What The INTERNET Is Doing to Your BRAIN 🧠
Do you know that watching this video is destroying your brain?
Each time you surf the internet and spend time on social media your brain rewires itself, robbing you from the capacity to concentrate and feel happy.
You might be asking… How’s that even possible? Okay, let’s start from the beginning.
The Medium is The Message
The 60s was a tumultuous decade. These 10 years saw the Beatles come into being and become superstars, the launch of popular TV shows like Star Trek and the nerve-wracking development of the Cold War. But not only that. The sixties also witnessed the democratization of the newly invented electric media.
By that time, nearly three quarters of developed countries’ households had a TV, a radio, and a telephone that entertained them during the night, kept them informed with the latest news, and connected them with friends and family.
During this transition from books and newspapers to TV Shows and Radio Programs was when Marshall McLuhan published his book Understanding Media. In it, he explored the effects that new forms of media have on society – from the spoken word to the telephone – and where he first coined the renowned phrase “the medium is the message”.
What McLuhan wanted to highlight was the fact that, even though people only pay attention to the content of the media – the TV shows, the conversations on the telephone, and the radio programs – that’s not where we should be looking at if we want to understand why we act and think the way we do. The true effects of a new medium cannot be found on the quality of its content but on the medium itself.
McLuhan wrote Understanding Media long before the revolutionary medium we call the internet appeared. So, if the YouTube videos, the web articles, the twits, the Instagram Posts and the TikToks are not the message, what are is it?
We Shape Tools, Then They Shape Us
The famous philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche could never fully recover from the illnesses that haunted him since childhood. At age 37, his vision was so deteriorated that he couldn’t keep his eyes focused on a page without unbearable headaches and even vomits. As a last resort, he decided to invest money into the recently invented typewriter.
The investment saved Nietzsche from ending his career too soon and even caused a spike in his productivity– he could never write as fast with his bare hands. But there were other subtle effects going on that were imperceptible to the philosopher.
It was not until Heinrich Koselitz, one of Nietzsche’s closest friends, realized that his style of writing changed: his communication was missing the looseness that once had and was becoming tighter and more robotic. To this comment, Nietzsche replied: quality of pen and paper.” “You are right. Our writing equipment takes part in the forming of our thoughts.”
In a strange way, the typewriter found its way into Nietzsche’s writings and influenced how he thought, acted and saw the world. This machine is just one invention in a sea of mediums and still manages to affect not just the writer but the message as well and, ultimately, the reader. But what about a more primordial medium like the Alphabet?
For thousands of years, our ancestor’s only way of communication was through speech. And although the first writings date from 8000 BC, it was not until the Greek alphabet appeared that the written word took over the scene.
The magnificence of this invention should not be underestimated. With only 24 letters, the Greeks managed to cover most of the sounds they used when speaking. This made learning to read and write a far easier task than memorizing a different symbol for each word, like the Egyptians did a few thousand years back.
The transition from speech to writing was a turning point in our history. Before writing was invented, thought was constricted by human memory and what a person could hold in their mind. But with the emergence written word, knowledge became free from these constrictions and was able to go deeper into a subject or problem.
It’s difficult to imagine how the French Declaration of the Rights of Man or Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason could have happened with a medium that fostered uninterrupted and intense contemplation.
These two examples show how a medium, whether it’s a typewriter or the Alphabet, changes our society and ourselves in profound ways, but why? Is there a physical explanation to all of this? To answer that question, we’ll need to travel to the 20th Century and into our own brain.
That the brain couldn’t change when a person reached a certain age was a given fact for scientists in the XIX and XX centuries. Psychologists and neuroscientists held that once our neurons solidified their connections around the age of 20, it was impossible for them to rearrange. Whichever habits of mind and behaviors we had adopted before that time was destined to be with us for the rest of our lives. But one day, everything changed when a young neuroscientist by the name of Michael Merzenich decides to take on a daring experiment.
To study the way the brain adapted to changes in sensory nerves, Merzenich mapped how the brain reacted when a monkey’s hand was being touched by placing a probe in its open skull. After repeating this process thousands of times, he had a very precise map showing which parts of the brain correlated with which nerve cells.
Once that done, he proceeded to the second part of the experiment. With a scalpel, he made several cuts in the monkey’s hand, damaging its nerves. When the new skin grew, Merzenich opened the monkey’s skull and found out that the brain became confused because the new nerves were not growing neatly. Basically, when the scientists touched the monkey’s palm, the brain was telling him that the sensation was coming from a finger.
This was an amazing discovery in itself, but it’s not the end of the story.
When Merzenich opened the monkey’s skull months later, he realized that the brain was not confused anymore since it had rearranged itself to reflect the new nerves. He was able to directly observe the brain’s ability to adapt or what’s now called Neuroplasticity.
Neuroplasticity is defined as the ability of the brain to form and reorganize synaptic connections, especially in response to learning, experience, or injury.
Even though McLuhan was not familiar with neuroplasticity, he intuited it. The continued use of a medium – whether it’s a map, a clock, a typewriter, or the alphabet – has the power to change the physical structure of the brain, and therefore, our behavior and thoughts. And that’s the true message.
But, what’s the message of this new medium we call the internet?
The Brain and The Internet
We already know that our environment and the tools we use have a direct effect on our brain, so what is the daily use of internet and social media doing to our minds and which type of thinking is it promoting?
In his book The Shallows, Nicholas Carr writes:
When we go online, we enter an environment that promotes cursory reading, hurried and distracted thinking, and superficial learning. It’s possible to think deeply while surfing the Net, just as it’s possible to think shallowly while reading a book, but that’s not the type of thinking the technology encourages and rewards.
In a medium where our attention gets bombarded with constant notifications, easy-to-consume videos, flashy ads, and short articles, the brain’s ability to contemplate deeply and concentrate for long periods of time vanishes.
Everything in the web – and especially social media – is carefully designed and tested to keep us hooked for the longest time possible and make the brain addicted, always craving for more.
Yes, internet is an extremely helpful tool that enabled us to democratize information, express ourselves and communicate with our peers, but it’s also robbing us from our capacity to be successful and find fulfillment in life.
Also, experiencing the joy of reading a book or just being deeply immersed in an activity for hours on end – what psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls Flow – is impossible with a brain addicted to constant stimuli.
So, what can we do about it?
Techniques to Change Our Brains (for the better)
If we want to build a brain that is capable of contemplating, thinking deeply, getting into flow states, and feeling satisfied we must consciously shape it. By understanding neuroplasticity as well as what McLuhan taught us about the true power of a medium, we can design a life that leverages the brain’s ability to reconfigure itself in an empowering and healthy way that promotes all of these good aspects.
Let’s go over a few things we can do to achieve this:
Tip #1: Reduce the time spent on the internet
Of course, the first tip is to reduce the time spent on social media. Each time we access the internet we step into an environment that promotes shallow thinking, low concentration spans and social anxiety and if we do this consistently, we end up with a brain with those characteristics.
When we cut our time on social media, we detoxify our brain from it and open up new space for new configurations to emerge, and thus, new behaviors, thoughts, and feelings.
Tip #2: Engage in other activities
It’s not enough to reduce the time we use the internet. We have to replace those hours with activities that will rewire our brain positively. Learning a new instrument or language as well as taking up classes like cooking, dancing, and photography are all activities that will help you in your way to build a laser focused brain.
Tip #3: Read more books
This is the #1 thing we can do if we want to reconfigure our brain. A book is a medium that characterizes by possessing almost no distractions, low levels of stimuli and that promotes long attention spans. Just by the mere act of reading more, we are enhancing our ability to think deeper, concentrate for extended periods of time and contemplate.
If you want to get started with this habit, feel free to check the 7 best books I’ve ever read.
Tip #4: Learn to be bored
If we grab our phones to check for new notifications on every possible occasion, we are teaching our brain a horrible lesson: that we cannot be bored. By resisting the urge to use our phones when we are waiting for a friend or we are enjoying a 5-minute break from work, we configure our brain to cope with boredom – and perhaps even enjoy it. This ability will prove useful if in the future you need to study for an exam, finish a work project or simply read a book for enjoyment.
In this article we’ve gone through a number of topics. From McLuhan’s famous phrase “the medium is the message” to Nietzsche and his typewriter, neuroplasticity and finally the impact that the internet is having in our brain.
Now it’s in your hands to decide which type of brain you want to develop: one that is produces shallow thoughts, cannot concentrate and is unfulfilled or a brain that is capable of learning new abilities fast, contemplate deeply, and be happier.
The choice is yours and you have necessary tools to make one.
Thanks for reading.
Maybe you are also interested in: