How The Internet Changes Your Brain
When I was younger, I could sit and read for hours. I still remember getting Harry Potter and The Order of The Phoenix and reading the 800 or so pages in one sitting.
Fast forward a few years to my freshman year of college and this ability was completely gone. I remember struggling to get through just 30 pages of reading that I had to do for my sociology class. My mind would be swimming by the time I got to the end of a page and after finishing a paragraph, it seemed like I had already forgotten what I had just read.
What was happening?
At first I thought that the college material I was trying to get through was just a lot harder than what I read as a kid. But that wasn’t it. That winter break I picked up the same tattered copy of Harry Potter I had read so many years ago.
I could barely read it for half an hour without my brain feeling like it hit a wall.
It wasn’t just my ability to read either. Other things had changed too. As a kid I was a great student. I was always reading books and learning new things. I had a fascination for the world around me and I loved to build things with my hands.
As I had gotten older I had slowly started spending more time on the internet and my old interests started to fade. It started with AOL instant messenger. Then playing video games with my friends. Finally to the point where I was just surfing Facebook and random websites in college.
I never made any connections with my internet use and the other changes I had experienced. Until one day it finally clicked. My best friend from college gave me a copy of The Shallows by Nicholas Carr. With each page I turned came the dawning realization. The world around me was still the same. It was my brain that had changed…
I knew that it wasn’t just me either, I saw the effects in everyone else around me. I would go around giving my copy of The Shallows to everyone I knew. Then I realized the irony of the situation. For my friends to know why they couldn’t read books anymore…they had to read a book, which they didn’t have the attention span to actually do.
I decided that I would type up a short summary of what I learned so that people could understand the basics. Then once they had learned enough to reset their attention spans, they could read the books on their own time. So enough chit chat. Let’s dive in.
Part 1: Neuroplasticity
Scientists used to think that our brains were fixed and unchangeable. They thought that brain development was like pouring concrete into a mold. Once it solidified, it was set like that for the rest of your life.
Now we know that the brain can change. This concept is called neuroplasticity.
the capacity of neurons and neural networks in the brain to change their connections and behaviour in response to new information, sensory stimulation, development, damage, or dysfunction.
via the Encylopedia Brittanica
For NoSurf, we can simplify and adapt neuroplasticity into:
Our brains will physically change and adapt to the habits we perform every single day. As a result our cognitive abilities, personality traits, and emotional states can all change depending on our habits.
This concept of neuroplasticity should be exciting to you. It means that if you’re currently someone who can’t focus, procrastinates, or doesn’t feel that smart in general, it doesn’t mean that your stuck this way forever. Your brain can improve and get better!
But before it can do that, you have to cut out the bad habits that are causing these issues. The bad habits like social media, gaming, news, and pornography.
If you’ve been doing those things for a while, you might’ve the following changes:
1. A reduced ability to focus and pay attention to things
2. Increased boredom or procrastination leading to mindless surfing
3. A reduced ability to feel motivated and excited for non internet based activities
These changes are simply the result of repeated interactions with the internet.
So How Does The Internet Change Our Brains?
The Net 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. – Nicholas Carr, The Shallows
We can assume that the neural circuits devoted to scanning, skimming and multitasking are expanding and strengthening, while those used for reading and thinking deeply, with sustained concentration, are weakening or eroding. – Nicholas Carr, The Shallows
When we browse social media or similar sites we get continuously bombarded with memes, clickbait, and gaudy advertising. Our brains become molded to information that arrives in 140 character tweets, 10 second snap stories, and instagram posts.
We start to form neural pathways that allow us to multitask, jump quickly from one piece of information to the next, and skim through lots of material without really retaining any of it.
These adaptations come at a cost. While these new pathways for internet use develop and strengthen, old ones start to fade. We become scatterbrained, frenzied, and continuously distracted. The parts of our mind responsible for deep focus and sustained attention atrophy and weaken.
Our minds melt and we turn into screen zombies starved for dopamine.
Part 2: Dopamine
Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that makes us feel motivated to do things. Dopamine is what gets us off the couch to study for our final exams. It’s also what makes us pull out our phones to check Instagram.
Dopamine is the driver behind the pursuit of all rewards. These rewards can be positive ones:
- pursuing our college degree
- training for a marathon
- asking someone out on a date
but they can also be negative ones:
- eating junk food
- surfing social media
- playing hours of video games
For most of history the things that released dopamine were physical and tangible. With the internet, we’ve found that just pixels on a screen are enough to light up our hunter gatherer brains and deliver hit after hit of dopamine.
Because our philosophy on internet use is pragmatic, our suggestions are to focus on avoiding the most serious offenders first. The platforms on the internet that cause the most dopamine release are below. You can think of these as the mental equivalent of eating KFC, McDonalds, and Taco Bell everyday.
Social media platforms like:
Video games (some games are much worse than others):
- World of Warcraft
- League of Legends
- Clickbait sites
- GIFS/Memes sites
Dopamine Desensitization And Stimulation Threshold
Note: This is a theory I formulated from reading a few books in this area, most notably Irresistible by Adam Alter.
Eating processed food everyday leads to obesity. What would happen if you consumed social media, video games, porn and other crap everyday? Is there a mental equivalent of obesity? Yes it leads to something called dopamine desensitization.
When our brains feel the effects of dopamine over and over again, they become desensitized to its effects. This means that overtime we will need more and more dopamine to get the same effects (motivation, excitement, passion, drive) as we once did. This makes it harder and harder for us to pursue the more difficult and positive rewards of life rather than the default to what’s easiest and makes us feel good in the short term.
This is because when we become desensitized to dopamine our stimulation threshold for performing activities increases higher and higher.
How stimulating (in terms of dopamine release) an activity has to be for you to find it enjoyable.
If your stimulation threshold is high, it means that other activities in your life will start to pale in comparison to the internet. These activities don’t release as much dopamine and can’t compete in terms of stimulation. So no matter how hard you try you’ll feel a lack of interest, procrastination, or low motivation to start things.
The way to make real life exciting and interesting again, is to reduce the constant flood of dopamine to your brain. Once this happens, your brain starts to rewire, literally growing new dopamine receptors. Overtime your stimulation threshold will reset back down to healthy and normal levels. Afterwards you will be able to read a book for hours, sit silently in meditation, and feel motivated for your academic and professional work again.
I wrote this post so that I could share some of what I learned with members of our community. The point isn’t to fear monger or suggest that we become luddites. It’s to raise awareness of a widespread issue in society and empower people to make their own decisions of what to do. I do hope that reading it has inspired you to change, to some degree, the way that you use the internet. If the material interests you, I highly suggest going further and reading Nicholas Carr’s book. I hope that it will change your life, the way it has changed mine.