Being Connected: The Brain-Internet Interface

The impact of electronic devices on the brain

Today, nothing makes this transition easier than the internet and all its convenient devices.

The reward centre of the brain lights up like a switchboard when a ping or riff signals that someone wants you, no matter what time it is, or what you are doing.

Many psychologists and neuroscientists have been studying the effects on the brain of this irresistible addiction spreading across the planet. Its impact is measurable.

In his Nobel prize winning book Thinking Fast and Slow, psychologist Daniel Kahneman lays out the geography of this interior cranial world, based on decades of testing young Israeli soldiers, and then thousands of university students, and stock market players.

The fact that this research won the Nobel prize, not in psychology but in economics, should give us pause. The revelation it presented was the architecture of human decision-making. It does not matter what level of education you have or what activity engages your attention.

There is an intuitive part of the brain that is entirely influenced by heuristics and bias. We often think of these as preferences. These biases are the product of layers of experience and it is these experiences that reside in the most accessible parts of memory. The more exposure we have to an experience or message, the more easily and quickly it is retrieved.

But we are not aware that this fast brain response influences all our judgements, no matter how important the consequences of the choice we are making. This influence affects all people—even very smart people.

The effort of calculation and deliberative decision-making gets done in the slow thinking part of the brain, and this is where calories get burned with the effort.

A recent study (2014) in the journal PLOS One found that the appeal to multi-task on media—juggling apps, websites, reading and writing programs, music, videos, and images of what friends are doing right this minute, have actually reduced the number of brain cells—or gray matter—involved with thought and emotion control. It pointed out that these are the same structural changes seen in obsessive-compulsive disorder, depression and anxiety disorders. Author Kep Kee Loh conducted this research at University College London, and it reveals what researchers in other parts of the world have found.

Electronic devices bombard the brain’s prefrontal cortex, which is where the real serious decision-making arm-wrestles with the willpower. This part of the brain prevents us from doing stupid things like eating junk food or texting while driving, or taking a drink at a party from someone we don’t know.

Cognitive psychologist Paul Atchley of the University of Kansas says that there is nothing more compelling than social information, and when the brain is activated by a ping in the reward system, your “noodle is hardwired to respond.”

But the prefrontal cortex is not “fully wired” until one’s early 20s, and this is the main reason he worries about the ways heavy device use may be affecting children and adolescents.

The antidote is found in the same place all our best thinking is located. The slow, deliberative part of the brain, which will likely tell you that disciplined use of devices, moderation in all things, and the precautionary principle, will steer you away from the rocks and into a safe harbour.