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John Fahy is the Professor of Marketing in the University of Limerick and Adjunct Professor of Marketing at the University of Adelaide. He is an award winning author and speaker on marketing issues around the world.

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Is the Internet Changing Your Brain?

Chris Horn, co-founder of Iona Technologies and commentator on matters technology raised an interesting question in a recent article in the Irish Times, when he asked do we really need to keep tabs on all the information that floods to us daily through tweets, feeds, inboxes and so on? Related to this is the issue of what is all of this information doing to our brains, as many of us, who have grown up processing things in certain ways struggle to cope with the overload that we now currently face. The notion that these machines are impacting on how we think is something that deeply troubles many people.



The bottom line is that, yes, using the internet is changing our brains. But then so does everything that we do because that is how your brain works. Brains are characterised by plasticity, which means that new connections are being generated all the time. So your brain changes if you learn how to play the guitar or do Sudoku. That is why, contrary to some conventional wisdom, you can choose to start learning a new language at 70 if you want to. The ability of the brain to adapt to new stimuli is probably one of the key reasons why we have been such a successful species.


The more interesting question is how the internet is changing the brain and this is the subject of a very insightful recent book by Nicholas Carr entitled The Shallows. In short, he provides compelling evidence that it is causing us lose some of our ability to think deeply as we scan content quickly moving between text, images, sounds and hyperlinks. Just as the neurons that fire together wire together, those that do not fire together do not wire together. Time spent scanning Web pages crowds out the time for reading books or contemplating ideas. As we gain new skills and perspectives, we lose old ones. There is a growing body of research which shows that our level of understanding is lower when we consume information through the Web than through print for example. With its characteristics of immediacy, interactivity and sensory stimulation, the internet is a distraction medium which impacts on the ability to think deeply.


Carr reckons that the Net might just be the most mind-altering technology that has ever come into general use. Ever the entrepreneur, Chris Horn surmises that a facility which enables us to quickly find the insightful things that we have read while using it may just be the next big opportunity!


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