What’s Your Favorite Chapter on the Internet? Your Brain on Technology

How surfing the web affects attention

By Richard Restak, MD, The George Washington University School of Medicine and Health Sciences
Edited by Kate Findley and proofread by Angela Shoemaker, The Great Courses Daily

While technology creates opportunities, it also presents impediments to brain enhancement, specifically when it comes to our ability to focus. Dr. Restak explains.

Brain image
Due to multiple electronic devices bringing information to us to view, we are giving our brains information overload and finding it hard to keep focused attention. Photo By Who is Danny / Shutterstock

Reshaping Reality with Technology

The experiential aspects of technology are changing our perception of reality and how our brains process information.

“I recently watched Pablo Casals on YouTube  playing Suite No. 1 of the Cello Suites of Johann Sebastian Bach,” Dr. Restak said. “Prior to watching this, my knowledge of Casals depended on historical accounts and his recordings. Watching his performance augmented my understanding and appreciation in a very deep way this immediately led me to watch performances of the Suites by Jacqueline du Pré.

“Thanks to this on YouTube, I was able to experientially connect in ways that would have been impossible a few years ago. Technology here provides a form of immortality: I can see, hear, and connect with an artist who died in 1973.” 

Technology also makes it possible to re-experience an event through multiple sensory channels. 

“I photographed the previous winter’s three blizzards here in Washington, where blizzards are rare,” Dr. Restak said. “Nothing like it had occurred since 1899. A few months later, I looked at those pictures on a warm sunny day—same terrain, different world.”

Technology made that possible. You can do the same thing yourself by looking at pictures and videos you’ve made and comparing them to your present situation.

How Technology Harms the Brain

There’s also a dark side to technology and its influence on the brain. In fact, we are now, as a New York Times article put it, “Hooked on Gadgets, and Paying a Mental Price.” By juggling e-mail, cell phones, laptop computers, and e-books, we’re bringing about changes in how our brains operate. 

We’re in the age of distraction, where attention and focus are becoming endangered species. Concentration is decreased, and distraction increases. We simply have too many sources of information, which Marshall McLuhn referred to as “information overload.” 

The top-down processing by the frontal lobes is interfered with by excessive bottom-up informational processing coming up from the sensory channels. As a result, the deep processing of information is replaced by skimming and surfing. 

Memory is also interfered with because mental focusing is difficult thanks to scattered attention and distraction. Finally, the technology of the internet, cell phone, and texting encourages multitasking, which impairs our ability to focus our attention on a single task.

Multitasking Harms

Multitasking is in fact a myth because the brain works sequentially, and thus you are only under the illusion that you are working on multiple tasks simultaneously while in fact you have to divert attention away from one task to focus on another. There’s also an interference effect with use of the same channel, like when you try to listen to something and write something at the same time. 

It’s better to deal with everything separately. Mental channels can also interfere with physical channels. 

You can be imagining one scene while looking at another, like when you’re on a cell phone talking about something at home and you’re trying to envision it while you’re supposed to be watching what’s happening in front of you on the highway. This creates a bottleneck effect. Every part of the brain is specialized for something; therefore, you don’t want to overload it.

Hypertext is another example of multitasking. You see the linked text, and you need to evaluate whether or not to leave the main article that you’re reading. 

If you decide to click on the hyperlink, then you have to decide when you’re going to return to the original text. That’s sometimes hard to remember after you’ve clicked on many hyperlinks.

Downsides of Internet Reading

Although internet reading is convenient and exposes us to a wealth of ideas we might not have discovered otherwise, it has its downsides. One study from Educational Research Review shows that shifting from one document to another interferes with understanding. 

We really do better when we focus on one thing at a time. The cognitive load, which is the information entering working memory, can be exceeded when we try to do too many things due to the bottleneck in the frontal lobes.

The internet can function as an interrupter as well. These online interruptions can be e-mail, advertisements, and pop-ups. 

We may be focused on a task, but naturally, our curiosity about what we’re missing drives us to check our email, instant messages, and automatic alerts—which in some cases occur 30 or more times an hour. Overall, there’s a decrease in efficiency due to switching cost, which increases cognitive load. 

The bottom line is that depth, clarity, and cohesion of thought take time—time that you simply have to find. They also require focused attention. All of these are impaired by the multitasking that the internet encourages.

This article was edited by Kate Findley, Writer for The Great Courses Daily, and proofread by Angela Shoemaker, Proofreader and Copy Editor for The Great Courses Daily.
Dr. Richard Restak is Clinical Professor of Neurology at The George Washington University School of Medicine and Health Sciences. He earned his MD from Georgetown University School of Medicine. Professor Restak also maintains an active private practice in neurology and neuropsychiatry in Washington, D.C.
About Kate Findley 295 Articles
Kate is a writer, novelist, and blogger living in Los Angeles. She has been writing for The Great Courses since 2017. It incorporates her two favorite things: writing and learning.