Last month, I contributed to an Irish Times article on the question of how, or indeed if, the internet is damaging our brain.
It’s an interesting question.
I view the answer not in terms of damage, but of manipulation. What most people want is not truth but validation.
What the internet companies do is take advantage of our need for nurturing – our need to be liked and to like others.
This manipulation can be disorientating as the human brain was never designed to cater for 10,000 likes from 10,000 individuals, especially not [for] a 13-year-old.
We are not designed for this avalanche of nurturing that comes through social media – this attention.
The dopamine is always on call, and you can be elated or let down at any minute depending on what the latest news is.
Neurogeneticist, Kevin Mitchell, an active Twitter user, is of a similar mind when it comes to framing the question in terms of damage.
“I don’t think we should say that our ‘brains have been rewired’, but our habits and modes of thinking and conceptual metaphors have certainly changed, ” he says. “I think social media, with its very different dynamics and rules, has changed the way we interact with other people, and the way we define our selves, through interactions with others.”
Mitchell believes that our ways of thinking have changed, but this is probably not a new thing. “Our ways of thinking have probably been continually changing over time, with every new technological development – think of Plato decrying the invention of writing and what it would do to young minds.”
I would certainly agree with this.
Brain plasticity is a defining feature of the brain. There is no point in your life when your brain is settled as ‘you’.
This question of personal identity feeds into a long-running philosophical debate about where exactly consciousness lies.
Under the ‘extended mind theory’, consciousness does not reside exclusively in the brain but rather straddles it and the environment.
Philosophers supporting this hypothesis have suggested that the tools which we use to upload information – a notebook, for example, or a search engine – are indistinguishable from the mind itself.
If the extended mind theory is true then it would mean our minds are literally being altered each time Facebook or Google change their algorithm.
But is it true?
Or does it just feel like it’s true because our heads are in such a tizzy from staring at our smartphones?
Before the advent of modern neuroscience, the idea that minds can exist independently from the body was not so farfetched. That belief opened up a niche for people to market all kinds of beliefs about unobservable entities including Gods, messiahs, spirits, souls, angels, devils and so on. These beliefs are for the most part benign if they do not involve making sacrifices that are ultimately irrational or being manipulated by others.
The idea of the mind being separate from the body goes back to Aristotle, but the body and the mind are one and the same thing.
As for theories that place the mind – or part of the mind – outside the brain, supernatural philosophy can be neither proved nor disproved.
Whatever about the internet literally colonising our minds, there’s no denying Big Tech has a profound influence on our thinking.
And if you think about it, there are only two industries that call their customers users: the illegal drugs industry and the software industry.
It’s too simple to say that we love the way social media connects us to the wider world, because it can isolate us too. It offers us freedom, but only within a closed garden where Big Tech holds the key. To reconcile this contradiction we have to look into ourselves. We need to stop and ask ourselves what we are doing when we buy into social media and what is the full nature of this magical and intimate transaction.