Is Your Brain Making You Google?
A lot has been written about how internet use affects our brains. Last summer, Nicholas Carr published a now-famous article in The Atlantic, “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” His thesis was that the habit of reading and getting information online is making us lose the ability for deeper, more sustained reading and thinking. I love the internet deeply, and so bristled at the idea that the object of my affection might be shortening my attention span and depriving me of the ability to read long and beautiful books. But even as I was having these rebellious thoughts, I was opening new tabs on my browser just to check if by any chance I had a huge cache of previously unnoticed frequent flier miles and perhaps could afford a trip to Iceland, and even though I did not have the necessary miles, had to find out just when would be the right time to go to Iceland anyway, if one were interested in seeing the aurora borealis.
Several minutes later I wandered back down this winding internet garden path and returned to Carr’s article, feeling much less inclined to quibble. He argues that our internet use is rewiring our brains, that all the time spent scrolling and clicking makes it harder for us to sit down and do some sustained reading and thinking.
Carr gives compelling arguments, but still, it was with great joy that I started to read Jamais Cascio’s response, “Is Google Making Us Smarter?”, published in The Atlantic a year later. Cascio’s idea is that all this sharing of thoughts and information is creating a nöosphere, a collective consciousness, though he admits that finding the good content—especially on sites like Twitter—means sorting out blather that we don’t necessarily need in our lofty collective consciousness, “like ‘My kitty sneezed?’ and ‘I hate this taco!’”
Amid all this talk about how our internet use affects our brains’ hardwiring, it’s also interesting to consider how our brains affect our internet use. Last week, Slate’s Emily Yoffe published an article describing how “The brain hard-wires us to love Google, Twitter, and texting.” Yoffe gives a collection of anecdotes about different people and their wacky to the point of the obsessive internet search habits. When it comes to the internet, she writes, “we resemble nothing so much as those legendary lab rats that endlessly pressed a lever to give themselves a little electrical jolt to the brain.”
When those legendary lab rats were being studied, scientists inserted electrodes into their brain, giving the rats a jolt every time they wandered into a certain corner of their cage. One day the electrode was put in the wrong brain area, and the rat kept returning to the place where it would get shocked. It seemed the electrode was stimulating the rat’s pleasure center, but neuroscientist Jaak Panksepp thought differently. The animals did not look satisfied, but “excited, even crazed.” They were not blissing out, but feverishly sniffing around and foraging. Panksepp called this state “seeking” and says it is “the granddaddy of the systems,” the thing that motivates us to go out in the world and do things, seeking rewards. This system, Yoffe writes, depends on our dopamine circuits. According to Panksepp, dopamine circuits “promote states of eagerness and directed purpose… it’s a state humans love to be in.” So we seek out activities that keep the system aroused, like taking cocaine or amphetamines, or constantly refreshing our Twitter pages and Googling minutiae about celebrities or the news. (“Seeking,” which is thought to be dependent on dopamine, is not to be confused with “liking,” which depends on opioids in the brain.)
It’s an interesting idea, but can bits of information really be considered “rewards” in the same way that more tangible goodies—like food, sex, and shelter—can? Vaughan Bell, a clinical and research psychologist at the Department of Clinical Neuroscience at King’s College London and a contributor to MindHacks doesn’t think so. In his response to the Slate article, Bell points out that the notion that dopamine motivates seeking behavior is one of several theories about how the dopamine system works, but his main issue with the piece is that it assumes that Google, Twitter, etc. function as rewards.
“As far as the brain is concerned,” he writes, “‘information’ encompasses all input from the senses. When you look at a tree searching for unusual patterns in the bark, you are getting information and rewards. We could just as easily rewrite the article as ‘how the brain hard-wires us to love forests, trees, and curious patterns in the bark.’”
Bell writes that the article confuses primary rewards—things that are necessary and universal (think food, sex, water)—with secondary, or learned rewards. “Secondary rewards are things like money, praise, and well… anything else, and that’s because we have to learn secondary rewards.” The thing about secondary rewards is that they can be so diverse—maybe internet searching is dopamine-dependent, but you first have to prove that the information gleaned in these searches is registering in the brain as a reward. “If you want to explain compulsive behaviour you need to explain how the behaviour has become rewarding, and this could be as varied and different as human nature itself.”
This is especially interesting to think about in light of another study out last week, which says that 40% of the posts on Twitter are pure nonsense. This is a surprise only to people who haven’t noticed that the site is called Twitter, and not Intellectually Rigorous Statements, that it gets its name from the pleasant but not particularly enlightening sounds that birds make. And yet, I like knowing Susan Orlean’s thoughts about drinking martinis at children’s birthday parties, or that Stephen Fry’s long morning walk around New York left him “a bit of a sweaty Betty.” Is it my dopamine system? Is it compulsive? It doesn’t feel that way. Can’t we have bad (or at least unproductive) habits because they’re fun ways to kill time, rather than because we’re responding to a neurological imperative? But then, what do I know – it could be a matter of time before my Tweet-checking spirals out of control and I am checking into reStart Internet Addition Recovery (an actual place, I swear) for my 45-day residential recovery program.
Image by Blimpa.
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