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Why It’s Good that the Internet Is Changing Our Brains

Hint: It means we’re evolving.

Things are easier said than done, or so the old adage goes, and we couldn't agree more. That's why we do The GOOD 30-Day Challenge (#30DaysofGOOD), a monthly attempt to live better. Our challenge for August? Get off the internet at 8.

There’s nothing like an article about how the internet is changing our brains to really freak people out. Studies show our thought process is adapting to the constant influx of media. Google affects our memorization skills. And our reliance on smartphones has changed friendly debates forever. Whether we like it or not, the web is molding our minds. But what if that’s not such a big deal?

Scientists and philosophers are beginning to look closer at the perceived boundaries between our physical selves and the exterior world. And many of them are beginning to see that the boundaries we’ve created aren’t as clear as we think.

Neuroscientist V.S. Ramachandran is an especially vocal proponent of the malleability of our bodies. For over a decade, he’s studied people with so-called “phantom limbs.” His patients, who have lost one or more body parts, continue to feel movement and pain in a limb that hasn’t been there for years. This phenomenon shows that our brains are capable of tricking our conscious minds into thinking we’re physically attached to an “outside” object.

But what if it’s not a trick? Andy Clark, a professor of philosophy at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland, says there’s a deeper principle to be found in the phantom limb assertion. In his book Natural Born Cyborgs, Clark claims that our brains depend entirely on perceived correlations in order to construct an arbitrary boundary between our bodies and the external world.

Think about how many tools you use in your daily life without even thinking about it. You drive a car to work (or ride a bike... the principle is the same). You use your GPS device, cell phone, iPod, and other tech devices so flawlessly that, according to Ramachandran’s principle, they may as well be extensions of your very self.

Sound scary? It’s not. We’ve been using tools for centuries—it’s what distinguishes us from most species of lesser intelligence. And we haven’t just used tools, we’ve relied on them. In Clark’s book, he cites the wristwatch as an example. Human lives are drastically different now than they were before we had the ability to know the time right down to the minute. Before clocks were widespread, and people had only the sun or the church bells to tell them it was noon, scheduling was virtually nonexistent. Or think about the pen and paper. These tools have changed the very fabric of how we exist with each other in the world—and few would argue these changes have made our lives worse.

Whenever there has been a massive change in how we go about our daily lives, there’s also been a massive critique. When the printing press was invented, and written documents were no longer reserved for the purposes of the church, people were terrified of what massive amounts of newly available information would do to the world. And they were probably right to be terrified, because with such sweeping change often comes revolution (In the printing press’s case, the reformation.) Widespread use of the Internet is this millennium’s equivalent. It’s changed the way we view the world, it’s changed the way we go about our daily lives, and it has most definitely spurred its own revolutions.

We all want to believe that as humans, we control our tools, not the other way around. Clark would argue the exact opposite is true, and for the better. After all, how can we say our brains are all we need to be our “real selves” when we have so much stored and invested in our outside technologies? Maybe we’re not losing our “selfhood” at all, but creating mega-selves. Perhaps we should be thinking of our presence on the internet, our phones, and our hard drives as equally important parts of us—really clever parts who can tell jokes in 140 characters or less.

“We need to understand that the very ideas of minds and persons are not limited to the biological skin-bag,” Clark writes, “and that our sense of self, place, and potential are all malleable constructs ready to expand, change, or contract at surprisingly short notice.” Although we may initially resist the idea of the internet changing our brains, it’s probably inevitable.

We’re still in the beginning stages in the internet age, and it’s nice to unplug from time to time. But now that we have this amazing resource, it’s hard to imagine going back to a time where our dependence on the internet was limited. Just as the reformation brought on the enlightenment, and the enlightenment brought on the scientific revolution, history repeats itself. We can try to deny it now, but no matter how hard we resist, the internet and our brains are only going to become more deeply intertwined. And that’s probably not such a bad thing.

Photo (cc) via Flickr user perpetualplum.

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