From gathering food to finding a mate and communicating with other members of society, many of the most basic human activities are now being carried out in the virtual realm. It should come as little surprise, then, that the multitude of brain regions involved in coordinating these everyday tasks are becoming adapted to this ultra-modern mode of living. Yet with research into the impact of the internet on brain function still in its infancy, an international team of researchers has compiled a review of everything we have learned so far about how digital life is altering our minds.
Appearing in the journal World Psychiatry and authored by scientists from Oxford University, Harvard University, Western Sydney University, Kings College, and Manchester University, the review examines findings from a number of brain-imaging studies in order to assess some of the leading hypotheses regarding how the internet may affect our brains. Though the findings are not intended to be taken as conclusive, evidence suggests that our online lifestyles are altering brain regions associated with attention, memory, and social skills.
For example, one key study found that people who compulsively check their phones for messages and other notifications have reduced grey matter in certain areas of the prefrontal cortex that are associated with maintaining focus in the face of distractions. As a consequence, these individuals tended to perform worse on tasks designed to measure attention.
The impact of search engines has also led to speculation that we may begin to rely too heavily on the internet as a source of information, to the detriment of our own internal memory capacity. In support of this hypothesis, the authors point to a study which found that people tend to exhibit poorer recall of information found online as opposed to in an encyclopedia. Brain scans showed that this effect was correlated with reduced activation of the brain’s ventral stream – a key memory retrieval system – when gathering information online.
Such a finding raises the possibility that online learning may fail to sufficiently activate key brain regions required for long-term memory storage.
Social media networks also appear to be transforming the ways in which our brains’ social centers work. For instance, one study found that the number of Facebook friends a person has determines the volume of grey matter in the right entorhinal cortex, which has previously been associated with the ability to associate names and faces.
This effect is likely to be caused by the fact that social media encourages people to maintain large numbers of weak social connections, requiring an increased ability to put names to faces. Prior to the advent of social media, people tended to have deeper relationships with a smaller network of people, and therefore required different adaptations within the brain’s social regions.
Overall, the information is neither detailed nor conclusive enough to make a definitive statement regarding whether the internet is good or bad for our brains. What’s clear, however, is that the more time we spend online, the more we alter our cognitive function.