This Is Your Brain On The Internet

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Synopsis

Is the internet and social media influencing your brain? Documentary filmmaker Tiffany Shlain investigates our changing behaviors in the connected world.

As kids, we all learned what our brains look like on drugs, but what do our brains look like on social media?  The rapid rise and adoption of the Internet, gaming, and social media have no doubt had an impact on how we see the world and interact with one another.  The study of brain plasticity has become a hot topic in recent years, as scientists realize that the brain is not static, and that it never stops reorganizing itself in response to outside stimuli.  In our latest video, documentary filmmaker and Webby Award Founder Tiffany Shlain explores the affect that media and technology have on our brains and human interaction. 

Filmmakers like Shlain and researchers like Dr. Gary Small are pioneers in their discussions and research linking the Internet with brain activity.  In a recent study, Dr. Small observed brain activity in two groups of subjects interacting with a search engine –one that was “net-savvy” and one that was “net naïve”.  The results showed increased brain activity in the experienced netizens, reflecting Shlain’s hypothesis that our online behaviors stimulate more brain systems.   But whether these changes are beneficial or detrimental to humans in the long run, is an ongoing debate.

Researchers have discovered that we can become addicted to the Internet just like we can become addicted to nicotine.  Recent studies have validated the condition known as Internet Addiction Disorder (IAD).  Those with IAD can suffer tremors, shivers, nausea and anxiety.  Try breaking a gamer from their screen mid-level and you’ll immediately get a sense of the hold that this medium has on its addicts.   Other negative effects include lack of sleep and shortened attention spans.  Studies have shown that the average number of sleep hours per night is inversely proportionate to the average number of hours per day spent online.

However living in this connected, media-filled world isn’t all bad.  According to Shlain, we’re in the process of building a global brain, one that will allow for increased ingenuity and learning.  Shlain compares the development of an infant’s brain with this idea of the global brain.  The more parts of the brain you connect in a child’s mind, the more creativity and insights that child will experience.  According to Shlain, the same holds true for our collective conscious.  The online space allows for millions of unique and imaginative minds to share their interests and skills in various communities and niches.  These creative clusters hold the potential to harness creativity and mobilize an army of creative minds into action.  

Shlain also believes that our growing interdependence fosters a universal feeling of empathy.  Our online activity gives us increased exposure to different types of people, leading to a better understanding of one another, and decreasing the amount of ignorance and racism in the world.

Based on our behaviors and observations, it’s easy to speculate on or oversimplify the effects technology has on our neural pathways.  However the brain and technology are both complex organisms that resist simple correlations and causal relationships.   As we continue to intertwine technology and social media with our lives, we should consider the scientific effects these new behaviors have on our brain.   For us to harness this technology in the best way we need a better understanding of its impact.

To learn more about our connected world, watch the latest EPIPHANY episode with Tiffany Shlain below.

Photo Credit: Gigandet X, Hagmann P, Kurant M, Cammoun L, Meuli R, et al. (2008) Estimating the Confidence Level of White Matter Connections Obtained with MRI Tractography. PLoS ONE 3(12): e4006.

Tags: arts, brain research, empathy, social media, technology

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