The Internet Is Changing Your Brain, Like Everything Else



With some regularity, the media will work itself and audiences into a tizzy over the way Thing X—some new technology, an online activity, a way of gathering information—"changes the brain". With great magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) technology comes great opportunity for scaremongering backed by pretty visual aids. And so we see how those orange splotches mean social media causes brain changes, and those yellow patches mean online gaming causes brain changes, and so on. This isn't wrong, per se—these new technologies and means of communication are almost certainly changing our brains in myriad ways. But it's wrong to see this as a negative, or even an anomaly. The human brain is shaped continually throughout life. Everything changes the brain.

Learning changes the brain. Fatherhood changes the brain. Curiosity, sugar, smoking, art, overeating, psychotherapydrug addiction, chronic stress, yogaliving in an urban environment, antidepressants, inactivity, anorexiachildhood trauma, fish oil, tanning, multitasking, and meditation change the brain—some in good ways, some in bad ways, and some in ways we don't yet understand. Some in ways that are reversible, others not so much.

Fast Company's Jason Feifer talked to UCLA neuroscientist Gary Small about this for the magazine's November issue:   

"You're the third journalist I've talked to today," (Small) says when I call to learn more. He explains the results like this: "The brain is a very responsive organ. What you expose it to will alter its structure and its function."

So, I ask, what would have happened if that car-fearing dean from Princeton had access to an MRI machine? Had he been able to watch the brains of drivers and nondrivers, would he have seen the same neural activity that Small saw in his Internet experiment?

"You'd see the same pattern, probably. Yeah," Small says.

Read Feifer's whole piece for a nice takedown of technological panics aided by poorly-interpreted science and how this panic "stalls progress that should unfold naturally from our connectivity" and leads government officials to focus more on technological risks than opportunities.

Reason Senior Editor Jacob Sullum looked more at neuroimaging ambiguities here. And in Reason's March 2014 issue, Stanton Peele wrote about how "neuroreductionism" confuses issues surrounding brain scans, hypersexuality, and other forms of addiction. 

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  1. Everything changes your brain, and it also seems that everything causes certain kinds of people to shit their pants over it. The pants-shitters will never stop shitting their pants over anything new. It’s annoying, but the pants-shitters have always been with us, shitting their pants, and they probably always will be with us. Shitting their pants.

    1. But did they shit their pants?

      1. Explosively. I mean, they are pants-shitters after all.

    2. I’ve heard shitting your pants changes the brain.

      1. Oh no! That could cause an explosively pants-shitting feedback loop! Everyone steer clear of pants-shitters! Even more than usual!

    3. Cat shit changes your brain. ASK ME HOW I KNOW

      1. I’m guessing you know because you freebased some. It just seems like the kind of thing you’d do.

  2. my friend’s sister makes $80 /hr on the computer . She has been fired for five months but last month her income was $15240 just working on the computer for a few hours. see here now ……


  3. This reminds me of that huckster who gave a TEDx talk about how internet porn has “changed” the brains of young men with negative effects. While the effect of the increased availability of sexually stimulating images is something worthy of study within many disciplines; when one delves into the fora located at it’s apparent that this particular website is nothing more than an “ex-gay” group dressed up in a neuroscientist’s lab coat. Approximately half the posts are something around the general theme of “I downloaded porn and saw a butt, which gave me a boner. But then the camera panned out and I saw it was a dude’s butt. And I still had a boner. INTERNET PORN TURNED ME GAY!” Furthermore the “strategies” suggested for combating the ill effects of this brain-changing homo-converting porn are nothing more than the 21st century equivalents of cold showers and brisk walks.

    Indeed, while it is known that our empirical experiences are reflected in changes within the neurological structure of our brains, we know so little of the mechanisms of how those neurological structures translate into consciousness that we should take any of these reports filtered down through the science reporters with a grain, nay, a heap of salt.

    1. My understanding is that pretty much anyone can talk at a TEDx event. It’s up to the party organization the event to decide who presents.

    2. I saw porn that had a dick in it and I still got excited. WHAT DO I DO?

      1. Watch lesbian porn. I have no idea if this “helps” or not, but its my default advice for most situations.

    3. dressed up in a neuroscientist’s lab coat

      At this point I’m starting to think that much of what falls under the aegis of neuroscience is really just modern day phrenology.

      The fact that a significant subset of the study is devoted to proving metaphysical and philosophical concepts, not, you know, empirical study and experimentation doesn’t lend much credibility to it in my eyes.

  4. Living changes your brain, so ban it.

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