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Eric Schmidt, the executive chairman of Google and an internet guru, is worried. The tech billionaire who has been described as one of the most influential people on the web, is convinced we have still not been able to fathom what the internet is.

“The internet is the first thing humanity has built that humanity doesn’t understand; it is the largest experiment in anarchy that we have ever created,” he says.

If that is not disturbing enough, new research is coming out that says the way we use the net could be dulling our senses and altering the way our brain functions.

Eric isn’t the only one who has sent out a warning signal. His caution is increasingly being mirrored by scientists, writers and commentators who worry that our internet-connected digital world is having a profound effect, not just on the way we conduct our lives, but on the way we think.

They fear that our increasing reliance and use of screen technology is rewiring our brains and argue that the very architecture of the internet and the devices we use to access it – from iPads and laptops to smartphones and games consoles – are eroding our ability to concentrate and to understand and comprehend information. Instead of educating and informing us, the internet, with all its distractions and diversions, is dumbing us down.

This web-wary movement has its roots in a 2008 essay by US writer Nicholas Carr titled Is Google Making Us Stupid? Carr reported then that the more he used the internet, the more he felt unable to focus on anything that required deep concentration, such as reading books.

He surmised that he wasn’t thinking the way he used to. He subsequently published a well-researched book, The Shallows, which looked at the issue in depth and theorised that unlike traditional printed text-based media, such as newspapers and magazines, which require and so promote concentration, the internet makes us think differently because it is designed to be instantly accessible and deliver jolts of information in a range of diverting ways – through text, video, audio and pictures.

Text itself is interspersed with hyperlinks and pop-up boxes that draw readers away in different directions. Carr believes that because we now spend so much time online and use digital devices and online services such as social network sites so frequently (54 per cent of the UAE population is on Facebook), our brains have been changed and no longer register, store and access information in the way they used to. 

Building new neural pathways

The problem is exacerbated because commercially the internet is designed to divert attention. Online advertising works on a click-by-click basis. More clicks equals more revenue so websites are designed with lots of extra diversions.

As UK writer Oliver Burkeman wrote in an essay on the subject, “More and more of us are knowledge workers, doing jobs that require deep concentration, yet we do so on machines that seem deliberately designed to interrupt us all the time and keep us on edge. Then in the evenings we try to relax using similar machines, which all too often whip us up into a state that isn’t relaxing at all.”

The brain works by adapting to its environment. Every day it builds new neural pathways and makes new connections between brain cells as a result of the stimuli it receives from the environment around it.

The brain gets information from the senses and the more stimulated it is, the more connections it can make. New information connects with old ideas and associations grow, which allow us to develop critical thought and intellectual depth and understanding. This process is called plasticity. It is the process by which we learn and evolve.

And so with each historical technological development, the human brain has been altered – from language to the written word, through to radio and television and subsequently the internet. Mediums that require concentration to access the information they contain, such as books, strengthen the brain’s ability to concentrate.

Getting information from the internet, on the other hand, requires little critical thought; it is instant, compulsive and, more often than not, what we receive from it is a deluge of superficial data designed to grab attention. Carr explains that this leads to a process of cognitive overload.

“If your brain is constantly distracted by new information it can never hold any existing piece because in order to make room for something new, you have to get rid of something that is already in there,” he says.

“The experiences we get on the internet are compelling and a lot of us become compulsive in our need to check screens; literally overloading our working memory. It prevents us from weaving together information into knowledge so we peck away at little bits of information without getting the bigger picture.

“The more stimulated you are by information coming from the screen, the less able you are to distinguish important information from trivial information. When you are constantly multitasking and following all these streams of information, what becomes important is simply that information is new and you don’t care whether it is important or trivial, you just want to get the new thing.”

Carr’s description will resonate with those who feel the need to compulsively check emails at short intervals and get anxious when they are away from a mobile phone or Wi-Fi signal and unable to connect to an inbox.

There are few physiological studies into what happens in the brain when we engage with the digital world. Baroness Susan Greenfield, professor of synaptic pharmacology at Oxford University in the UK, believes digital technologies affect the frontal cortex – the area of the brain responsible for cognitive analysis and abstract thought. She suggests that ‘mind change’, brought on by increasing internet use and the popularity of social media sites, 
will be an issue as serious as climate change.

“As you form neuronal connections, they give you a basis to make the checks and balances to evaluate what information is coming in and appreciate it in a wider context so you can make sense of the world around you and understand what is happening and have a unique and cognitive view of the world rather than a purely sensory one,” she explains.

These connections in our brains make us who we are, the richness of experiences that create them create our personality. If our experience of the world is only cursory, we will develop fewer neural connections.

“Will this be changed by an unprecedented 21st century environment that appears to be going from three dimensions to two and from five senses to just mere hearing and vision?” asks Greenfield. She continues, “If your identity is derived by notoriety on Facebook, by the amount of comments you get; if you define things as Facebook-worthy, if you are obsessed and incessantly connected, might you not actually feel more isolated?”

So, are Carr and Greenfield correct? Are we becoming a species of digital zombies?

The evidence is inconclusive. There is no doubt that the internet does affect the way we behave in some instances. For example it has been discovered that around 80 per cent of people unconsciously hold their breath when using computers, a condition that has been labelled ‘email apnea’. It is thought they do this to heighten the feeling of apprehension and anticipation they get from the web. 

Exploring the pros and cons

For adults, solutions of sorts are being developed through a movement called ‘the slow web’ or ‘contemplative computing’.

Stanford University in the US has a calming technology department that develops hardware and software designed to aid relaxation and concentration for people using the internet. These innovations include sensors that give the wearer rewards for breathing well while working at a screen, apps that aid meditation and ‘zenware’ designed to block distractions.

In some cases the net-effect is positive. A study by researchers at UCLA, who tested a group of middle-aged adults, measured brain activity levels while participants surfed the web. It found that each time participants engaged in a new activity, their stimulation levels rose.

Researchers also found that surfing the internet was, in some ways, more stimulating than reading a book. And computer games have been developed to help people; scientists at the University of Washington developed a game called SnowWorld designed to distract burns patients from their pain while their wounds were dressed.

For some too much screen time can be addictive, however, and research has shown that this addiction can cause sufferers to have more white matter in their brains, which has the effect of reducing the value of real-life experiences. But a recent study conducted by the Social and Public Health Sciences Unit at the University of Glasgow concluded that exposure to television but not games predicted a small increase in conduct problems in young children.

One of the most comprehensive studies into the effect internet use and digital devices have on children was carried out by Professor Tanya Bryron, a clinical psychologist. It acknowledges the link between children’s experience and their brain development.

Prof Byron wrote, “Any significant changes in children’s early experiences in life, such as a significant change in the amount of technology used during childhood, could potentially have a big impact on how the structure and function of the brain develops.

Development in the brain is thought to involve a “Hebbian” process [cells that fire together, wire together], which involves the strengthening of connections that are used and the pruning of excess connections that are not used, so some skills could show a significant increase based on children’s technology use during childhood and this could either be negative (for example, skills such as throwing are less well developed as children are spending so much time engaged in screen time) and/or positive (for example, skills such as attention that benefit from game playing could be better developed).”

The report looked into whether there was any science to support the theory that children who frequently played violent games or witnessed disturbing content online would be prone to copy in the real world what they saw in the virtual world. However, after reviewing results from the most recent research into the subject the report concluded that, in the case of games, there was no evidence to suggest this was the case.

The review did acknowledge that there are issues around internet use and child development but pointed out that the internet can be a positive factor if used sensibly.

More research is called for. While there is no hard proof, the anecdotal evidence from people reporting symptoms ranging from loss of concentration to unconscious breath-holding continues to stack up. And even the tech pioneers have concerns.

“I worry that the level of interruption, the sort of overwhelming rapidity of information is in fact affecting cognition. It is affecting deeper thinking. I still believe that sitting down and reading a book is the best way to really learn something and I worry that we are losing that,” concludes Eric Schmidt.