Saturday, April 21, 2012

Internet ruining brains?

A reader send me an email, because he wanted to know what I think about an image he prepared. The graphic has an explicit title "Internet ruining your brain" (by the way: the image can be found at the address Now, what to say about this work?
I can agree with the informations (and the graphic is nice), but I absolutely disagree about the opinion expressed:
sure, the internet is reducing our use of memory. But this is not a bad thing.

It's obious that, for someone, internet is still a new thing, and as every news it could be considered scary. For example, the legend says that when writing have been invented, many people believed it would kill the memory skills of men. But where would we be, now, without writing? Everything in our life is based on the possibility to write. The fact is that, every time we reduce the use of memory, we have the chance to improve our intelligence.
In many countries, expecially countries with a culture based on academic knowledge like Italy, memory is often confused with intelligence. Many people think that remembering a large number of things means to be smart, like Pico della Mirandola ( Really, intelligence is the ability to link different pieces of knowledge together to solve a problem. Obiously, you may need some informations, but you don't need to remeber them. You just need to know how to get them. For example, it's completely unuseful to remeber the Van Der Vaals equation of gasses: you just need to know that it can be found on Wikipedia, and then you can use it to calculate the pressure of a certain quantity of gas in a box.
The fact is that a person can study for the whole life: he/she will never be able to remeber or to know everything. But the internet can. Just wikipedia have a quantity of knowledge a hundred higher than what a single man can ever know. what does this mena, that the server hosting Wiki is smarter than a man? No. It just means that the server can remember a lot of things more, but it is not able to use them to solve a problem. Instead, a person who does not remember some equations, but knows how them work, is a smart person.

Internet is not ruining our memory skills, it is just changing the way we remember things. We don't remember concepts anymore, we remember where to find a concept. This means we need to store in our memory a lower number of things, because many concepts can be found in the same place. And this means, also, that we are practically able to work with a higher number of concepts than people who don't use internet. Because, in pratice, internet in just an extension of our brain.


  1. Hi ! Very intersting subject ! Please let me quickly testify about my own experience (or at least try to, as English is not my mother tongue).

    Born in the early eighties, I'm probably part of the first generation that literally grew up with computers and spent an outstandingly long time on them. I was "kinda using" the computer from 2, had my own at 10, had an RTC internet access at 16, a DSL one at 19.

    I progressively developed a different way of thinking (I can elaborate about this) which relied A LOT on "automatic" actions and retrieving information I didn't store in my own memory.

    At the age of 29, I have HUGE problems in my daily life because, I cannot THINK properly if my brain cannot hold enough information at a time. I relied SO much on the computer and internet memory that I have much difficult reasoning about a subject --> IMHO you cannot "think" out of thin air, you need some data.

    I don't want to make a generality. But in my own personal case, I have no doubt about how the computer changed me. I used to have an excellent memory and progressively spent more and more time tweaking, developing and playing (not so much) on my computers, and learing less and less actual data. There is a correlation with the aforementioned problem.

    1. torturedutopian send me an email, asking to publish this other message, because he is actually not able to log in again and post it on this blog. Here's the text:

      "Just to add something to my former post...

      One more internet & computer issue that had some huge consequences as far as I'm concerned is : I forgot how to focus on a single action on a time, which is a direct consequence of my manipulating the computer very
      quickly and doing 10 actions at the same time. I read a serious article in a scientific publication showing that TV, computers and videogames could have big consequences on the brain developement and capacity to focus, and, consequently, school results.

      Lack of focus / constantly multitasking / not memorizing stuff + getting used to obtaining instant answers to everything + huge amount of time spent in front of the computer doing repetitive actions instead...
      Like wine etc., it takes a lot of efforts fighting the addiction and learning how to "consume" IT in a proper way. I failed (so far).

      Please, don't think I am "against" technology or making a generality. I just want to state that, spending several hours in front of a screen a day, isn't insignificant.

      Also, I disagree (with much respect) with your main point : learning things doesn't make you smart. But having to retrieve every bit of information makes it impossible to think at all. Of course there are degrees. This doesn't prevent the internet from being an essential and major piece of technology."

  2. I couldn't have said better.
    And this should totally change the way students learn at school.

    I wasted several years studying things I don't like (and which I can't remember for the most part), just because I made the wrong decision and attended a Liceo (high school, a pre-university school in italy).
    I mostly forgot Latin, Italian, Philosophy and Story.
    Math instead was truly interesting and I really enjoyed having to think - and not just remember.
    I'd love to see a future in which students aren't treated like pots - which had to be filled with "knowledge" - but like the wonderful and spectacular machines they really are.

    The human brain doesn't work like an hard disk: we store information by associating an emotion to data (kinda :) ) so it's absolutely natural that our brain doesn't want to remember something which isn't felt as worthy.

    I have no problems in developing in three different languages because that's something I like to do, but I absolutely can't remember that boring books some idiotic teacher forced me to learn.

    If people rely more and more on the internet is simply because it doesn't make sense for the individual to learn by heart something you can always looks at.
    Computers are not the one to blame, they're simply a tool.
    We're not stupid, we are just evolving.

  3. Thanks for sharing your experience, torturedutopian. As every thing, also the internet should be used correctly. Rely too much on internet can bring you to different problems: moderation is always important. But it's not internet fault, because usually this tecnology does not have bad effects on reasoning skills.
    For example, paracetamol can help you fight flu or headache, but too much of it can kill you. Basically, paracetamol is a good thing, but you need to be moderate in using it.

  4. I made the wrong decision and attended a Liceo (high school, a pre-university school in italy.

  5. There was a very interesting tv show here in germany about this topic, so if you understand german you may be interested in this show Should be viewable her for about a week:

  6. First of all I'd like to know on which research the graphic is based. I do not believe in such slogan if they do not have a scientific research behind.
    On the subject I can say two things:
    1. Our Brain does not remember things that you read on a book (or on internet for that matter) the first time you read them, unless you have a emotional connection to them. Try to remember a complete sentence on the last romance book you read. You cannot exactly, even if was your favorite one. Even a song (which is easy to remember) it is difficult to remember the first time.
    This has to do with how our Brain works. Our neurons make connection when we read or listen, but these connections are good for the first time only for about 20 minutes. After that they start to degrade unless you get more stimuli that fix these connections. So memory come from repetition and not from necessity like the graphic implies. That's way you probably do not remember any formula from your last Physics course than has more than 5 symbols (since for me is more than 10 years ago even 4 symbols are enough) unless you use them every week.

    2. The problem that torturedutopian express is explained in a lot research done on computer and ADHD (Attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder). Now I don't find them (i am not at my computer) but if you need them contact me and I'll send them to you!
    They say basically that is not the activity that is bad per se (Computer, Video Game, Television), but how much time you spend on it. I guess that you, torturedutopian, spent more than 1 hour playing some computer game, and this more than one day a week. This can lead to ADHD. I AM NOT saying you have ADHD, I am not a doctor and I haven't even seen you. I just say what the research says.
    At the end is more how much time we spend on a computer than what we do with it. And that's why we should TEACH kids how to use the computer and not LET them learn alone. We can set boundaries that they cannot set themselves.

    In the end I agree with Luca. Your intelligence is not how much knowledge you have, but how you use them to overcome problems, and also how to search for the knowledge you need to overcome problems.

  7. Well as I understand it the results given are agreeing with you in that people can access more information and use search a lot more. The problem it raises is that physiologically parts of the brain that develop emotion and so on are not developed when a lot of our interaction is online and most of the strong connections we have are with people we will not spend very much physical time with. Also though we can have access to more information we remember just that something was significant and how to get back to it but not the actual information which is useless in most circumstances and possibly dangerous if we are in a situation where we cannot get back to it either for lack of access or time constraints.

    It has no problem with how most people switch out from not remembering useless stuff because it's stored elsewhere with easy searchabilty.