Under the Hood

Excessive Internet Use Alters Brain Function, Decreases Memory Capacity

Too much internet messes with our brains, especially our memories.

An international study published in World Psychiatry shows that the internet can produce both acute and sustained alterations in specific areas of human cognition, which is the mental process of acquiring knowledge and understanding through, experience and the senses.

These sustained alterations might reflect physical changes in the brain. It can also affect a person’s capacity to pay attention, impact memory processes and influence social interactions.

In this first-of-a-kind study, researchers investigated leading hypotheses on how the internet might alter cognitive processes. It also examined the extent to which these hypotheses are supported by recent findings from psychological, psychiatric and neuroimaging research.

The extensive report combined evidence to produce revised models on how the internet might affect the brain's structure, function and cognitive development.

"The key findings of this report are that high-levels of Internet use could indeed impact on many functions of the brain,” said Dr. Joseph Firth, senior research fellow at NICM Health Research Institute, Western Sydney University.

“For example, the limitless stream of prompts and notifications from the Internet encourages us towards constantly holding a divided attention -- which then in turn may decrease our capacity for maintaining concentration on a single task.”

Firth noted that the online world presents people with a uniquely large and constantly accessible resource for facts and information, which is never a few taps and swipes away. This appears to have the potential to begin changing the ways in which people store and value facts and knowledge in society and in the brain.

There’s also a lot of concern over some of the potential impacts of increasing internet use on the brain.

"The bombardment of stimuli via the Internet, and the resultant divided attention commonly experienced, presents a range of concerns," said Prof. Jerome Sarris, deputy director and director of research at NICM Health Research Institute, Western Sydney University and senior author on the report.

Sarris believes this, along with the increasing #Instagramification of society, has the ability to alter both the structure and functioning of the brain while potentially also altering the society’s social fabric.

He said we should be mindful, practice focus and observe internet hygiene techniques such as reducing online multitasking, ritualistic checking behaviors and evening online activity, while still engaging in more in-person interactions.

The findings from this study also highlight how much more people have to learn about the impact of the digital world on mental health and brain health. There are certainly new potential benefits for some aspects of health, but people need to balance them against potential risks.

Human brain The human brain. Matthew Glasser and Eric Young

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