that we are probably in the middle of a broad in the way we read and think. The five-year study found that Internet users tend to jump from site to site (website) chasing sources of information and rarely return to a source they have already visited. They usually read a maximum of one or two pages of an article and move like butterflies to another web page. Sometimes they “save” a larger article or book on their computer, but it is doubtful whether they ever read it.

According to the UCL study , people seem to want to avoid reading anymore, so they choose, instead, to “search” on the Internet for titles, content, summaries, etc. The paradox is that if one adds the writing Mobile phone messages, people in our time seem to read more in the end than in the 70s and 80s, but it is another type of reading – more superficial, more selective, more partial. Behind this development lies a different way of thinking – maybe even a sense of self.

“Other connections of neurons, another sense of ourselves

According to psychologist Marian Wolf of Tufts University in the United States , the new ala-Google reading style, which puts speed and efficiency above all else, weakens the human capacity for “deep” reading, which was better suited to the previous electronic technology of the printing machine. When we read online, he argues, we simply become “information decoders”, without having the same mental capacity for in-depth text interpretations, mental abstractions, correlations, etc.

According to Wolf, reading is not an instinctive ability of humans and is not integrated into our genes, as is the case with speech. New technologies and new means of reading and learning (eg Google) play an important role in shaping the neural circuits in our brain. Experiments have shown that reading ideograms by the Chinese activates other brain circuits than reading languages ​​that use the alphabet.

This differentiation involves circuits in very different areas of the brain that are associated with critical functions, such as memory or the interpretation of audiovisual stimuli. “So we can expect that the brain circuits activated by the growing use of the Internet will be different from those that have been activated for hundreds of years by reading books and other publications.

The human brain is infinitely “forged”. Until recently, people believed that by adulthood the dense network of about 100 billion neurons in our brain was now definitively “arranged”. Recent brain research, however, has shown other things. According to James Olds, a professor of neuroscience at George Mason University in the United States, the adult mind continues to be “very malleable.” Nerve cells constantly break their old connections, forming new ones. “Thus,” he emphasizes, “the brain has the ability to reprogram itself in the moment, changing the way it works.”

No wonder, then, that as we use new “mental technologies” (eg the Internet), as sociologist Daniel Bell calls them, the tools that extend our mental despite our physical abilities, we inevitably begin to assimilate into the mind. our properties and qualities of these new technologies. The way we “see” our mind changes over time with the evolution of technology. Earlier, in the age of the mechanical watch, we used to say that our mind “works like a clock”, now we say that “it works like a computer”.

Thanks to the plasticity of our brain neurons, adaptation is not only verbal or psychological, but goes deeper into a biological level. Today the Internet is slowly absorbing the other media: it becomes our map, our clock, our printing machine, our typewriter, our computer for our arithmetic operations, our telephone, our television and our radio. But this unification of so many different media and their messages brings, among other things (good and bad), a distraction and a diffusion of our concentration. Traditional media also adapt to the same logic: newspapers and magazines now have smaller articles, while inserting “boxes” with summary of articles to make them easier and faster to read.

The perfect machine and the challenge of artificial intelligence

Never in history has a communication medium played so many roles in our lives at the same time and has not had such a wide-ranging effect on our thoughts as the Internet today. It essentially reprograms us. The “heart” of the Internet, Google, is searching for more and more perfect algorithms to efficiently search and distribute information to each of us, doing the work of our minds – and even better sometimes. The company’s mission is to “organize the global information and make it universally accessible and useful”, developing the “perfect search engine, which will understand exactly what you mean and will give you exactly what you want”.

According to Google logic, information is a kind of commodity, a useful raw material, which can be “mined” and processed with industrial efficiency. Based on this reasoning, the more information we have access to and the faster we process it, the more productive we think.

What is the limit of this logic? Sergey Brin and Larry Page, who founded the company while still graduate students at Stanford University in California, have stressed that they dream of turning Google into an all-powerful artificial intelligence engine that can connect directly to us! “The ultimate search engine is as smart as humans – or even smarter,” they say, adding that “if your brain were connected to all the information in the world or to an artificial brain smarter than your own, you would be better off.” ».

But the notion that “we would be better off” if our brains were supplemented or even replaced by artificial intelligence is worrying. It presupposes that intelligence is a mechanical process, a series of discrete steps that can be isolated, measured, and optimized. So in the online world of Google there is little room for reflection and meditation. The human brain becomes like an obsolete computer that needs a faster processor and a larger hard drive.

There is a serious economic dimension to this. The whole commercial internet is “built” around essentially the same business model: the faster we “surf” the Internet, the more clicks we make on websites, the more opportunities companies have to gather information about us and offer it online advertisements. The last thing companies want is to encourage slow reading and focused thinking. Multiplicity is in their best interest. Deep reading, according to psychologist Marian Wolf, is tantamount to deep thinking – and rather counter-consuming…

On the other hand, of course, it is not inappropriate to criticize Internet critics as young Luddites (who broke the machines at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution) and as nostalgic for the past. It is not excluded from the hyperactive, inflated with information, our minds to spring up a golden age of intellectual discoveries and universal wisdom.

Source: Telecoms news.gr