Is the Internet Making You Lose Your Mind?

Have you ever noticed how often you surf the net or check e-mail when you feel bored or restless or depressed, as if relief is just a click away?

Let's face it: whatever expert opinion may say, we all know that the Internet is addictive. Of course, you can substitute "seductive" or "habit forming" to avoid the overused diagnostic buzzword, but have you ever noticed how often you visit your favorite site or check e-mail whenever you get stuck with a work-related problem or feel bored or restless or anxious or depressed? Relief is just a click away! Does this remind you of the cigarette break you used to take when you were still smoking, and for the same self-soothing reasons?

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The Internet doesn't just provide information or social connection: it can be its own form of cybercoke. You can get a reasonably good high just zooming from alluring link to link, following the ever-receding golden thread of "one more hit," saving sites to your "Favorites," promising each in turn that it's the one you really want, the most important one—only to find your faithless eyes drawn to the next online charmer, and the next, and the next. Spend a few feverish hours mining quotes, opinions, and factoids about postcolonial African literature, Goldman Sachs's role in the Greek financial meltdown, Schoenberg's invention of the 12-tone scale, or even pondering the travails of poor Lindsay Lohan, and you get the heady sensation that you must be acquiring enormous erudition of some sort, even wisdom—and in such a short time period.

At this point in your search for the perfect website, you may take a quick break to check into your Facebook page. There you find something like a huge, noisy, festive bash being held at your house, only nobody told you about it, and so when you unlock your door, you see 50 or 100 or 500 extremely cheerful people, most of whom you don't know and haven't invited to a party you weren't aware you were throwing. But you hang around and have a few (virtual) drinks, noodle with your profile, decide which of the new people who've mysteriously turned up on your page you want to get to know, follow various links, and before you know it, an hour or two have passed.

Refreshed by all that cyber-pressing of the flesh, you return to more serious tasks and allow yourself to be sucked back into the encyclopedic Internet tsunami of all human knowledge—yours to plunder at will! It's like getting very rich very fast—the more you see, skim over, or save for "later," the more intellectual capital you feel you're accumulating, the higher the number in your IQ portfolio, the bigger your brain balance. You speed along faster and faster, doing so many things at once—researching the article, checking into the Huffington Post, reading and sending e-mails, ordering a cute jacket that's on sale, talking on the phone, eating a sandwich—a regular Olympiad of multitasking! You can practically hear the crackle of your brain's neural networks prodigiously expanding at the speed of light.

And then the crash. Not the computer's, but yours. You notice that you're losing it—"it" being your mind. Somewhere in that mishmash—print-outs littering your desk, dozens of online articles, book chapters and blogs "saved" in Favorites, different programs, apps, e-mails, the uncompleted order for that jacket, all stacked up in layers of windows on your screen like planes endlessly circling the airport in the fog—you and your mind just disappear. Instead of feeling smarter, more in control, you just feel . . . depleted, numbed out, zombified. All of those threads you were following are now hopelessly tangled in a big, fuzzy ball where your brain used to be.

You turn off everything, including the lights, and sit quietly in the dark—no, wait! That's what you should do. Instead, you keep on mindlessly clicking, foregoing food, sleep, and bathroom breaks, following links randomly, who cares where or to what—weather report, Alternet, perezhilton, movie trailers, recipes, CNN, Travelocity, Ebay, Craigslist, zillow, Google Earth, cute cat videos (a genre, not a site), yourporn (a site, as well as a genre), and farther afield to ever-wilder Internet shores. Eventually, your body shrivels up to a little, wizened homunculus, with one hand still folded over the mouse, clicking, clicking, clicking. . . .

Just kidding! But melodrama aside, the Internet can be way too much of a good thing, its use deceptively easy as it encourages fantasies of both omniscience and omnipotence. On the one hand, searching the Internet actually increases brain function in older adults, according to a UCLA study led by neuroscientist Gary Small, activating areas devoted to decision-making and complex reasoning that aren't engaged by simply reading a book. But in contrast, multitasking—Googling, telephoning, e-mailing, talking, driving, or any combination thereof (you know who you are)—only makes us feel sharper and more mentally efficient, giving us a false sense of confidence in our mental acuity. Multitasking is basically imposing continual distraction and interruption on our brains: it isn't good for thinking deep thoughts, or really any thoughts.

In a review of two dozen studies about the impact of different media technologies on our cognitive abilities, reported in Science in 2009, developmental psychologist Patricia Greenfield noted that the rapid shift of focus in multitasking did improve facility at some tasks requiring the ability to keep track of lots of simultaneous signals—like air-traffic control and, presumably, military firefights. Unfortunately, multitasking weakened "higher-order cognitive processes"—little things like "abstract vocabulary, mindfulness, reflection, inductive problem-solving, critical thinking, and imagination." All that stuff just takes so much time.

Adding digital insult to cyber-injury, multitaskers even seem to get worse at multitasking. Heavy-duty multitaskers are "suckers for irrelevancy, Everything distracts them," says Clifford Nass, psychology professor at Stanford University, who directed a study in 2009 on the impact of media multitasking. Coauthor Eyal Ophir added, "They couldn't help thinking about the task they weren't doing. The high multitaskers are always drawing from all the information in front of them. They can't keep things separate in their minds."

Nicholas Carr, author of The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains, argues that we're in danger of succumbing to terminal distractibility, unable to engage in any mental task that requires control, discipline, and extended focus (like actually reading a book). Several professors at the University of Michigan, Harvard, Yale, Columbia, and who knows where else are so tired of trying to lecture to students who are texting, Googling, e-mailing, Facebooking, tweeting, ordering stuff online, and passing laptops back and forth (so others in class can take a look at their screens) that they've banned Internet use in class or even switched off wireless networks during class time.

If we're literally losing our minds to the Internet, we might be losing our hearts and souls, as well. Earlier this past spring, a South Korean couple was arrested for letting their 3-month-old baby starve to death while they spent 12 hours every night at the country's ubiquitous Internet games cafes (30,000 in the country, one on almost every street corner.) They were apparently obsessed with raising a "virtual daughter" via an interactive role-playing game. That same month, a 20-year-old Korean man was sentenced to 20 years in prison for clubbing his mother to death when she complained about his Internet habit. And about a year ago, another young guy killed his mother because she was so addicted to the web that, he thought, she wasn't being a good mom. It's worth noting that Korea has the fastest and most developed Internet system in the world—90 percent of homes are fitted with high-speed connections, half the population regularly plays computer games, and 1 in 10 online users is addicted, according to the government.

It's well known that the anonymity of the Internet "disinhibits" the kind of behavior that might shame people if others knew they were doing it. In the communal free-for-all that comprises the online reader responses to media articles, for example, some people seem to luxuriate in uncontrolled, mouth-foaming viciousness—as if having waited all their lives for this opportunity to just let loose and spew venom. The occasion hardly seems to matter; many a mild-mannered, perfectly unobjectionable little journalistic endeavor (an article about, oh, the federal deficit) has provoked the verbal equivalent of a dirty bomb. Maybe off the Net, these virtual cyber-terrorists are mild-mannered Clark Kents, never uttering a rude peep. Or maybe, they're less dangerous (we hope) equivalents of serial murderers. Actually, maybe the fact that they have a place to vent online prevents them from becoming mass murderers.

In any case, science writer Kathleen Taylor, author of Cruelty: Human Evil and the Human Brain, when asked by a New York Times writer why the Internet was such a cruel playground, theorized that humans had evolved to be "face-to-face creatures," getting "constant feedback from others, telling us if it was OK to be saying what we're saying. On the Internet, you get nothing, no body language, no gesture. So you get this feeling of unlimited power because there is nothing stopping you, no instant feedback." And there is something exhilarating about flaming somebody. Who's going to know it's you? It's like the perfect crime, except it isn't even a crime to explode at someone online.

More insidious is the impact of the electronic culture on the way kids grow up. According to a poster session presented at last summer's Association for Psychological Science, American college students today are 40 percent less empathetic—less able to take the perspective or imagine the perspective of others, sympathize with others' misfortunes, or identify with fictional characters—than 30 years ago, with the biggest drop occurring since 2000. The exact causes aren't known, but the paper's authors noted that the perceived excess of narcissism, competitiveness, and unjustified self-confidence in young adults may stem in part from the vastly increased exposure to Internet media. Violent media—first-person shooter games, for example—numb people to the pain of others, while the explosion in social media encourages casual, shallow, relatively meaningless relationships with online "friends." Hypercompetition and inflated expectations of success may be nurtured, the authors suggest, by ubiquitous reality shows for which tireless ambition and ruthless self-promotion are at least as important as genuine talent or ability.

Is the Internet causing a widespread decline of moral, civil, and civic accountability? Probably not—the world has always had its share of haters, grousers, bashers, scoffers, whiners, screamers, and otherwise unfun people. But, today, when the Net is truly the world's first genuinely open-source free-expression zone, when just about anybody can get online and say just about anything, we necessarily have more of the not-so-nice backside of humanity pushed into our faces. The invective that once might have exhausted itself in a small-town bar late at night is now playing to an audience that's rapidly approaching two billion Internet users.

Still, as Carr writes in The Shallows, too much stimulation too fast doesn't seem to be good for what we quaintly call the more "humane" qualities of our species. Brain research is beginning to show that the sophisticated mental processes needed for empathy and compassion require a calm, attentive mind, and take time to unfold. "The more distracted we become, the less able we are to experience the subtlest, most distinctively human forms of empathy, compassion, and other emotions," Carr writes. He quotes philosopher Martin Heidegger, writing in the 1950s about the oncoming "tide of technological revolution," which could "so captivate, bewitch, dazzle, and beguile man that calculative thinking may someday come to be accepted and practiced as the only way of thinking." The capacity for meditation and contemplation—what Heidegger thought was the essence of humanity—he feared could be lost.

It was perhaps a good thing that he didn't live to see Kate Moore, a 16-year-old Iowa girl, win the $50,000 first prize at the 2009 LG U.S. National Texting Championship for thumb-typing on her hand-held phone (the Verizon LG enV3, if you must know) the words, "Zippity Dooo Dahh Zippity Ayy. . . MY oh MY, what a wonderful day! Plenty of sunshine Comin' my way. . . Zippitty Do Dah Zippity Aay! WondeRful Feeling Wonderful day!"

Heidegger worried that the "frenziedness of technology" would "entrench itself everywhere." He didn't know the half of it!

Mary Sykes Wylie, Ph.D., is senior editor of the Psychotherapy Networker.