Brainfluence: How the Digital World Shapes Our Brain
By Carolin Fischer
When was the last time you looked at your smartphone? Or are you even reading this text on your smartphone right now? In any case, you are using the internet — as are around 417 million other people in North America (2021, statista.com). On average, we spend almost four hours a day online. This is not surprising, as we use the internet and our smartphones in most situations these days: from the alarm clock going off in the morning, to checking the weather, reading the news or buying a ticket to the train. This is how it goes throughout our everyday life, which has become much more fast-paced in recent years thanks to the internet and, especially, the use of smartphones.
But how does this environmental change affect our brain? Whether there are effects on our brain is more or less a given, because every stimulus shapes our brain in a certain way. This process is called neuroplasticity, which is particularly pronounced in children and young people.
[…] the increased dexterity caused by smartphones also leaves its mark on our brains. Smartphone users show increased activity in the somatosensory cortex […]
One of the best-known studies of neuronal plasticity in our everyday lives is the characteristic change in the somatosensory cortex of musicians who play string instruments, such as violin or guitar. The somatosensory cortex is used for the central processing of haptic stimuli, whereby each part of the body is processed in a specific cortical region. In musicians, the movement of the fingers is represented by a larger somatosensory area than in non-musicians (Pantev et al., 2001). Similarly to what happens to musicians, the increased dexterity caused by smartphones also leaves its mark on our brains. Smartphone users show increased activity in the somatosensory cortex when certain movements are performed with the thumb, index or middle finger (Gindrat et al., 2015). The increased activity is even proportional to the frequency of smartphone use. Interestingly, this correlation is especially true for the movement of the thumb, which is particularly active due to the typical scrolling movement we do when using our phones.
Digital media have become an indispensable part of our everyday working lives. While reading an article with several hyperlinks and listening to music, one receives email notifications and additional Skype calls. We use a wide variety of digital media at the same time and are thus exposed to an endless flow of information. But does this media-multitasking actually make us more efficient? A study from Stanford University found that people who frequently perform media-multitasking scored lower on various cognitive tests than subjects who were less frequently exposed to such multitasking. For example, the multitaskers performed worse in a task called “switching test”. In this test, subjects had to repeatedly switch between two tasks, and multitaskers were more easily distracted by irrelevant stimuli (Ophir et al., 2009). The ability to perform tasks attentively is thus reduced in media-multitaskers and, according to researchers, this can also be detected structurally in the brain. Multitaskers show reduced grey matter density in the anterior cingulate cortex, a brain region related to our attention (Loh and Kanai, 2014). Against the expectations that the use of all kinds of media makes us more efficient, they mainly cause us to be more easily distracted and to carry out tasks less efficiently.
Knowing that we have theoretically unlimited access to information through the internet, we find it harder to remember it.
The use of digital media not only leads to structural changes — it also changes the way the brain processes information. The processing of visual stimuli in the brain normally follows two main pathways. The ventral pathway serves to recognize objects and is therefore also called the “what pathway”. The dorsal pathway, on the other hand, serves to perceive positions and is called the “where pathway” (Goodale and Milner, 1992). When we research information using a printed version of an encyclopaedia, our brains process this information in both the ventral and dorsal pathways. Using functional magnetic resonance imaging, scientists showed that, when people look for information via the internet, the activity of the dorsal pathway is unchanged, but there is reduced activity in the ventral pathway (Dong and Potenza, 2015). This reduced activity of the “what pathway” is particularly interesting considering that subjects were less able to remember information researched from the internet than when using a book. This phenomenon was already described in 2011 by the psychologist Betsy Sparrow as the Google effect (Sparrow et al., 2011). Knowing that we have theoretically unlimited access to information through the internet, we find it harder to remember it.
These examples show very well that digitalization not only influences our everyday life, but the actual structure and function of our brain as well.
But why do we always reach for our smartphones — sometimes even unconsciously? What makes us keep scrolling through the Instagram feed in search of news and what triggers a “like” in our brain? The neurotransmitter dopamine, which is also known as the “happiness neurotransmitter”, is mainly responsible for this. When dopamine is released, we feel good and are motivated to repeat the behaviour that led to this feeling (Arias-Carrián et al., 2010). For example, we release dopamine when we eat and also during social interactions. In this context, the smartphone represents for us an endless resource of social interactions and thus a possible source of a dopamine kick. That is why we will reach for it again and again. This behavioural pattern is reminiscent of operant conditioning, a term coined by the behavioral researcher B. F. Skinner. In Skinner’s experiment, rats learned that they would receive a reward in the form of food if they pressed a lever, which made the rats press the lever more and more often (Skinner, 1963). And indeed, companies design their apps according to Skinner’s principles, so that we humans are also willing to push the “digital lever” again and again.
These various studies could give the impression that our brains are not prepared for the rapid digitalization and that we are unable to process the unlimited flow of information. However, it is rather the case that our way of information processing is changing. The benefits of digitalization have never been more evident than in 2020, when social distancing came to dominate our everyday lives. Through digital media, most of us could still work and, above all, meet friends and family at least virtually on the screen. Nevertheless, from time to time you can put your smartphone aside, because real life offers endless possibilities for a potential dopamine kick.
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M. R. Hoehe and F. Thibaut, “Going digital: How technology use may influence human brains and behavior,” Dialogues Clin. Neurosci., vol. 22, no. 2, pp. 93–97, 2020.
J. Firth et al., “The ‘online brain’: how the Internet may be changing our cognition,” World Psychiatry, vol. 18, no. 2, pp. 119–129, Jun. 2019.
Written and Illustrated by Carolin Fischer
Edited by Mariella Careaga and Talia Oughourlian
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