Yes, the Internet Is Changing Your Brain

Head of a female robot looking wistfully into the distance

As you read these words, your brain is being changed.

Every day, as you surf the internet, clicking on hyperlinks, opening new tabs and windows, flicking between e-mail, Twitter, Facebook and whatever it was you were reading just now, your patterns of thought are changing. And neuroscientists have amassed solid evidence that when we change our thinking, we change our brain.

In recent years, several prominent thinkers and writers have become concerned that heavy internet use is eroding their concentration, memory and capacity for deep thought. And as they have become aware of the findings of neuroscience, they are increasingly alarmed about what this is doing to their brains:

Over the past few years I’ve had an uncomfortable sense that someone, or something, has been tinkering with my brain, remapping the neural circuitry, reprogramming the memory. My mind isn’t going-so far as I can tell-but it’s changing. I’m not thinking the way I used to think. I can feel it most strongly when I’m reading. Immersing myself in a book or a lengthy article used to be easy. My mind would get caught up in the narrative or the turns of the argument, and I’d spend hours strolling through long stretches of prose. That’s rarely the case anymore. Now my concentration often starts to drift after two or three pages. I get fidgety, lose the thread, begin looking for something else to do. I feel as if I’m always dragging my wayward brain back to the text. The deep reading that used to come naturally has become a struggle.

I think I know what’s going on. For more than a decade now, I’ve been spending a lot of time online, searching and surfing and sometimes adding to the great databases of the internet.

(Is Google Making Us Stupid? by Nicholas Carr)

In a recent piece for the Guardian, John Naughton picks up on Carr’s theme and asks: The internet: is it changing the way we think?. He laments the fact that “[no-one] bothers to write down or memorise detailed information any more”, and canvasses the views of a panel of writers and academics, several of whom share his unease:

Sometimes I think my ability to concentrate is being nibbled away by the internet; other times I think it’s being gulped down in huge, Jaws-shaped chunks.

(Geoff Dyer, quoted in The internet: is it changing the way we think?)

So how worried should we be?

Your Plastic Brain

Let’s start with the science. Nicholas Carr is absolutely right to make a connection between mental activity and the structure of his brain. The phenomenon of neuroplasticity means that when we learn a new skill, or change our patterns of thought, we are rewiring our brains, with new connections forming between neurons:

For a long time, it was believed that as we aged, the connections in the brain became fixed. Research has shown that in fact the brain never stops changing through learning. Plasticity IS the capacity of the brain to change with learning. Changes associated with learning occur mostly at the level of the connections between neurons. New connections can form and the internal structure of the existing synapses can change.

(Brain Plasticity: How Learning Changes Your Brain by Dr Paschale Michelon)

I’m no neuroscientist but I gather this view is uncontroversial within the field, and supported by a lot of research evidence. The way we think affects neuronal structure. Change your thinking and you change your brain.

Your Monkey Mind

I can relate to Carr’s experience of switching from a book culture to a digital culture. I’ve been a bookworm from an early age. Over the last five years, since I started blogging and marketing my business via the web, I’ve become a heavy internet user. I now spend several hours online every working day, using Gmail, Twitter, WordPress, Google Reader and a whole range of different websites.

When I sit quietly, close my eyes and observe my mind, it’s like gazing into a rainforest full of criss-crossing branches and overlapping leaves, flickering, swaying and shifting in the breeze. Thoughts, images, words, and feelings come and go apparently at random, one triggering another with little semblance of logical thought or progression.

Did you notice the journalistic trick I just pulled?

By placing the last two paragraphs next to each other, I implied that my heavy internet use was responsible for the illogical jumble of thoughts in my mind. In fact, the second paragraph is based on an experience I had about 15 years ago, when I’d barely encountered the internet, and started practising meditation for the first time.

What I discovered was that, although we like to think of our minds as logical, ordered sanctuaries of reason, the reality is very different.

The undisciplined mind is easily agitated, nervous, wanting, fearful, preoccupied, distracted, scattered, and confused. In meditation we can begin to see just how busy and distracted our minds really are.

(Meditation Now or Never by Steve Hagen)

Pick up just about any book on Buddhist meditation, and you’ll find a similar description. Texts often refer to the ‘monkey mind’ hopping from thought to thought like the branches of a tree. And considering they are all based on the 2,500-year-old teachings of the historical Buddha, it seems a little premature to blame the internet for our monkey minds.

When Nicholas Carr writes “I’ve had an uncomfortable sense that someone, or something, has been tinkering with my brain, remapping the neural circuitry, reprogramming the memory”, it’s as though the internet were imposing some alien thought patterns on him. But all the internet is doing is exaggerating the natural tendency of the mind to keep skipping from thought to thought.

What is unnatural is the habit of spending “hours strolling through long stretches of prose”. The internet may be changing our brain, but books changed it first.

The Benefits of Non-linear Reading

Carr says he finds it hard to read an extended prose narrative. Me too. I so rarely read a novel these days, that it’s become (ahem) something of a novelty. But I didn’t give up the novel-reading habit recently – I did it nearly 20 years ago. And the culprit wasn’t the internet, but my degree in English Language and Literature.

The more novels I ploughed through at college, the more I realised how average most of them are. And the fact that these average novels averaged 300-500 pages each, made me less and less eager to read another one. If a poet’s no good, it’s usually obvious within a few pages, but novelists take longer to disappoint you. After a while, I ran out of patience and devoted most of my time to reading the poets.

Another reason for the switch was that I found prose less and less stimulating to read. A lot of the time, it felt like watching a grainy black-and-white TV picture, compared to the three-dimensional, vibrant colours of poetry. (Just to be clear: I’m not talking about the really great novels. I’ll always have time for one of those.)

As a lifelong book lover, I have some sympathy with Carr when he extols the virtues of the printed page:

The kind of deep reading that a sequence of printed pages promotes is valuable not just for the knowledge we acquire from the author’s words but for the intellectual vibrations those words set off within our own minds.

But note his emphasis on a sequence of pages, as if a linear narrative or argument were the only way to stimulate ‘intellectual vibrations’. What Carr forgets when he laments the hours he spent “strolling through long stretches of prose” is that there are other, older, ways of reading and being stimulated by words, which are not necessarily worse.

Reading a poem is not a linear experience. The closest examples are long narrative poems like The Odyssey and Paradise Lost. Yet even here, the poets undercut the narrative progression with devices – such as Homer’s famous recurring phrases (“the wine-dark sea”) or the repetitive, hypnotic beat of Milton’s iambic pentameter – that take us into a timeless zone of the imagination.

Lyric poetry is even less linear. When you first glance at a short poem on the page, you take the whole thing in at once, as a visual shape. As you read it, you encounter elements such as rhythm, rhyme, and verbal echoes that prompt you to read backwards and sideways as well as forwards. Words and phrases act like hyperlinks, prompting you to make connections between different parts of the same poem, different poems within a book, and even poems by other writers. When T.S. Eliot wrote:

A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many,
I had not thought death had undone so many.

he meant us to recognise the second line as a quotation from Dante’s Inferno, and to draw a parallel between commuters in modern London and the souls of the damned in the underworld. The effect is heightened by the repetition of the words “so many” at the end of each line. To me, this is the kind of thing that makes reading a poem, on average, a richer experience than “strolling through long stretches of prose”.

There may be people who read a poetry collection by starting at beginning and reading to the end, but I’m not one of them. I generally start with the first poem, then skip to the last one, then dip in somewhere in between, in search of something good. I read some poems over and over again, and leave others for later discovery. If I really like the poems I find in this way, I’ll go back and read the book right through, which will add another dimension to my reading, but not necessarily the most important one. Even after I’ve done that, if the book’s any good, I’ll go back to re-read individual poems.

It’s more like listening to a CD than reading a novel. Sometimes you play the whole thing through, others you skip around, playing your favourites over and over again.

Or to change the analogy, it’s a bit like reading on the internet. Even when I stay on the same website, I don’t start at the beginning (wherever that might be) and read the whole thing all the way through. I hop around, slowing down when something piques my interest, and skipping back and forward when the author starts to waffle.

Is Google Making Us More Intelligent?

One of the criticisms of the way people read on the web is that they just ‘skim’ the text, using subheadings and bullets to get the gist of a piece of writing and rarely reading the whole thing from start to finish. Clearly we are in danger of dumbing down if we only read the bullets and subheadings. But I don’t think that’s how it works.

I believe a lot of internet users are actually very engaged and discerning readers: skimming through streams of links and updates for interesting pieces; zooming in by clicking on the link; scanning the text to get the gist of it; slowing down to clarify understanding of an important point; moving backwards and forwards in the text; and opening other tabs to compare and contrast different pages.

In other words, many internet users are active readers, engaging their critical faculties as they read, and even engaging the authors and other readers in debate. And they may not read every single word in the ‘right’ order, but a lot of the time they are doing something at least as complex and demanding.

This is the conclusion reached by neuroscientists at the University of California, in a research study reported by the Telegraph:

Scientists discovered that searching the world wide web exercised the mind far more than reading and was similar to completing crosswords and puzzles.

Brain scans showed that going online stimulated larger parts of the brain than the relatively passive activity of reading a novel or non-fiction book.

It was so stimulating that the authors of the study believe it could actually help people maintain healthier brains into their old age.

(The internet beats books for improving the mature mind by Richard Alleyne)

The researchers asked subjects to first read books and then perform searches on the internet, while their brain activity was monitored by functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). The subjects included both experienced internet users and people who had no experience of performing searches online.

All study participants showed significant brain activity during the book-reading task, demonstrating use of the regions controlling language, reading, memory and visual abilities, which are located in the temporal, parietal, occipital and other areas of the brain.

But internet searches revealed a major difference between the two groups. While all participants demonstrated the same brain activity that was seen during the book-reading, the web-savvy group also registered activity in the frontal, temporal and cingulate areas of the brain, which control decision-making and complex reasoning.

In other words, while all subjects found the books stimulating, the experienced internet users’ brains were more actively engaged in complex thought processes when searching online.

I think it’s significant that this extra engagement was observed only in the experienced web users. To me, it suggests an aspect of reading on the web that seems to have been ignored by those who scoff at skimming and scanning as ‘shallow’.

To appreciate T.S. Eliot’s great poem The Wasteland, you need to have also read and absorbed a lot of other literature, ancient and modern. Otherwise you won’t ‘get’ the references, and his brilliant reworking of traditional verse forms, and you’ll miss a lot of the poem’s meaning.

On the internet, context is just as important. Many of the thousands of blog posts, Tweets and forum discussions published every day make little or no sense without a deep knowledge of the authors, technology, media trends and online etiquette – not to mention what other authors have written on the same topic. Even if you’re only searching for a new ironing board, your search will be more effective of you have a ‘map’ in your mind of the best online retailers and price comparison sites.

Yes, the hyperlinks help to knit things together, and you can always ask Google if you forget something, but to get the most out of her reading, the average web reader needs to hold a cultural universe in her head of similar complexity to the one Eliot relied on for The Wasteland to make sense.

And as we know, associative, holistic, big picture thinking is good for creativity. Making new connections between ideas, people and cultures makes this an exciting time to be a reader – and a writer.

Choose Your Brain with Care

Yes, the internet is changing your brain. But so is just about everything else you do.

Reading through the discussions of this issue, I couldn’t help noticing that most of the hand-wringing is by those (like me) with a background in the arts and humanities. Many of them sound a little squeamish about neuroplasticity, as if it were some kind of brain damage instead of the natural way the brain learns and adapts.

The scientists seem much more comfortable with neuroplasticity, and the implication that our daily activities mean we are responsible for shaping the structure of our brain.

Critics of new media sometimes use science itself to press their case, citing research that shows how “experience can change the brain.” But cognitive neuroscientists roll their eyes at such talk. Yes, every time we learn a fact or skill the wiring of the brain changes; it’s not as if the information is stored in the pancreas. But the existence of neural plasticity does not mean the brain is a blob of clay pounded into shape by experience.

(Mind Over Mass Media by Steven Pinker)

Whether you spend your days reading three volume novels or flittering from Tweet to Tweet will affect the kind of brain you build for yourself. So will your decision to learn tennis, play the violin, memorise the entire London streetmap, start a new company, write a symphony, or spend your days mindlessly crunching spreadsheets and hitting ‘send and receive’ on Outlook Express.

Choose carefully, because you’re choosing your future brain.

The Antidote to a Short Attention Span

I’m not saying I don’t share some of the concerns expressed about loss of concentration or memory. I’ve noticed several of the symptoms described by Carr in myself. But there’s a big difference between saying there are drawbacks to our new ways of reading and thinking, and prophesying the end of civilisation as we know it.

The idea that technology is making us stupider, and that scholarship, the arts and sciences are consequently in danger of decline, is a good example of what economist Tyler Cowen calls cultural pessimism. Human beings have a natural a tendency to assume that modern culture is in decline, and that the present generations (particularly the youngsters) are intellectual pygmies compared to the giants of the past.

But amid all the agonising about the possible effects of the internet on our brains, I haven’t seen many people offering realistic, practical solutions. So at the risk of dumbing this article down into a list of top tips, here are some things you could do to make the transition to your new brain a little smoother. ;-)

If you want to improve your concentration, practise concentrating.

Before I started writing this piece, I spent 20 minutes sitting on a mat, staring at the wall, concentrating, to the best of my ability, on the breath flowing in and out of my nostrils. I do this every morning. If the weather’s nice, I’ll go out into the garden and practise walking meditation, but the practice is essentially the same: using samatha (concentration) to calm the monkey mind and increase my ability to concentrate, and vipassana (insight) to observe the stream of thoughts and feelings, and try not to get caught up in them.

I started doing this long before the internet came along, as a way of counteracting the mind’s natural tendency to wander hither and thither. And these days, I find it an an excellent antidote to the digital distractions of the internet.

You don’t need to take up meditation, but if you are worried about the effect of all those hours on Facebook on your brain, then start a daily practice of something that will counteract this, by strengthening your powers of your concentration:

  • yoga
  • tai chi
  • playing a musical instrument
  • making something with your hands, with total focus on what you’re doing
  • writing (with the internet turned off!)
  • playing a sport that requires absolute focus

You could also try building ‘digital downtime’ into your day – several hours without digital media of any kind (and yes, that includes your smartphone!).


Well, there it is. This has been a long post even by my standards, and I’m fully aware that some of you may not have read it all the way through to the end. That’s fine, I know it’s my job to earn your attention, not take it for granted.

And I’ve written it on the assumption that those of you who find it of interest will have plenty of mental capacity to follow my argument all the way through – and either build on it or take it to pieces in the comments…

You, Your Brain and the internet

Are you concerned about effect of the internet on your mind and brain?

Do you agree that there are positive, creative benefits to non-linear reading?

Any tips for dealing with the ‘monkey mind’ after spending too long online?

About the Author Mark McGuinness invites you to sculpt yourself a more creative and productive brain by subscribing to free updates from Lateral Action. For briefer neurological interventions, follow Mark on Twitter here.

Get past two of the biggest obstacles you will ever face

Resilience: Facing Down Rejection and Criticism on the Road to Success

If you want to achieve something original and meaningful with your life, you must learn to deal with rejection and criticism.

Mark McGuinness shows you how to handle them in his new book Resilience: Facing Down Rejection and Criticism on the Road to Success.

Based on 16 years' experience of coaching creative people like you, Resilience gives you tried-and-tested ways to get past rejection and criticism and succeed on your own terms.

"Read this book and you will be bulletproof!" ~ Steven Pressfield, bestselling author of The War of Art and Turning Pro

Click to learn more about Resilience (and read the opening chapters for free). >>

Responses to this Post

Comments

  1. I work in web marketing by day…and night, actually. We focus on keeping eyes on our pages, tapping into short attention spans and designing pages to keep focus on the page.

    Doing this all day has definitely shortened my attention span (you notice it when you try to read a book!) so I’m going back to basics. Scheduling more drawing-time, non-computer writing time, and exercise. I will cure the monkey-brain yet!

    And as a start I read every single word of your article. Love the suggestions at the end. :)

  2. One thing I enjoy for a change of pace is radio drama. It’s not that easy to find, but it’s worth the hunt. Radio drama requires a certain kind of attention. It engages the imagination in a way I don’t find in books.

    I become weary of the online world because of the amount of noise out there, as well as the pace. Yes, we can control how we consume the information, but it’s still a barrage.

    Tuning out as part of your regular day is a great idea.

    My tip? Focus on quality, not quantity. Head the monkey off at the pass.

  3. @ Van – Thanks, glad you made it to the end!

    @ Stacey – Radio drama reminds me of another of my antidotes: movies. I watched The Pianist last night, 3 hours long and I wouldn’t have wished it a minute shorter.

  4. I think the internet does…nope it’s gone.

    Seriously, As I am working my way through the Stigg Larsson trilogy in the last month, on the last one now, I guess my ability to read novel length literature is in one piece, though I would say I find it harder to “take things in” than in previous years but this could be due to a range of factors.

    I find the process of reading anything from a screen tedious, oddly I would rather print it out and read it?? Maybe that is just cultural upbringing. I love reading and I agree that poetry is the whiskey to the novel’s beer: Language distilled down to its purest form, as it were.

    Personally, I do think younger generations are wired differently and I would say that general education/intelligence has dumbed down, without falling into the trap that education and intelligence are one and the same thing.

    Culture is not as “high” as it once was but this began before computers became widely available. My academic background is in the arts and I have concluded (coincidently, using Eliot’s frame of reference regarding criticism) that there has been no real visual art of any worth since the 1950’s, I would also stick my neck out and say that there has been very few “great” works of literature in the modern era either. Poetry too has declined in quality, to the most part. I think one problem with the internet is that it offers quantity rather than quality. There are riches buried out there but you have to shovel an awful lot of rubbish to find it and this contributes, in a way, to the dip in/dip out culture that could be evident in the shortening of attention span.

  5. I hadn’t heard the term “cultural pessimism,” but as someone who has worked in the public schools for 20 years, I’m well aware of this phenomenon. Drives me buggy.

    It’s as if just because something is old, it is better. I’m sure it’s an evolutionary advantage to preserve the status quo, but that’s just another form of monkey brain…or lizard brain. We can override that impulse by appreciating all the benefits the new stuff is giving us and as you suggest, managing the pitfalls.

    An example is when older people decry the use of terms like TMI or BTW. Mostly, I think it’s because they don’t know what they mean. But instead of learning, they carry on about how the English language is dying and pretty soon no one will be able to write complete words anymore. How about efficiency, people? How about enjoying communication through code because it’s FUN? (BTW, FUN doesn’t stand for anything…just emphasizing, LOL). :)

    Thank you so much for making this post as long as you did. It’s really helpful to have all of the ideas you presented available together for reference when I encounter a cultural pessimist.

    That said, I do have one concern about the internet, and that’s addiction. Maybe it’s because it’s so engaging and stimulating, but many of us are having trouble controlling the impulse to spend all of our time here. I suppose the answer to that is to work to make our real lives equally engaging and stimulating, but IRL we’re stuck with whoever happens to be around, whereas online, we have access to so many great minds.

    Food for thought…

  6. @ Mark “poetry is the whiskey to the novel’s beer” – agreed, although good beer is still one of life’s great pleasures. :-)

    There are riches buried out there but you have to shovel an awful lot of rubbish to find it

    Yes, but this is true of all cultures in all ages. Tyler Cowen points out that one reason the achievements of the past often look so glittering, is that we’ve had a long time to sift through the rubbish!

    @ Sue – Thank you. You’d probably enjoy Cowen’s book In Praise of Commercial Culture – lots of ammunition for resisting cultural pessimism. :-)

  7. We are adaptive creatures and we are in transition.

    There is nothing to fear.

    Maybe our attention spans are a little shorter and we have a hard time sitting still or concentrating, but it’s not the Internet’s fault.

    The same things have been said about television and video games as well.

    Our brains are what we make them and this article does a great job of expressing this.

  8. This post really hit home for me! I heard on CBC radio the other morning about neuroplasticity and that “The Nature of Things” on tv was having a program about it. It caught my attention right away. I love the idea that the brain can be changed and improved, especially as I am now, this year, an official Senior Citizen and concerned about keeping all my marbles:-) I have been an artist all my life, working in the commercial end for 35 years and exhibiting my painting and giving workshops throughout my working life. I am an avid reader and lately find I am on the computer reading stuff and connecting with others to the tune of about two hours per day! Sometimes more. I was feeling weird about that for a while but I enjoy all of this and seem to be learning about techy things that even a year ago I would have been afraid of. I do sometimes feel, however, that I am getting information overload and am solving that by doing as you suggest…shutting it all down for a while, taking walks, gardening, housework, concentrating on a painting and ignoring email or telephones, and meeting once a week with like minded artist friends. I used to write in a journal but now have a blog, and writing in it almost every day is no effort and very stimulating to my thinking. And I read every word of your post today!

  9. I too can relate to the feeling of an increasing inability to concentrate. It’s hard to say how much of that is the internet, how much is becoming a parent, and how much is maybe an incipient midlife crisis. ;)

    As a writer, I think this trend causes a certain amount of panic among creative types because it seems to make it harder than ever to capture — and hold — an audience’s attention. If the new benchmark for attention span is the blog post or the two minute YouTube clip, what are practitioners of longer forms like novels and even films to do? Audiences seem to get restless after a few minutes or a few pages even when something is great.

    As a parent, I also worry about the effects of all this will be on my son growing up. I at least can remember a time when I could concentrate, and so I have some reference for what I’m missing and what I’d like to get back to. What will growing up in a hyperlinked culture be like for him?

  10. superb rundown, and echoes my thoughts on the subject more or less exactly, except inasmuch as I tend to gravitate more to novels than poetry.

    I also tend towards a kind of cautious optimism when it comes to this kind of thing – I don’t claim to know whether this trend is objectively a good thing or a bad thing, but it’s happening, it’s here, and it’s not going away.

    This is what I tell people who are aggressively opposed to social media, as well – it’s here, deal with it. You jumping up and down and shouting about how it’s destroying human interaction isn’t going to make it go away.

    It’s my view that it’s wiser to participate and try to find positive ways to navigate the changing landscape. Even when that landscape is our own grey matter.

  11. The Internet and Google can both be looked with a positive and negative aspect in mind.

    Positive: They save time, and help us learn new things.
    Negative: They make people lazy and dull.

    Nice, detail article Mark. Neat insights.

  12. I went on an internet – free holiday this summer for a month. I used to be a voracious reader of novels, non-fiction – and was raised on Dickens and other older authors, which require a bit more concentration. I’m almost embarrassed to say that it took me about a week to really get into the likes of The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes or Huckleberry Finn. I was focusing better when I was five than I do at forty five!

    Since then, I’ve restricted my net time to about an hour a day – difficult to do when you’re also writing a blog, but I found the fractured focus was leading me to not be able to focus on something as simple as a to-do list as well. Crazy! Since coming back to myself, my blog posts have improved, I have greater clarity about life in general, and feel much more at peace.

    Now if only I could spend every weekend net-free… but it also seems like a bit of an addiction as well. I don’t like it, don’t like it at all.

  13. I really enjoyed this post Mark; as someone that spends a lot of time on the internet, I appreciated you taking me on the journey of what others have said about the phenomenon and adding your own two cents.

    I’ve thought a lot about this topic ever since I started using Google Reader about a year ago. I spend a small, but consistent chunk of my day scanning posts. I love this part of my day, but the trick is to not let a legitimately useful daily activity become a time suck. The truth is that this isn’t easy, and it takes discipline and self awareness.

    Anyway, this post took Lateral Action out of my “trial blogs” Google Reader category. Thanks for putting together a concise post on a far reaching topic.

  14. I was wondering about the future of the brain. All you imply in the article is a functional brain in the old age. What are other implications? How are the new links going to affect us in the optimistic scenario?

  15. “In recent years, several prominent thinkers and writers have become concerned that heavy internet use is eroding their concentration, memory and capacity for deep thought.”

    I do notice it takes more energy and strength to focus on what I am reading online. I find my eyes wander more than if I were reading a book or paper document.

    I find when I am reading or writing offline, I engage more in the material. It appears if I am holding a document in my hand, it captures my attention, and I wonder if using the sense of touch has something to do with intimately thinking and processing information.

  16. Thanks everyone, glad it stimulated a few neurons. :-)

    @ Joshua – “There is nothing to fear.” Thanks for the reassurance. :-)

    @ Karen – You might like to check out my piece on Information overload and creativity.

    @ Chris – As a relatively new parent, I can relate to the kids’ contribution to my lack of focus! I do wonder what kind of culture my children will grow into. I know it will be very different to the one I grew up with. But then that also true of my parents, grandparents. I’m ways, the future will be better, in some ways worse. Plus ca change…

    @ Tobias – “it’s here, deal with it”. Yes, as with so many other things in life. ;-)

    @ Eddie – I agree about the positive/negative aspects, but I’m not sure I’m with you on the ‘lazy and dull’ bit. You could say TV, tabloids or trashy novels make people lazy and dull, but I tend to think it’s people who make people lazy and dull. In lots of ways the internet ‘makes’ us more active and engaged.

    @ Jacq – I don’t like some of it, but on balance I think it’s a price worth paying. I try not to use the web much in the evenings or weekends. (Not always successfully, esp, when I’ve got a lot to do.)

    @ Rob “not let a legitimately useful daily activity become a time suck”. As with Tobias’ comment, I think this applies to so many more things than just the internet! Glad to hear my trial was successful. :-)

    @ Alina – You’re right that one of the studies I refer to talks about having a functional brain in old age. Here are a few other aspects I mentioned, that I would see as part of the ‘optimistic scenario':

    • associative thinking, leading to new ideas
    • holistic thinking, leading to better understanding of the big picture
    • sharper critical thinking about the texts we read
    • active engagement – i.e. the read/write web instead of passive reading

    @ Marcy – I think there’s definitely a different quality to the experience of holding a book vs looking at a screen. I love the internet, but when it comes to reading poetry I want a real book every time!

  17. Some fascinating points, though I confess I have, in fact, “skimmed” the posts in true internet fashion! (mainly ‘cos I need to eat)

    Reading the comment about Dickens and older literature needing concentration. I have noticed a lot of modern novels seem to have shorter chapters. As an example, The De Vinci Code, where some “chapters” are little more than a paragraph and it is written more like a screenplay than a novel. Reading a book from the 1970’s at the moment about healing andd each chapter is huge.

    I think there is a desire for bite-size pieces these days, whether that is a good thing or bad thing is, obviously, open to debate. However a few recent comments on TV about children, particularly, boys reluctance to engage with a book is a concern.

    Bookshops in my old university town have closed down, chatting to the owner of the last remaining one, the reason is that, apparently, students do not use books anymore? Now that is a concern.

    Yep, Mark, beer is certainly a pleasure! I prefer it to whiskey myself.

  18. Well, as a fan of haiku I can see the benefits of bite-sized literature. :-)

    Seriously – it does sound a bit much if students aren’t reading books any more. Call me old fashioned, but I’d always assumed books had something to do with the raison d’etre of a student.

    Do you know whether the Harry Potter books have short chapters? They weren’t my cup of tea, but they are pretty long, and did an impressive job of getting kids to read hefty tomes.

  19. Would it be too ironic if I told you that…

    I noticed my shortened attention span when I tried to read this article…or maybe that was my “executive A.D.D.” at work.

    The part of it I read was very promising, and I definitely intend to come back another time to complete it.

  20. Haiku…that is a fascinating point…and as you will know writing one concentrates the mind and encourages an almost one-pointed meditative approach to capture the essence of what you hope to convey in such a brief and measured verse.

    Never read the Potter books. I have heard various points of view from people, some say brilliant, some say poorly written, others that everything is described in such Proust-like detail that nothing is left to imagine (mentioning Proust, I confess to not getting through even the first volume of In Search of Lost Time).

    They are long books and children did read them so I guess they did offer children of the internet age an opportunity to experience novel length literature.

  21. @ Gogo – I’m British, no problem with irony round here. ;-)

    @ Mark – Yep, nowhere to hide with a haiku. One syllable out of place and you’ve botched it!

  22. Mark,

    Really interesting thoughts, I find your posts consistently interesting and worth my time to read thoroughly. Thanks!

    I’ve been an avid reader my whole life and spend most of my day online. I do find that when I try to write or concentrate that I have much more difficulty than I used to, but I think…at least in my case (and likely in lots of other people’s), that has as much to do with stress level, pace of life, lack of sleep, poor diet and exercise habits and lack of mental discipline as anything else.

    It’s really encouraging to me to hear the science about positive brain changes when so many fail to believe that. I spent an hour with my 96 year old grandmother this afternoon who shook her head when I talked about how my 5 year old son has learned to use my iPad before he can really read much. Her first thought was to wonder what that will “do to him.” I’m afraid explaining that he’s learned about 20 varieties of fish, numerous constellations and played old standby games like connect four and battleship didn’t do much to convince her that it was ok.

    So many things in life benefit from intentional improvement…our minds are no different. Whether improving critical thinking, concentration and focus or any other mental capacity, we can make the positives of the digital age work for us rather than against us if we want to.

  23. stress level, pace of life, lack of sleep, poor diet and exercise habits and lack of mental discipline

    The first few months of parenthood flashed through my mind as I read that! :-)

    Seriously, I think there’s definitely something in what you say – when I was younger I can remember older people lamenting their loss of memory, long before the internet was around to blame.

  24. “Are you concerned about effect of the internet on your mind and brain?”

    Like you, I am concerned about it. I think a lot of modern technology – like TVs, Ipods, texting, video games, etc. – are making our culture more ADHD. But, to twist Cowen’s term, I am a cultural optimist. I believe humans tend to adapt to things in productive ways, so we just need to take the time and action to handle these new technologies more efficiently.

    Our society is virtually unrecognizable from what was hundreds of years ago. Things are “evolving” at an increasing rate (not in the biological sense, but certainly in how we are willfully structuring our society). I think this is why meditation is becoming so big. People are beginning to see the value in sitting still, especially after a long day of chaos. It’s a great way to relax and gather our thoughts. I think we will continue to improve with time.

    “Do you agree that there are positive, creative benefits to non-linear reading?”

    Sure. I do it all the time. Skimming articles is a productive way to glance over the fluff and find the juicy stuff (although with your articles it is mostly juice :) ).

    “Any tips for dealing with the ‘monkey mind’ after spending too long online?”

    Besides meditation, I think a solid workout routine can help. If you do it right, there will be too much blood circulating your body to have enough to be so scatterbrained. Even better? Meditating AFTER you workout. Nothing like follow the breath after a rush of endorphins – pure bliss!

  25. I forgot to include a quote that your post reminded me of:

    “To think is to practice brain chemistry.” – Deepak Chopra

  26. This doesn’t just apply to reading. People used to come to lectures, debates, and church meetings and sit for hours listening to speakers. Now, even I, who grew up with this sort of thing, can barely stand for a sermon or lecture to last more than 20 minutes unless the speaker regularly re-captures my attention with visuals or other non-verbal antics. I can no longer tolerate the ponderous pace of movies made prior to about 1975, no matter how good. Even in conversations, I find my eyes glazing over very quickly. It’s as if my brain is whizzing along like a racecar with no brakes — but really, I think the brakes have rusted from little use, given the fast pace of entertainment, the internet, and life in general.

  27. I meant to add, also, that our education system is still stuck in earlier centuries, when people could sit motionless and soak up information in verbal form. Today’s kids aren’t wired that way, but education hasn’t caught up. It’s why so many kids have to be doped (including my own) to tolerate the forced inactivity and stultifying lectures. I trust video-games will replace lectures in the not-too-distant future. Perhaps then, the school day can be cut in half, and the kids will have time to play outside.

    • I must agree with you, CCR. The education system is still stuck in the 19th century, for the most part. The concept of using video games, not just in special sessions but for all classroom lessons, is a pretty good idea. The question is: where will the funding come from to make this a reality? School systems in most places are already strapped for cash, with exasperated teachers who can barely cope with the large class sizes and long hours–which is no wonder that they can’t deal with the rowdy kids (whether they really have ADHD or not) and so give them Ritalin to quiet them. I don’t know about cutting the school day in half though—but perhaps better, more creative curricula-designing could enable lessons to be taught in shorter, more involved non-lecture sessions, thereby shortening the school day a little.

      • I can see video-games being an excellent source toward a creative curricula.

        I admit I have no idea how to create a video game. Here’s my layman opinion. What if we could have the kids be a part of creating the video game itself from scratch.

        For example: Having the kids use principles they learn in history and apply it to characters in a game. Creating a scenario (eg. writing the content) would develop analytical and critical thinking skills, character building, problem solving and a sense of ownership.

        It believe it would provide a platform that is fun and speaks their language (meaning: technology, video-games).

        I agree, where would you get funding?

        Initially, my guess is to create a non-profit organization to partner with the school system.

        I would love to see a teach and apply culture in the school system. Teach (traditional) + video-games (apply) = Learn through experience. :P

  28. Mark, I sense as the very nature of our culture changes, especially in the age of the internet and technology, that our collective cultural brain changes as well. Just this week I heard that our public schools are no longer going to require that our children learn to write in cursive. That would have been unthinkable twenty years ago. To be a part of our culture we keep learning and moving forward.

    A second aspect of this is that we are now sitting more daily. Not only does the internet change our brains, it changes our physical bodies as well.

    So much food for thought. However, I have a new book and it is not on a Kindle. Not yet. I enjoy the ability to write in the margins as well as the smell of paper!

  29. Hi Mark,

    Excellent article. I like your quote “Choose carefully, because you’re choosing your future brain”.

    Any stimulation change the production of brain neurotransmitters and hormones. Habits re-inforce the changes.

  30. @Steven – I agree about meditation and working out, although in my case I like to do them at opposite ends of the working day!

    @CCR – Yes AND I think the psychologists were saying human beings attention span was about 20 minutes, long before the internet arrived. As a trainer and presenter, I use a lot of visuals and non-verbal communication to capture and hold my audience’s attention – without, I hope, resorting to ‘antics’! ;-)

    @Robyn – Glad you liked the piece, especially with your depth of knowledge in this area. Amazing to hear about schoolchildren not having to do ‘joined-up writing’ as we used to call it.

    @Anne – Yet one more reason to avoid bad habits…

    • Regarding your remark on human beings having an attention span of 20 minutes have you heard of the pomodoro technique?

      http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cH-z5kmVhzU (5-minute video)

      You set a timer for 25 minutes and then work on one task for that time. Then you take a 5 minute break. Then back to the 25 minute work session again. I’ve been using the technique but instead of a random 5 minute break I sit and meditate for 5 minutes. It’s been working well for me.

  31. A very interesting article, and while I don’t agree with all of it I enjoyed reading and found some valuable advice on there.

    As a fellow lover of language and self-confessed grammar Nazi I do feel a need to point out a minor typographic error though.

    “follow the my argument” clearly has a superfluous definite article, or a few missing erodes (thread of?)

  32. Thanks for spotting the typo Adam, fixed.

  33. Great article! I’m fascinated by how modern technology is changing our brains. I’m glad you still have the focus to write an article of such length.

  34. Great article, Mark. As an English major myself (and still a fairly recent graduate), I have often been despairing at my (seemingly) lessened attention-span. “I used to read so easily as a child,” I say to myself. But my attention-span has never really been long—I remember interrupting my reading to peek at the end of books when I was younger, or to flip around and look for when the next chapter begins, or to see how many chapters there are, etc., just as I do today. I think the real reason I haven’t been as focused a reader as I once was has less to do with my “monkey mind” and more to do with my changed habits: I spend much more time on the computer than I used to, and virtually no time on drawing, conlang-making, writing, reading, or any of the things I used to do both to amuse myself and to express my creativity.

    I think the root of a lot of my unfinished/underdeveloped undertakings, though, is a feeling of lack or ‘not good enough': “I don’t have enough. I don’t do enough. Whatever I do or have isn’t good enough. I am not good enough.” This feeling even translates itself into online usage: “I don’t spend enough time on Twitter. I should read more blogs, etc.” What can I do to overcome this feeling of lack, of low self-worth? I suspect that if I felt more worthy and less in-need, then I wouldn’t need to worry so much about my needs or my accomplishments–I could just be myself.

  35. Good to meet you. What an excellent, well thought out and well presented article.

    I find that I read faster and skim through material I find on-line than printed material. If I want to go deeper I actually print it out and take the paper (with pen in hand) to my nearest coffee house. I often scribble comments in the margins and circle words and phrases that stand out for me at the time. This is my absorption / integration process it seems.

    I enjoy the tactile experience and find it grounding and calming. Im sure I’m engaging with a different part of my brain when I engage with material in this way.

    I have also found Internet ADD is best managed for me through the discipline of meditation. I meditate every 4 hours or so for about 20 minutes. Another tactic I use to slow my brain down is to get back in touch with my body. I get up from my desk (screen) often to do small tasks (make a bed, feed the cat, prepare the vegetables for dinner).

    I would say that my capacity to 1. focus 2. multi-task (in as much as i can take on a number of different tasks and take them to completion) has actually improved by learning how to manage Internet ADD. :-)

    Thanks for listening ~ Maya

    • The knowledge that I have obtained through the internet has surpassed what I have learned in the past. If you take information from mainstream media in America and compare it to other resources you tend to find out that you have been deceived. I for one take things as two parts, each side has there reasons, it is up to you to find the truth. That is where we are at in this day of age, comparing and asking questions of what we are told. Even though our thought process may seem less concentrated, it is more likely that we are processing more information at one time than any other time in history. I enjoy finding the truth and I really enjoy reading novels when my kids give me the time. But the internet gives me the choice of what my kids watch when I want them to watch it, and what information filters into my home. The MSM went to court and proved because they are a private company that they do not have to publish the truth on the television.

  36. Rick Smith says:

    A friend of mine linked me to this piece — and I can’t thank her enough for it. Appreciate your thoughtful insight into a subject that’s been plaguing me deeply of late (I run social media tools for a federal government agency, and I’m increasingly alarmed by the lack of curiosity and personal research demonstrated by users — who, rather than clicking the links I post, tend to reply with questions… that are answered in those links!).

    I’d also echo the comments above about looking at radio drama as an escape from the ruts of modern entertainment/literate pastimes. Radio drama is a terrific way to tune out the world for awhile — while radically stimulating the mind and the imagination in a way literature and cinema sometimes don’t do as effectively.

    Regards,
    Rick Smith, Huntsville, Ala.

  37. “Scientists have found that compulsive internet use can produce morphological changes in the structure of the brain.[24] A study which analyzed Chinese college students who used a computer around 10 hours a day, 6 days a week, found reductions in the sizes of the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, rostral anterior cingulate cortex, supplementary motor area and parts of the cerebellum as high as 10-20%.[24] ”

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Internet_addiction_disorder#Support

  38. I’m glad to find at least a few other readers of poetry. It’s amazing how few people will read a poem, but choose to plough through a lengthy novel instead. Which takes longer to read? And why do people prefer novels to a 20-line poem when they’re always complaining about being pressed for time? I like Ted Kooser myself. Or maybe the lyrical prose of Anna Quindlen. Of course Emily Dickinson will always be a favorite of mine.

  39. I am rather sure that it is all about Mind Control! Not to say anyone who has posted does not have mind control

  40. I couldn’t agree more. I feel like I’ve developed internet driven ADD over the last several years. I’m constantly absorbing information and letting it go by the wayside with each mouse click and page refresh. What can you do though? It’s a part of our evolution and will ultimately automate away our focus on knowledge retention.

  41. Very interesting article. It has made me feel more comfortable about spending time on the Internet. However, if I may make a suggestion : Proofreading : “It’s a good thing.”

  42. Thank you for the article, Mark.

    A tool I like to use for internet reading is https://www.readability.com/

    It turns every article I find into a clean formatted page. Whenever I turn an article into a “readable” one I find I concentrate better and I read the entirety of it. Plus it also helps out authors who have poor web design skills but really good writing.

    Liam

  43. In “The Antidote to a Short Tension Span”, you wrote “The idea that technology is making us stupider…” I believe the correct way to write ‘stupider’, is ‘stupid’. I do not believe stupider is a word.