New review-study looks at the impact of the internet on our brain (also in education)

This new article in the Neuroscientist offers a good overview about how internet technology may or may not change our brain. From claims from Carr over famous research by Sparrow and many, many more, the conclusion and summary is quite sobering as much of what we know is still a educated guess. From the actual study by Loh & Kanai (bold by me):

Over the past two decades, a substantial body of work has unraveled important impacts of the Internet environment on our cognitive behaviors and structures. In terms of information processing, we are shifting toward a shallow mode of learning characterized by quick scanning, reduced contemplation, and memory consolidation. This can be attributed to the increased presence of hypertext environments that reduces the cognitive resources required for deep processing. However, this cognitive loading effect can be mediated by fostering adaptive learning habits or by improving the navigability in hypertext environments. Another factor contributing to the shift toward shallow learning is the ease of online information retrieval that reduces the need for deep processing to commit information to memory. Relying on technology as an external memory source can result in reduced learning efforts as information can be easily retrieved later. This is not entirely maladaptive as we can strategically free up additional cognitive resources for other prioritized operations. In interrupting the development of deep reading skills, this shift toward shallow information processing may affect brain circuitry necessary for these skills. There is evidence that Internet searching experience can result in neural changes but more research is required to reveal the exact mechanisms that are affected by online information processing.

The Internet environment also greatly facilitates multitasking behaviors. These behaviors, induced by the presence of Internet technologies, have been linked with increased distractibility and reduced learning in the classroom. Researchers have noted the importance of meta-cognitive abilities, motivation, and positive affect in moderating the distractibility by the Internet technology. Increased media-multitasking was associated with a breadth-biased form of attention control that generally resulted in better integration of multiple sources of information but poorer inhibition of distractors. However, findings about the impacts of media-multitasking on multitasking and task-switching performance were inconsistent. More research is also required to determine the causal relationship between media-multitasking and executive control as most of the existing findings have been based on cross-sectional studies. Currently, there are limited neuroimaging studies about the impacts on Internet-related multitasking and distractibility. A related line of research has found that when attending to media distractions, drivers show a reduction of brain activity required for the performance of their primary task (driving). A recent VBM study has also linked increased media-multitasking with smaller ACC volumes. However, given its correlational nature, longitudinal or experimental approaches are required to determine causality between media-multitasking and brain structure differences. Interestingly, multitasking with action video games can produce improvements in attention abilities. These improvements have also been reflected as structural and functional changes in the frontoparietal attention network. This suggested that exposure to different forms of multitasking can lead to different cognitive effects.

Finally, the rewarding Internet environment also has resulted in the increased prevalence of Internet-related addictive behaviors. IA individuals were worse at inhibiting their responses especially in the face of Internet-related cues and were also highly driven by immediate rewards even in the face of potential losses and uncertainty. These cognitive deficits were further associated with alterations in brain networks involved in self-control and reward-processing. Extending these findings, future work should examine the impacts of the rewarding Internet environment on self-control and reward-processing mechanisms in healthy, nonaddicted populations.

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