(Inside Science) -- Is the internet changing the way that we think? Yes, it totally is. For one thing, it’s made us all dual-screeners -- constant access to information makes us multi-task more, and more multitasking makes us more distractible. Even if you’re the king of multitasking, there’s often so much new information cramming itself onto our screens, at any given time, that we find it hard to concentrate. This is because our attentions only have a limited capacity -- the internet is throwing broadband speed information at us, but we’re still downloading it with dial-up.
But we all know how hard it can be to get off the internet once we’re plugged in: In fact, a study in 2014 found that 6 percent of the global population suffered from full-blown internet addiction. This is because the internet has evolved to become very good at triggering dopamine release in our heads -- and dopamine is a very pleasing chemical to have released in your head. For example, liking Instagram photos triggers dopamine release in the nucleus accumbens, a key node in the reward system. That study actually found that, if you’re a teenager, liking Instagram releases more and more rewarding dopamine as you go from being 14 to being 18. Which explains a lot.
But I think the most interesting way the internet is changing our brains gets right to the heart of what the internet actually is.
Come with me, back to the early Pleistocene epoch. Back then you wouldn’t be seen dead on Tinder. The cool kids were all using the Acheulean ax -- it was the hot new technology on the scene. Using it activated certain brain regions over others, which favoured evolutionary development -- your brain is only like it is today because some cave man needed to be able to ax stuff real good. Fast forward 1.7 million years and the internet is doing the same thing to us now.
Now our brains treat physical tools like extensions of our bodies. Imagine having a hammer for a hand -- that’s what your brain is really thinking when you try to do DIY. But we treat the internet like an extension of our minds. It’s like a Swiss army knife of new brain features. Memory is a good example: It has been found that if we have access to information whenever, then we don’t bother to remember the information itself; all we do is just remember where we need to go to find it. These days, when we face a gap in our knowledge, we’ve primed ourselves to turn to the internet first for answers.
Is the internet changing how we think? It is certainly changing what parts of the brain we use, has made us a little more distractible, and has become an addictive pleasure.
But 5,400 years ago -- after the Acheulean ax, but before YouTube -- another tool was invented that did the same thing: writing. Because writing changes the brain’s structure as well. In 2017, a study taught 28 illiterate adults from Uttar Pradesh in India how to read. It changed their brains -- from their hindbrains, to their midbrains, to their cortexes -- but it did it much faster than evolution. These changes happened during the participants’ lifetimes, but back then, writing put the cultural afterburners on us, supercharging our development as a species.
Just imagine what the internet is going to do. And we get to watch it happen firsthand.