The title of this post is play on the famous PSA "Brain on Drugs" from 1987 to raise attention to the harmful effects of drugs . The memorable tagline: This is your brain. This is your brain on drugs. Any questions?
I'm not saying that social media is harmful to your brain or an addiction. (Well, maybe for those people who Twitter on their mobile phones while on the toilet). I've been immersed in working online since 1990 and I've had a nagging question in the back of my mind, "How does being immersed in using Internet, Web, or more recently Social Media change the way our brains function, the way we think or our capacity to absorb information?"
Many people have asked me how I can review so many resources and look at so much information. I used to joke that my brain has evolved because I've been doing it for so long - that I've been exercising my brain's synthesis muscle for many years. Maybe there's some grain of truth in that?
In 1997, David Shenk, author of Data Smog: Surviving the Information Glut, argued that humans have only so much capacity to absorb information before they feel the effects of information anxiety. He says the reason is that "Silicon circuits evolve much more quickly than human genes." In his book, he devotes an entire chapter to reviewing and summarizing thirty years of psychological research that looks at the (bad) effects of too much information and stimulus overload (like what is caused from our use of the Internet, Web, or Social Media.)
The idea came from a quote from psychologist Robert Cialdini
This chapter and the subsequent advice in the book about going on data/information fasts always left me with a lingering question. Can immersion in online information consumption -- interacting on the web - change our brains and ability to absorb information? Does growing up digital evolve young people's brains? What if it was a good thing?
We have put this in perspective. The research and book is over ten years old. We probably know a lot more about the impact of the Internet on our brains. I wonder if there is any brain research that shows MRIs over time of people who spend x hours online. Maybe it might show something like an improved ability to process information, see patterns, fire up neurons, improve IQ or whatever. I have found posts where brain researchers equate the how the brain functions to social networks. For example, Carol Torgan, Ph.D, in her post "Your Brain on Facebook"
Online social networks are used by millions of people each day as they "friend" and connect to hundreds and even thousands of other members. That's impressive. Until you realize your brain has 100 billion neurons with various levels and degrees of connection. As you connect to others online, the same social networking is going on inside your head.
I've been reading Don Tapscott's "Grown Up Digital: How the Net Generation Is Changing Your World." The Net Generation are defined as individuals under 30 who have literally grown up digital and they're part of a global cultural phenomenon that's here to stay. There's a whole chapter on the Net Generation Brain. He summarizes and discusses recent brain research that suggests immersion in digital online environment (e.g. using social networks, living online, video games, etc) has a positive impact.
Everything we do leaves a physical imprint on the brain. The brain is particularly adaptable to outside influence in the first three years of life and then during teenage and early adult years, which is just when most Net Geners are immersing themselves in interactive digital technology 20 to 30 hours per week. Net Gen folks have more highly developed spatial skills, are quicker at switching tasks, and that although the research is in the early stages, Net Gens appears to have flexible, adaptable, and multimedia savvy brains.
There were a few insights in this chapter that were very valuable, particularly the impact of Internet screen immersion and how it affects the way Net Geners absorb information. Tapscott asks, "What is the overall effect of spending so much time in front of a screen, not a passive TV screen, but an interactive experience?"
Our Brains Process Information Differently Depending on the Media
He points to some research undertaken by Erica Michael and Marcel Just of Carnegie Mellon University - where they did brain scans of people processing information in different media. There was another study that looked at the differences between linear and non-linear listening where researchers played the same newscast in four different ways (traditional radio broadcast, played as one click, as an interactive webcast where you clicked to get different items, and a webcast with links for details.) They tested comprehension and found that younger people remembered less from traditional newscasts versus the interactive versions.
Babyboomers are more likely to process in a linear way, Net Geners have hypertext minds
He goes on to make the point that Babyboomers are more likely to process information in a linear way, from beginning to end - whether its writing an essay, watching TV, or reading instructions before working the remote control. That's because that's how boomers grew up. Net Geners, on the other hand, do not operate sequentially. They use keywords, hypertext, and clicking to organize the information for themselves. In other words, Net Geners have "hypertext minds," and as Marc Prensky suggests they think differently.
When I read this, I started to reflect on the different groups that I typically get in training workshops and the need for differentiated instruction. It's also something to keep in mind if you are having a cross-generational discussion in your organization about the value of social media.
NetGeners Look at the Screen Differently
This section pointed to eye movement studies and differences between Net Geners and Babyboomers in hour they moved their eyes around the screen. I've seen this first hand when I've done any shoulder to shoulder coaching. Boomers are trained to read from left to right, from top to bottem, while net geners will look for visual clues first. This has some implications for the way you design your home base or web site - may explain why some boomers find social networking sites design distracting.
Tapscott explains that digital immersion may have altered Net Gener's visual processing systems, especially the speed - as well as how they take information and what they remember. He also talks about how NetGener's visual skills have made them excellent scanners.
The rest of the chapter discusses multi-tasking or swtiching attention, technology and critical thinking and potential capacity to process or absorb information. There is quote from researchers Stan and Matthew Kutcher
"There is emerging evidence suggesting that exposure to new technologies may push the Net Gen brain past conventional capacity limitations. They argue the Net Gen brain may be able to execute certain perceptual tasks more rapidly, and may maintain more items in working memory."
Digital immersion may enocurage a new form of intelligence, according to Henry Jenkins. He's talking about sharing content and interacting with others that heightens intelligence through collaboration with other people and with machines.
Memory is not fading, just Google It
Tapscott points to some research that suggests that memory of specific facts may no longer be as important now you can just F*** Google It. Why spend hours memorizing historical facts when you look them up in an instant? Why keep clutter in the brain?
The flip side to this is a loss of concentration - as noted in a article by Nicholas Carr, "Is Google Making Us Stupid?"
The rest of the chapter talks about the need for focus, deeper thinking, and taking mental breaks (from technology).
He ends with some advice to create a sharper mind (intended for babyboomers, I think)
- Work in your wiring - learn a new skill. Lifelong neuro plasticity is on your side.
- Get fluent in technology by immersing yourself in it.
- Multitask wisely - don't answer every email instantly, check it in chunks.
- Know when it's best to concentrate on just one task. Deep thought, reflection, critical thinking, innovation, and creativity are fostered best by using a single task focus.
- Get into the rhythm of serial focusing. Know your peak times, give your brain a break, and cool down before ramping up again.
- Practice scanning. Don't read all the words, word for word, but look for keywords to see if it is worth a quick read.
- Understand how you learn best and customize your learning and potential.
This has a some implications for those of who work in nonprofits, particularly if you are planning any trainings or dealing with resistance.