What is the Internet doing to our Brains?

August 29, 2011

Not so long ago, a special birthday took place. On the 6th of August 2011, the Internet celebrated 20 years of life. It could be argued that the Internet has changed everyone’s life, in one way or another. The benefits of the Internet are endless, and when you consider the countless number of businesses that have thrived online, the explosion of social networking and the huge number of news stories that came to life online before anywhere else, it’s easy to want to join in with the birthday celebrations.

Despite this, there is a more sinister side to the online world. In his recent book, the Shallows, Nicholas Carr urges caution to all who now consume online media on a daily basis. Carr argues that each media we consume has a more powerful impact on us than we think. Drawing on philosophy and neuroscience, Carr argues that the media we consume are so powerful, that they actually affect how our brains are wired.

Any neuroscientist will tell you that the brain is changing on a continual basis, adapting to our environment, so that we can go about our daily lives in the most efficient way possible. Everything we do has an effect – this is known as learning. Books, for example, not only tell stories, but also enable focused attention which encourages creativity through deeper thinking. The Internet, on the other hand, has a much different effect. Because of the ease of moving between sites and the endless amount of information available, the Internet is bringing about a loss of concentration and focus. Carr suggests that the Internet is making us think less.

I’m not so sure. I’d certainly doubt anyone working in media would argue that the Internet is making them think less. The seemingly endless number of ways to advertise online need to be given careful thought and consideration before a campaign is planned. The ways of reaching your target audience are vast, and include demographic, contextual and behavioural opportunities. Advertising online is transparent and accountable, so there are numerous ways of assessing how effective an online campaign is. This requires not only time, but also thought, and perhaps surprisingly, a level of creativity.

Beyond advertising, I’m not convinced that the Internet is making us lazy. In a previous post, the idea of the ‘cognitive surplus’ was discussed. People are no longer passively consuming media, but are interacting with brands and with others through opportunities provided online.

Books are still being read, TV is still being watched. The Internet plays a big role in all of our lives, and perhaps our brains are just finding a way of using it best.



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