OPINION16 June 2011

Are we losing our minds?

Opinion

There is growing unease about the effects of modern technology on society and, in particular, on the way our minds work, says Sheila Keegan. Is this fear overblown or could we really be losing our minds?

Where would we be without tools? From pickaxe to iPad, tools have transformed our world and made the societies we are today. And now there is the internet, so firmly entrenched within our lives we often wonder how we would survive without email and Google and all the rest of it.

But just as tools shape our world so they might reshape us. There is growing evidence that digital media, the internet, social networking and online recreation are having dramatic effects on our thinking and the way our minds work, both physiologically and psychologically. Back in 1964, Marshall McLuhan coined the famous and now prophetic phrase “the medium is the message”. He pointed out that media are not just passive channels for information; they also shape our processes of thought. Half a century later, neuroscience is proving him right.

Until fairly recently, the brain was viewed as a mechanical contraption, ‘hard-wired’ and immutable after childhood. But neuroscientists are now revealing the brain to be dynamic, connected and adaptive throughout life, with an extraordinary degree of plasticity. A brain contains some 100 billion neurons and, on average, each neuron has 1000 connections, so we have trillions of neural pathways in a state of dynamic equilibrium. Use these neural pathways regularly and they grow stronger. Ignore them and they atrophy. It’s the survival of the busiest.

“In a predominantly power-browsing world, perhaps the most important skill of a researcher is to be a contrarian, to step back, to think deeply, reflectively, analytically”

Sheila Keegan

Sheila Keegan

The plasticity of our brains means that they are quickly re-shaped by new stimuli, particularly when it is repetitive. Anecdotal evidence from psychologists, educationalists, neuroscientists, web designers and others suggests that intensive internet usage disrupts certain kinds of thinking; we lose the ability to concentrate, reading becomes cursory, thinking distracted and learning superficial. According to Nicholas Carr, author of ‘The Shallows: How the internet is changing the way we think, read and remember’, the internet “delivers precisely the kind of sensory and cognitive stimuli – repetitive, intensive, interactive, addictive – that have been shown to result in strong and rapid alterations in brain circuits and functions… the net commands our attention with far greater insistency than our television or morning newspaper ever did.” Watching teenagers – or indeed ourselves – compulsively tweeting, texting and checking emails, you can see his point, especially when you consider that most of us spend more time each day in front of a screen than we spend sleeping.

But what of the scientific evidence? In 2008 Gary Small, professor of psychiatry at UCLA and director of its Memory and Ageing Centre, carried out the first experiment that showed how people’s brains change in response to internet usage. He scanned the brains of the ‘internet-naive’ and ‘experienced Googlers’ as they searched online. After only five hours of internet use, the ‘naive’ users demonstrated the same brain activity in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex as he found among experienced Gogglers – a dramatic demonstration of the brain’s plasticity.

Further studies demonstrate how internet usage strengthens some mental capabilities and weakens others. Cognitive skills, such as hand-eye co-ordination, reflexes and processing visual cues can be improved, sometimes substantially. Focusing on older adults, the UCLA team discovered that internet usage can enhance brain circuitry “in a way that is similar to solving crossword puzzles”. A more bizarre study, reported in Scientific American Mind, revealed that surgeons who played videogames made fewer mistakes in the operating theatre than those who didn’t. Supposedly, videogames quickened spatial intelligence and improved collaborative problem solving skills.

However, the picture is not all rosy. Although we might claim otherwise, our brains are not good at multi-tasking, which is central to most internet usage. Switching between just two tasks can add substantially to our cognitive load – and our performance suffers. There is a strong correlation between the number of hyperlinks on a site and the experience of disorientation or cognitive overload. Contrary to predictions, disorientation doesn’t diminish with familiarity. Readers of hypertext often click haphazardly through pages rather than reading content thoroughly, and their recall is low. University students were found to skim academic articles, reading just one or two pages; they power-browsed for quick wins. These studies, and others, support the hypothesis that the internet promotes shallow, distracted thinking, in spite of delivering some cognitive benefits. Heavy internet usage seems to chip away at our ability to concentrate, to reflect, to make connections and to develop new thinking.

Neuroscientist Professor Susan Greenfield believes that “spending so much time in cyberspace will inevitably lead to minds very different from any others in human history”. In the future, ‘power-browsing’ may become ‘normal’ thinking. We might perfect fast data-gathering at the cost of deep, reflective thinking.

And then, what will all this mean for market research? Already we are data-saturated; too much data and too little time to think. No time for reflection, for developing the big picture. No time for anything. But arguably, in a predominantly power-browsing world, perhaps the most important skill of a researcher is to be a contrarian, to step back, to think deeply, reflectively, analytically, to make connections, to view problems from different perspectives, to contextualise, to synthesise, to formulate our thinking in ways that are relevant to our clients’ problems.

This takes time, incubation and experience. And to do it effectively we must remember to regularly turn off our laptops, go outside, smell the roses and revel in the joys of our humanness. We do not need to lose our minds – even if those around us lose theirs. Keeping our heads and using them seems to me a more attractive proposition.

Sheila Keegan is a co-founder of Campbell Keegan. She was speaking on this topic at the AQR Trends Day in London today

5 Comments

9 years ago

"He scanned the brains of the ‘internet-naive’ and ‘experienced Googlers’ as they searched online. After only five hours of internet use, the ‘naive’ users demonstrated the same brain activity in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex as he found among experienced Gogglers – a dramatic demonstration of the brain’s plasticity." It's possible that this experience can be seen for learning other new activities. Maybe instead the internet and the way it works was developed this way because it fit the structure of how our own brains process information, hence the fast learning times.

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9 years ago

This article is interesting, but seems to miss one of the key points about internet usage and its mental effects - that people interact with the net in many different ways and for many different purposes. The word 'search' is frequently used, but it definitely isn't all about searching, or even 'researching'. This is bound to have different effects on the brain as they use the internet. Some other examples are that people use the internet as a reference as much as a place to search. They know what they're looking for and where the information is, and they simply look the information up. Others use it as a source of self-affirmation, so they never look beyond familiar pages (I think this is one of the important elements in social networking sites' social influence). Others still surf and browse, which are different techniques of use, requiring different levels of attention and involvement from that of the committed researcher. The internet is in one real sense a mirror of the thoughts of its accessors, as well as of their questions, and surely the variety of thoughts people have will necessarily mean that the internet changes brains in different ways. Even questions take a wide variety of aspects, so it isn't as simple as one might think. You couldn't, for instance, look at a person's list of visited pages and assume you know what they were thinking about its topic. I think it is interesting to note that the original promises of the computing industry, and the vision of liberal information and communication through the internet, sometimes seemed totally far-fetched and in many cases utopian, and that a certain amount of skepticism attends many peoples' approach to it. One other point is that those who use it as a bureaucratic convenience might click frequently on the word 'Submit', which probably has its own mental correspondence.

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9 years ago

Can't agree more with Sheila’s conclusions and points made in the article. I have a twitter account, following certain people and companies and you can feel how easily you can be sucked by tweets and develop Twitter Compulsive Disorder (TCD). I have noticed that a lot of CEOs, directors and similar high managerial positions use Twitter and you can sense that they have a need to Tweet something even though it is completely irrelevant in regard to their position, job or company they work for. Time will show but TCD has all characteristics to become recognised disorder. As for myself, I do go out and smell the roses and then occasionally write a comment on research-live.com.

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9 years ago

As a web developer, I spend an unusual amount of time in front of the computer but consciously turn off warning sounds, beeps and distracting applications when working, so it still feels like "work". I used to smoke and viewed the cigarette break as a valuable time to "smell the roses". Odd, I know, since I was actually smelling the smoke. I still do that now that I have stopped. It is vitally important for people to take a break every hour from the screen, if only to look out the window. This article has some very good points, Namely that humans are unable to multitask effectively. I challenge anyone to complete one task more effectively, while being subjected to onslaughts of other media, than if they were only focusing on the job at hand. Social Media, although useful for contacting old friends and networking for jobs, is a chronic time-waster and probably accounts for millions of pounds worth of lost man hours.

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9 years ago

I agree with half the article and disagree with the other half. Sheila predicted the revolution of human race from the using of the tools. Through the research of Karl Marx and Engels, we know that the labour separated us from normal animals. The labour means using of tools are involved. For example, we have stone era, bronze era, iron era, steel era and electronic era. Every new tool improves our mental power to think and to understand this world. As our life span is limited, it is a great advantage that we have all the knowledge at hand though web i.e. wikipedia.org. The next stage is to find a way to implant all the knowledge into our brain, or to connect them with our neural cells directly. The more we know or possess, the more we could think or create. However the level of thinking or creativity are not in the same level. I predict the web era will produce its own philosophy and our race will progress into a new era.

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