brain connections science commentary

How the Internet Changes Our Brain

Our attention spans have ... um, something
by T.J. Nelson

science commentary

W ay back in 2008, Nicholas Carr of The Atlantic asked if Google was making us stupid. Today, seven years later, after careful research, scientists have answered the question, and the answer is: well, duh.

Yes, our attention spans have ... um, something. Twitter. The Internet has given us instantaneous access to misinformation.

Well ... not quite instantaneous, if you use Comcast as I do, but you get the idea. There are lots of theories about twitch response and memory laziness, but it's really the result of trying to drink information through the firehose of a fiber running at T3 speeds. We no longer drink the wisdom of our forebears; the illusions of the present are now blasted at us. So we skim, partly because we think the writer is going to tell us stuff we already know, and partly because we know most of it is going to be mindless dreck.

That forces us bloggers to change our writing style: More interesting. Shorter sentences. Fewer verbs. Rapid changes of subject matter. If somebody from 1960 tried to read a typical blog, it would just look like gibberish. Our language is changing to gibberish. And we're adapting to that, which is why so many claim to be unable to read War and Peace anymore. People blast through articles, seeing not what's there but what they expect to see.

All those blinking, flickering animated JavaScript advertisements, the overlapping text boxes which disappear when you mouse over them, and other distracting features probably contribute too: it's hard to focus deeply on something that's likely to disappear, reformat itself, or be covered up by a pop-up at any moment.

I mention this because of a recent article claiming that conservatives are dying out because, on average, they're older than liberals. To me, that's proof that the Internet makes you unable to comprehend basic statistics.

That article, of course, was just a way to flip around Churchill's famous comment that liberals—paraphrasing here—are mostly a bunch of high-strung wacked-out kids who turn into conservative adults with mortgages and 2.01 sex-crazed teenagers—but it also tells us a lot about adolescents and brain development.

In a recent study [1] it was found that Internet Gaming Disorder (IGD) is associated with increased myelination in the neuronal tracts in the right side of the frontal lobes. Now, that doesn't sound too bad—myelination is good, and more myelination is better. It means the signals travel faster. But what's scary is they had to screen 181 kids to find 58 without psychiatric co-morbidity. If that's true, what it means is that 2/3 of Internet gamers have some kind of psychiatric problem. Which, admittedly, some of us probably already suspected.

The inability of Internet users to concentrate while reading isn't usually a reduction in intelligence. It's distraction—thinking about how to comment on the article or whether to Tweet it, and what the result would be, instead of the article itself. These verbal ideas tie up the neurons that would be used for understanding the printed text.

But where there's positive feedback, there's addiction. And there we find something ‘interesting,’ as my dentist used to say. Internet addiction is associated with reduced thickness in the orbitofrontal cortex [2], which is the area responsible for mature behaviors like social responsibility, decision-making, and inhibitory self-control. It's one of the areas strongly affected in Alzheimer's disease. Internet addiction also causes abnormal dopamine regulation of the prefrontal cortex [3]. Cell phone addiction, which is more prevalent in females, has the same effects.

What's interesting is that the same general area—the right ventromedial prefrontal cortex—is the part of your brain that recognizes sarcasm. This region isn't fully developed in young people. So says an article in the May 2005 issue of Neuropsychology [4] (And what an interesting article it is.) Irony is detected in roughly the same area, in the right and posterior medial prefrontal and right temporal regions [5,6].

You will be fascinated to learn, I'm sure, that there is such a thing as the Metaphoric and Sarcastic Scenario Test, which consists of, you guessed it, questions about metaphoric and sarcastic scenarios, and that people with Alzheimer's disease have difficulty recognizing sarcasm [7]. Even aged normal controls had difficulty. It's one more thing we can all look forward to when we get older.

Recognizing sarcasm requires second-order theory of mind (ToM), while metaphor comprehension only requires first-order theory of mind, which is lost in amnesic mild cognitive impairment[8]. First-order theory of mind is the ability to imagine another person's thoughts. This involves creating a mental model of the other person's consciousness. Second-order theory of mind is the ability to infer what somebody else thinks about another person's thoughts. These abilities are important because they allow us to be compassionate, tell lies, and be sarcastic: the things that make us social beings and create our sense of right and wrong.

(It goes all the way up to ninth-order theory of mind, which is the ability to infer what a reader of the wife of a reader of the Daily Mail will think about an article written about a general who reads a report about somebody who was arrested for releasing a report that talked about the computer transcript created from a bug somebody planted in your brother in law's apartment after he talked about you. After that, the theory just gets silly.)

Autistic patients may have a functional deficit in these abilities. Theory of mind is why normal people spend so much time looking at each other's eyes, and autistic individuals, whose brains develop more slowly, don't. Individuals with Asperger's syndrome don't get second-order ToM (i.e., sarcasm) until age 9 on average. Impaired ToM was also found in schizophrenic patients[9], but surprisingly, psychopathic criminals were better than non-psychopathic criminals[10]. They were also better at recognizing basic emotions; ToM is adaptive for psychopaths[11], which is why your boss is so good at manipulating you.

All behavior is communication, and all communication is advertising—either of products, ideologies, or oneself— and the Internet is no exception, with its slogans, jingles, and vastly simplified, and mostly (it sometimes seems) wrong facts. But the above studies suggest it also interferes with brain maturation, perhaps turning us into perpetual children, maybe even making us quasi-autistic and therefore less able to appreciate sarcasm and irony. Maybe that's why people on the Internet are so easily outraged by harmless irony-laden jokes, and why they have such short attention spans.

Anybody who's watched somebody walk into a telephone pole while texting knows that, sadly, not all of them are geniuses to start with. But if the Internet's making you worse, well, the solution is obvious: just ... oh look, a chipmunk!


[1] Addict Biol. 2015 Apr 20. White matter connectivity and Internet gaming disorder. Jeong BS, Han DH, Kim SM, Lee SW, Renshaw PF. link

[2] Behav Brain Funct. 2013 Mar 12;9:11. Reduced orbitofrontal cortical thickness in male adolescents with internet addiction. Hong SB, Kim JW, Choi EJ, Kim HH, Suh JE, Kim CD, Klauser P, Whittle S, Yücel M, Pantelis C, Yi SH. link

[3] Biomed Res Int. 2015;2015:378675. Molecular and Functional Imaging of Internet Addiction. Zhu Y, Zhang H, Tian M. link

[4] The neuroanatomical basis of understanding sarcasm and its relationship to social cognition. Shamay-Tsoory SG, Tomer R, Aharon-Peretz J. Neuropsychology. 2005 May;19(3):288-300. link

[5] PLoS One. 2013 Sep 10;8(9):e74224. Isn't it ironic? Neural correlates of irony comprehension in schizophrenia. Rapp AM, Langohr K, Mutschler DE, Klingberg S, Wild B, Erb M. link

[6] Brain Res. 2010 Jan 13;1308:114-23. Epub 2009 Oct 22. Neural substrates of irony comprehension: A functional MRI study. Shibata M, Toyomura A, Itoh H, Abe J. link

[7] Am J Alzheimers Dis Other Demen. 2013 Feb;28(1):69-74. Communicative competence in Alzheimer's disease: metaphor and sarcasm comprehension. Maki Y, Yamaguchi T, Koeda T, Yamaguchi H.

[8] Neuropsychologia. 2010 Apr;48(5):1181-91. Theory of mind deficits in patients with acquired brain injury: a quantitative review. Martín-Rodríguez JF, León-Carrión J. link

[9] Psychol Med. 2001 Feb;31(2):207-20. Theory of mind impairments in schizophrenia: symptomatology, severity and specificity. Pickup GJ, Frith CD. link

[10] Int J Law Psychiatry. 2015 Examining the influence of psychopathy, hostility biases, and automatic processing on criminal offenders' Theory of Mind. Nentjes L, Bernstein D, Arntz A, van Breukelen G, Slaats M. link

[11] Psychol Med. 2004 Aug;34(6):1093-102. Theory of mind and mentalizing ability in antisocial personality disorders with and without psychopathy. Dolan M, Fullam R. link

See also:

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