Written by Ivette Moutzouris
A few decades ago studies in Neuroscience believed that the brain was hardwired, that is that the way a person thought and acted was largely dependent on genetics and childhood experiences and therefore there were limitations on what you could change. A breakthrough in research in the late 1960’s led by neuroscientist, Merzenich, proved otherwise. He found that the brain could be restructured at a cellular level which proved that it was ‘plastic’ and not hardwired. Since his initial experiments many other experiments were conducted which continued to provide strong evidence for the neuroplasticity of the brain.
So what does this actually all mean and how does it affect us?
Well it means that we can re-program the brain in a sense by exposing it to new information consistently. As we do this we are creating new connections in our brains that over time become deeper connections. What we also know is that if neurons don’t repeatedly fire together then the information gets lost. So in a sense you can learn new behaviours and ways of thinking and unlearn old ones. This does deteriorate somewhat as we get older but we can still learn new things that change our neuron connections, basically the saying that ‘An old dog can’t learn new tricks’ is not true. This is of course very good news because it gives us hope when we are wanting to change behavior or thinking patterns that we feel are set in.
Another big change that has occurred in the last couple of decades is the use of the internet to obtain information and connect with others socially. On a surface level the internet has connected our world in regards to information and how quickly we obtain it and this has been very useful. It does however come with a new set of challenges which appear to be affecting the way that our brains are wiring and how we live our lives. The following are a few of the changes we have noticed.
Firstly, the amount of time we spend on the internet has increased dramatically. This is partly because the internet now allows us to do practically everything, for example, watch television, obtain information, socialize, learn new skills and so on. A research study in 2009 showed that North American young adults spend more than 19 hours a week online and this figure excludes time spend texting on phones and other devices. I’m sure that this figure would be much higher now. Surprisingly TV time has not reduced as a result but has actually increased which means a large proportion of the week is spent in front of a screen!. How does this shift in how we spend our time affect us? It means that we are less active, less time spent outdoors, less time spent being creative. It reduces the serotonin levels in our brain which needs to be higher in order to feel emotionally healthy. We need to connect more with the real world and less with the world from our screens. About 15 years ago I read an article about teenagers in Korea and China who were being hospitalized because of their addictive behaviours with internet usage. They were neglecting to eat regularly, sleep, maintain any form of physical activity and rarely spent time in the sun. Clearly this is unhealthy and even though it is an extreme example it does illustrate clearly what is being given up at the expense of time on the internet. We need the balance of a variety of activities in our week to help us maintain mental, physical, emotional and spiritual health. It is important to have a holistic approach when It comes to our health and well-being.
Another problem that scientists and psychologists has noticed as an outcome of internet use is the way our brain is learning to process information. It appears that we are learning to process quick and scattered information which produces distracted thinking. Even when we are trying to stay focused there seems to be an array of alerts, advertisements and visual interruptions. You combine this with quick typing, instant responding, and constant swiping and you end up with someone who has disjointed thinking and the brain is trying to juggle this all at once. It’s exhausting just thinking about this! Which brings me to another point, the internet does not encourage reflective thinking.
As mentioned earlier the brain is soft-wired which means that if we choose to spend less time on the internet and more time stimulating our brains in a variety of ways then we can learn to be more attentive again. Being more attentive increases capacity to reflect which enhances problem solving skills and helps with regulating emotions. I would suggest practicing Mindfulness exercises/activities daily as a way of learning to slow down and minimize scattered thinking, and increase reflection. The outcome of this is a calmer self.
Another issue which has evolved as a consequence of continued internet use is the obsession with the self. The social aspect of the internet encourages self- promotion. In moderation this may not be a big issue but since it appears that moderation is occurring less with many internet users then we have to address the overall affect this is having. Nicholas Carr an author and researcher into this topic says that we are getting our psychological and social nourishment from the internet. He describes how the internet delivers positive reinforcements in the form of ‘likes’, ‘clicks’, ‘comments’ and so on which tempts the user to continue to advertise their thoughts, pictures, comments. As mentioned earlier if this was occurring only occasionally it wouldn’t have any negative effects but it appears that people are learning to depend on and even live through their profiles. For some it’s even been used to create an alternate reality where they portray a version of themselves that is far from the reality. For a lot of younger users it causes anxiety if they feel that they are not up to date and included in social interactions. The internet can feed addictive behavior, impulsivity and an obsession with the self. It allows people to cross boundaries they might not usually contemplate, such as expression of offensive thoughts without inhibition as well as sending sexualized images of themselves just to name a few. With continued exposure to this an individual not only becomes desensitized to what is healthy and appropriate but it can also affect their view of yourselves. Basically you are training yourself to believe that your worth and value as a person is based on likes, images and responses.
As a response to this I would suggest that we learn to find value in ourselves and others by having real life relationships and connecting with each other on a personal level. I would also encourage challenging yourself to spend less time surfing the net, commenting, posting and so on. Instead spend more time reading, educating yourself, exploring your world, have mindful conversations off screen and basically just live life in your real world.
If you would like to read more on this topic I would suggest the following :
“What the internet is doing to our brains- The Shallows”, by Nicholas Carr, 2011.
“Virtually You -The Dangerous Powers of the E-Personality”, by Elias ABoujaoude, 2011.