What the Internet Does to Your Brain


– Remember when our
parents used to tell us that video games would rot our brains? Well, turns out they
were wrong about that. Video games won’t rot your brain and in some cases, it can actually be
beneficial to play them. However if your particular
set of parental units happened to use the term warp your brain, well, then they might have
been on the right track. In the last few decades, brain scientists have learned a lot about something called neuroplasticity. Essentially the brain changes
its physical configuration in response to the tasks you give it and the stimuli you expose it to. This can include something
as simple as using a clock to something as complex
as playing a video game. And it can also include
using the internet. Over the past few years, I’ve had this sneaking suspicion that my daily internet use
was having subtle effects on the way that I think. I used to be able to
sit and immerse myself in a book for hours but now that task is a lot harder. I often daydream or get
caught being distracted. And I seem to remember being
bored a lot when I was a kid but now boredom almost
never creeps into my life. There’s always something
grabbing for my attention and it turns out that this
suspicion wasn’t misplaced. Like the clock and the video game and countless other technologies, the internet quietly changes the structure of our brains as we use it and not always in ways that are positive. The brain’s process of rewiring itself works a bit like taping over a VHS tape. As the psychiatrist Norman Doidge puts it, “if we stop exercising our mental skills, “we do not just forget them. “The brain map space for those skills,” such as deep book reading, “is turned over to the
skills we practice instead,” such as browsing endless
page of the dankest memes. So today let’s explore just how the internet affects our brains and how we can prevent,
or at least reverse, its most harmful changes. (80s synth music) In the late 1800s, the philosopher Friedrich
Nietzsche’s eyesight began to fail him and this brought with it
a terrible consequence. It made it almost
impossible for him to write. The act of focusing his eyes on a page gave him terrible headaches and he worried that he would have to give up the practice altogether. But something saved him and
that something was called the Malling-Hansen writing ball. Now as weird as this thing looks, it was actually the fastest
typewriter ever built back when it was released and it also saved
Nietzsche’s writing career. Once he learned to touch type with it, he could write once more, albeit now with his eyes closed. The writing ball didn’t just rescue Nietzsche’s ability to write though. It also changed the
character of his output. One of his close friends at the time noted that Nietzsche’s writing
took on a new forcefulness, that it became tighter, and
Nietzsche himself agreed writing “you are right. “Our writing equipment takes part “in the forming of our thoughts.” And it’s not just our writing
equipment that does this. In the book The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains, which was actually the
primary source for this video, the author Nicholas Carr demonstrates how nearly all the technology we use can cause real physical
changes within our brains. For example, one experiment
that was done on a violin player showed the area of their sensor cortexes that controlled their fingering hands was actually much larger
than that of a control group who had never played a
musical instrument before. But it’s not just the
physical use of tools that can cause these changes. Even a purely mental activity, and Tony, can you make a
hammer float here in the air with your editing skills? Right, let’s try it again. Even a purely mental
activity shaped by technology can do the same thing. Another experiment done
on London cab drivers found that compared to a control group, the area of the drivers’ brains
called posterior hippocampus was much larger than normal. And as you might expect, this is an area of the
brain that plays a huge part in helping us understand
our physical surroundings. Now, you wouldn’t be wrong to point out that it’s no big surprise a cab driver’s brain
would adapt to the task of navigating a complex
web of city streets when that’s what they
spend all day long doing. But other technologies have far subtler and further-reaching effects. Before the invention of the clock, people perceived time
in a very different way than we do today. To them, time flowed
like a stream of water and the transition from
one moment to the next was seamless and imperceptible. Once we started tracking time
though, that all changed. When we invented the first
time-keeping devices, we changed our conception of time itself. Instead of being an unbroken stream, time became a series of
discreet individual units and as clocks became
more and more accurate, those units got smaller and more precise. Suddenly we were thinking
in terms of hours and then minutes and eventually seconds. And we also became
fixated on productivity. How much time did we spend? How much time have we wasted? – Look at the time! – But there was a larger effect as well. Once we started looking at time as a construct made up of small parts, that thinking got extended
to everything else. As Carr writes, “once the
clock had redefined time “as a series of units of equal duration, “our minds began to stress
the methodical mental work “of division and measurement. “We began to see, in all
things and phenomena, “the pieces that composed the whole. “The clock’s methodical
ticking helped bring into being “the scientific mind
and the scientific man.” And if the clock made a big
change to the way that we think, then writing made an even bigger one. Now, this technology
took thousands of years to progress through the necessary stages. The shift from logographic
characters to phonetic alphabets, the addition of spacing between words, and the invention of the Gutenberg press, just to name a few. But eventually this technology caused huge shifts in our behavior. Once the general
population became literate, they started to read. – Whatchu readin’ for? – And not just that, they
started to read silently for long periods of time and this is a bigger deal
than you might think. Carr writes “to read a book “was to practice an
unnatural process of thought, “one that demanded
sustained, unbroken attention “to a single, static object.” And for people to do this, they had to forge neuro pathways that would allow them to
apply top-down control over their attention. Top-down control is something that has to be learned in practice. Naturally, we’re wired
for bottom-up attention. Our senses are finely
tuned to pick up changes in our environment and our attention
naturally drifts to them. It’s constantly shifting. Now, this is great for
noticing a lurking tiger or a potential source of food but it’s not so great for
deep analytical reading. It just doesn’t allow for that type of prolonged,
intense concentration that’s necessary for
parsing complex ideas. And through the act of reading, we developed a new type
of attentional control, one that was far better
suited to that task. But now it seems like we’re
starting to lose that ability. (energetic music) So let’s revisit that experiment with the London cab
drivers again for a second because there’s something
that I didn’t mention. In addition to the enlargement
of the posterior hippocampus, the researchers also found a change in the anterior hippocampus. It shrank and in further tests, they found that that shrinking may have actually harmed
the cab drivers’ ability to perform on other memorization tasks. Norman Doidge’s words
come back to mind here. When we stop using a certain skill, the neuro pathways that used to support it get reconfigured to enhance
the skills that we do use. As the psychiatrist
Jeffrey Schwartz puts it, “it’s survival of the busiest” and I’m sure you can
see where this is going, unless, of course, you’ve
already gotten distracted and clicked away from this video, which just makes you an
example of my next point. The technology that we now
spend most of our time using, the internet, definitely
doesn’t do anything to encourage the use of the neuro pathways that are devoted to
top-down attentional control and long-term concentration
on a single source. As Carr puts it, “our use of the internet
involves many paradoxes, “but the one that promises “to have the greatest long-term influence “over how we think is this one.” The net seizes our attention
only to scatter it. In other words, the internet promotes
distractedness and multi-tasking. At almost all times, we are surrounded by multiple
internet-connected devices and even on a single computer, you can be watching a video, have 18 different tabs
open at the same time, being playing Spotify in the background, and be getting messages
on iMessage and Slack at the same time. Oh, and also playing Overwatch
in the other monitor. Can’t forget about that one. Moreover, the internet rewards this type of distracted behavior. It’s not just our frequent
use of this technology that gives it such a powerful ability to shape our neuro pathways. It’s also the fact that it offers constant, quick dopamine hits. It constantly stimulates the
reward loop inside our heads. The result is that the
internet promotes the return to our natural, bottom-up
state of attentional control. There’s always something new happening, somewhere else to shift your focus. And just like with those
London cab drivers, your brain has to give something up. The more time you allow the internet to promote this distracted, frenzied style of consuming information, the less time you spend
deeply concentrated on singular tasks and as a result, the less able you are to call up that deep concentration
when you really need it. So what can we do about this? Are we just stuck in a downward spiral, doomed to end up like
the people in Idiocracy? – Brawndo’s got electrolytes. – Or can we reverse this trend? (80s synth music) Where have you been Marty, said Bagman. Why weren’t you at the match? Your elf was saving you a seat too. Gulping gargoyles! Oh, there’s more to the video. I thought we were done. Uh, okay, I guess we’re
at the part of the video where I give you 10 ideas for
reclaiming your attention. Yeah, I did write that part in the script. Okay, before we get into this, remember, it is survival of the busiest. The key isn’t to just
stop using the internet, which is, as it turns out,
a pretty useful invention. Instead, it’s to reduce the activities that cause the undesirable changes and to replace them with activities that promote the neurological changes that you actually want to see. And this could mean that you
don’t even have to reduce the amount of time you spend
on the internet at all. After all, there’s plenty
of long form content on the internet. There’s long articles, there’s long video essays like this one, and plenty of other deep content. Plus with apps like Kindle Cloud Reader and projects like the Gutenberg Press, you can literally read millions of books from any internet-connected device but there is a caveat here. Remember the brain seeks out rewards and that the internet
tends to dole out the ones that promote distracted thinking. If you’re reading a print book with your phone in the other room, it’s pretty easy to resist the temptation to send a tweet or check your email but it’s a very different story if you’re reading the exact same book on an internet-connected iPad. So we need to do two different things. Number one, promote the healthy activities that build that top-down
attentional control and number two, make some
environmental changes that make it easier to shake
our bad internet habits. So here are some ideas for
mission number one to start. First, just read more books and yeah, there’s gonna
be people out there who make the argument that
books are full of filler, they’re a waste of time, and you can get the same salient points by going over to Google and
finding a well-written summary. But that argument isn’t relevant right now because in this case, the
goal of reading a book is to promote deep,
long-term concentration on one singular task. Second, spend time working
without the internet and yes, I know you feel
like you need the internet but honestly, a lot of my best research has come from finding
books in the library. And if I’m being even
more honest with myself, a lot of my work, especially writing once I
have all my research material and video editing, doesn’t
require the internet at all. Now, my brain tells me that it does but this actually a sign that I’ve become dependent on the internet and if anything, I
should take it as a sign that I need to let that
neuro pattern fade a bit. Three, have more in-depth,
in-person conversations. Go out to dinner with
your friends more often and when you do, do not put
your phone on the table. Keep it in your pocket
or don’t bring it at all. Four, watch more movies and this has the exact
same goal as reading books. You’re paying attention
to one piece of cinema for about two hours and again, don’t bring your
phone into the experience. You don’t need to live
tweet Lord of the Rings. Finally, number five, commit
to longer periods of time doing one thing. Go outside and ride your
bike for a full hour or practice an instrument
for 30 full minutes. Now, if you’re like a lot of people, you probably feel too guilty
to let yourself do these things ’cause you feel like you
have a lot of work to do and if you’re in that boat,
I’ve got a suggestion for you. Install a program on your
computer called RescueTime. This will track the time that you spend on different apps and websites and I bet after a few
days of data gathering, you’re gonna see that
all your little trips to Twitter and Instagram and all your other little
distracting websites actually add up to more
time throughout the day than that hour you
would’ve spent on the bike. And that just leaves us
with mission number two, those environmental changes. And the first one is going to
deal with, naturally, YouTube since we are on YouTube right now. When you’re watching videos on YouTube, watch them in full screen. Now, for almost my entire
YouTube viewing life, I never did this and it doesn’t really make
sense on the surface, right? Because if you put a video at
full screen, it looks better. It takes up the entire monitor. But the reason becomes pretty clear once you understand neuroplasticity and our reward-seeking behavior and the way that YouTube is designed. Though I’m ostensibly watching
the video I clicked on, part of my brain is also itching
to click on something else that I see over in the sidebar. And going into full screen, well, that would take away my
very interesting links. Now, you can go even further with this, and I’m not gonna talk too much about it, but in the description down below, I have linked to a little
snippet of CSS that you can use to actually blur out all the videos on the YouTube homepage and in the sidebar so if you don’t want to use full screen, you could try that trick as well. But to move onto item number two here, read articles in reader mode. The fact of the matter is
that most websites today are designed with lots of
distracting UI elements, like popups and sidebars
and all kinds of other stuff that is designed to keep you
clicking from page to page. But you can get rid of all these elements by using reader mode. Now, Safari in iOS and Chrome for Android both have built-in reader modes, which just isolate all the content and let you see just
what you came to read. And on the desktop front, Firefox, Microsoft Edge, and Safari have had them built in for years and as of this week,
Chrome has one as well. You’re gonna want to
make sure you are updated to the latest version, Chrome 75 at least, and you’re also gonna have to go into the experimental flag
section to turn it on. Once you have done that, it is time to move onto item number three, which is to limit the time you spend on distraction-heavy parts of the internet to a certain window during the day. So instead of making frequent trips to Twitter or Instagram or Deviant Art or whatever you like to
go to during the day, restrict it and compress it into maybe just a one-hour period and this is actually
pretty easy to accomplish. Now, you could just
unplug your ethernet cable or disable your wifi while
you’re not using those sites, but you could also get
a little more subtle, a little more control over the process by using a website-blocking app
like Freedom or Cold Turkey. And additionally, item number four here, there are other tools you can use to make social media
sites less distracting. For example, I’ve been using a plug-in called News Feed Eradicator to destroy my news feed on
Facebook for a long time. And for tweeting, there are free tweet-scheduling
apps like Buffer, which will allow you to
tweet to your heart’s content without actually opening Twitter app and getting sucked into the feed there. Finally, number five, hide the visual clutter on your desktop. If you’re anything like me, you probably have a bookmarks bar, extension icons, and an OS taskbar that are just cluttering up your screen and all these things can be hidden. If you need them, there are probably keyboard
shortcuts to bring them back or you can hover somewhere but for the most part, you don’t need them and it would be a lot better to have a distraction-free
view of the content that you’re trying to read. Now, these are tactical changes and they’re not gonna ween your brain off of its internet-addicted
habits on their own but they will go a long way to helping you do that a lot more easily. Still, remember the process
of changing your brain’s most frequently accessed
neuro pathways is a slow one that’s gonna require a lot
of discipline at first. So once you set all these things up, focus more on those positive
habits we discussed earlier, reading more books, having
more in-depth conversations, and soon in time, that
ability to focus deeply will come back. But while we can change the degree to which the internet affects our brains, one thing that we can’t change so easily is just how much our lives
are run through it now. We do our banking online, we pay rent online, we store our files up in the Cloud and that means, if
you’re anything like me, that you have dozens, if not
hundreds, of online accounts to manage and to keep secure. That’s why I recommend using Dashlane. Instead of using the same
password for every account, which is a terrible idea,
you can use Dashlane to generate a strong and unique password for every online account you have. All of them are stored in a secure vault that uses very strong encryption, meaning that you are the only person who ever has access to it. And it’ll even let you know if any of your passwords are weak or if they’ve been
compromised in a data breach or if you’re using them
across multiple accounts. And when any of those things happens, you can easily change that
password to a much stronger one with just the click of a button. You don’t even have to log
into the website to do it, which is a pretty sweet feature. Plus, Dashlink can instantly
log you into websites and auto-fill long forms, which makes browsing a
heck of a lot faster. And with a built-in VPN that
keeps your browsing private, dark web monitoring for all
of your personal information, and apps for all of your devices, Dashlane is seriously the one tool that you need to keep
your online life secure. And as a result, since you’re
not using multiple tools, it saves you money, too. Dashlane has a basic free version that you can get started with. There’s also a premium version that gets you access to all
the features I just mentioned. And if you’re one of the first 200 people to use the link in the
description down below to sign up, you’re gonna get a free 30-day trial of that premium subscription and help to support my channel as well. Huge thanks as always goes out to Dashlane for sponsoring this video and being a big supporter of my channel and thank you for watching as well. Hopefully you found something
useful in this video that you can use to start
building healthier habits in making those positive
neurological changes and if you did enjoy it,
consider hitting that like button to support the channel and
also subscribing right there to get new videos when they come out. You can also click right around here to get a free copy of my book
on how to earn better grades or click wherever I’m doing jazz hands to watch some more videos
here on this channel. Though if you want to make those positive neurological changes, then maybe you should go read the book.

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