Online brain, a mass-scale experiment

More than ten years ago, we started to talk about what the internet was doing to our brains, when Nicholas Carr published “Is Google making us stupid”. As it happens, a lot of noise and speculation, little evidence. Last month a first deep dive was published in World Psychiatry (my emphasis):

[W]e explore how unique features of the online world may be influencing: a) attentional capacities, as the constantly evolving stream of online information encourages our divided attention across multiple media sources, at the expense of sustained concentration; b) memory processes, as this vast and ubiquitous source of online information begins to shift the way we retrieve, store, and even value knowledge; and c) social cognition, as the ability for online social settings to resemble and evoke real‐world social processes creates a new interplay between the Internet and our social lives, including our self‐concepts and self‐esteem. Overall, the available evidence indicates that the Internet can produce both acute and sustained alterations in each of these areas of cognition, which may be reflected in changes in the brain. However, an emerging priority for future research is to determine the effects of extensive online media usage on cognitive development in youth, and examine how this may differ from cognitive outcomes and brain impact of uses of Internet in the elderly.

Firth, Joseph, et al. ‘The “Online Brain”: How the Internet May Be Changing Our Cognition’. World Psychiatry, vol. 18, no. 2, 2019, pp. 119–29. Wiley Online Library, doi:10.1002/wps.20617.

My highlight: we are running a mass-scale experiment across the global population, and we know nothing about the long term consequences yet.

For better or for worse, we are already conducting a mass‐scale experiment of extensive Internet usage across the global population. A more fine‐scale analysis is essential to gaining a fuller understanding of the sustained impact of this usage across our society.

Overall, this early phase of the Internet’s introduction into our society is a crucial period for commencing rigorous and extensive research.

Again, let’s relax and enjoy experiment. Evolution is all about blind experimentation.


Featured Image: Gerd AltmannPixabay

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