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The Internet as a City: Thoughts on the Connected Brain

With finals coming up all too soon, I’ve been barricading myself in my room trying to study. As successfully as I am able to limit myself to a physical space though, there’s a 13 in laptop screen in front of me lending access to a universe of infinite distraction online.

In one distracted online spurt, I came across this unexpectedly relevant article about the effects of overstimulation on the brain. Jonah Lehrer’s article, entitled “How the City Hurts Your Brain,” uses the urban setting to explore the brain’s cognitive functions in a dense, stimuli-filled environment. But isn’t the Internet a lot like a city? Vast expanses to explore, anonymity, a nebulous web of connections, and of course, the many possible distractions. Take this quote from Lehrer’s article and replace “flashing neon sign” with “flashing pop-up ad” and “cellphone conversations” with “IM conversation” – the analogy holds remarkably well.

A city is so overstuffed with stimuli that we need to constantly redirect our attention so that we aren’t distracted by irrelevant things, like a flashing neon sign or the cellphone conversation of a nearby passenger on the bus.

Of course, I’m hardly the first to point out a connection between the Internet and the city. In effect, digital natives are like urban dwellers, having to process and navigate a maze of information in a daily basis. What kind of effect does this have on our brains?

But the density of city life doesn’t just make it harder to focus: It also interferes with our self-control. In that stroll down Newbury, the brain is also assaulted with temptations…Resisting these temptations requires us to flex the prefrontal cortex, a nub of brain just behind the eyes. Unfortunately, this is the same brain area that’s responsible for directed attention, which means that it’s already been depleted from walking around the city. As a result, it’s less able to exert self-control, which means we’re more likely to splurge on the latte and those shoes we don’t really need.…Related research has demonstrated that increased “cognitive load” — like the mental demands of being in a city — makes people more likely to choose chocolate cake instead of fruit salad, or indulge in a unhealthy snack. This is the one-two punch of city life: It subverts our ability to resist temptation even as it surrounds us with it, from fast-food outlets to fancy clothing stores. The end result is too many calories and too much credit card debt.

Again, replace the material temptations of chocolate cake or high-heeled shoes in the above quote with “YouTube videos, inbox unread counts, or Twitter.” I think it’s especially interesting to examine the effects of digital overstimulation on the brain – indulge me here, I am a neurobio major – especially the brains of young digital natives, whose brains are perhaps, literally, being shaped by the time we spend on the Internet.

Dr. Gary Small, author of the book iBrain: Surviving the Technological Alteration of the Modern Mind, calls the mental stress of dealing with digital distractions “techno brain burnout.” What are the neurobiological effects of this?

Under this kind of stress, our brains instinctively signal the adrenal gland to secrete cortisol and adrenaline. In the short run, these stress hormones boost energy levels and augment memory, but over time they actually impair cognition, lead to depression, and alter the neural circuitry in the
hippocampus, amygdala and prefrontal cortex—the brain regions that control mood and thought. Chronic and prolonged techno-brain burnout can even reshape the underlying brain structure.

But the prospects need not be so sobering. Returning to our metaphor of the Internet as a city, a first visit to New York City is utterly disorientating – the cars, the people, the constant cacophony – but give newcomers a few months, they’ll be able to navigate the city like any seasoned urban dweller. And as digital natives, haven’t we essentially grown up in the “city”? Small also cites another study that suggests we can successfully adapt to the demands of the Internet/city.

According to cognitive psychologist Pam Briggs of Northumbria University in England, Web surfers looking for facts on health spend two seconds or less on any particular site before moving on to the next one. She found that when study subjects did stop and focus on a particular
site, that site contained data relevant to the search, whereas those they skipped over contained almost nothing relevant to the search. This study indicates that our brains learn to swiftly focus attention, analyze information and almost instantaneously decide on a go or no-go action. Rather than simply catching “digital ADD,” many of us are developing neural circuitry that is customized for rapid and incisive spurts of directed concentration.

Perhaps it’s apt to call digital natives savvy navigators of the web. Like navigating a large city, the ability to sift through volumes of information and pick out the most salient pieces requires the convergence of many streams of thought as well as quick but informed decision-making. And even in providing distractions, the Internet and the city both expose us to a broad swath of otherwise unavailable intellectual and cultural opportunities.

Related: While Googling some keywords in writing this post, I came across Steven Johnson’s excellent TED Talk entitled, “The Web and the City.” The talk was originally given in 2003, but was only recently posted online. The points he makes about the emergent properties of the web and the city are a still valid, but it’s also interesting to see just how far the Internet community has evolved in only five years.

– Sarah Zhang