Brain Plasticity in Cyberspace

Human brains are considerably shaped by experience. So do we understood how Facebook and Wikipedia are changing us?

May 13 th 2011
Your eyes quickly scan the page.
You begin to read a sentence in an article you won't go back to.
You quickly switch tabs in your browser.
You write a short note on a friend's Facebook wall.
You switch tabs again . . .

The great 19th century American psychologist and philosopher William James famously described our conscious experience of the world as "one great blooming, buzzing confusion." Although James was specifically referring to infants, his description is all too familiar for anyone, of any age, who navigates the virtual realm of the Internet. The explosion of social media, complete with instant videos, graphics, and text, makes for a "blooming, buzzing confusion," indeed!

Not surprisingly, there is ongoing debate across the disciplines of psychology, sociology, and philosophy about the effects of Internet use on people's cognitive faculties and interpersonal skills. This reminds us of a key feature of the human brain: its ability to change itself and be considerably shaped by experience, a phenomenon commonly known as plasticity.

Psychiatrist Dr. Norman Doidge offers a helpful characterization of plasticity when he says in The Brain That Changes Itself that "our brains are in constant collaboration with the world." This collaboration is dynamic and reciprocal; the brain acts on the world via perceptions, beliefs, and memories, and is simultaneously acted upon by features and stimuli of our surroundings.

Human-computer interactions (specifically, our interactions online) serve as an illuminating case study of brain plasticity in the twenty-first century. As many of us spend hours upon hours on the Internet over a time course of weeks, months, and years, our brains are being shaped and conditioned by the images we see, the text we read, and the videos we watch. Most of the time, this process probably happens outside of our conscious awareness, but that doesn't mean we should not make concerted efforts to understand the process in order to minimize any potential harmful effects and promote mental and social well-being.

Some have begun considering how our brains' plasticity shapes us as we interact with technology. For instance, Nicholas Carr's much-cited 2008 Atlantic article called "Is Google Making Us Stupid?" claims that reading on the Internet is a wholly different action than reading printed text:

The kind of deep reading that a sequence of printed pages promotes is valuable not just for the knowledge we acquire from the author's words but for the intellectual vibrations those words set off within our own minds. In the quiet spaces opened up by the sustained, undistracted reading of a book, or by any other act of contemplation, for that matter, we make our own associations, draw our own inferences and analogies, foster our own ideas.

These "quiet spaces" that Carr refers to during continuous reading and contemplation are essential for creativity and critical thinking, since they allow the mind to freely soak in ideas and re-combine them into meaningful relationships. Reading online threatens to crowd out these "quiet spaces." While reading an article on a news or magazine website, it is almost impossible not to be distracted by links to "related articles," advertisements, video clips, sound bytes, and the like.

Others have recently argued that the Internet might serve as an unparalleled tool for social mobility and collaboration at the most massive (i.e. global) scale. NYU professor Clay Shirky made this argument in his recent book Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age. In an interview in Wired magazine where he discusses his book with Daniel Pink, Shirky claims that the Internet revolutionized how people used their spare time, moving from passive viewing to participatory engagement:

Pink: . . . the most powerful medium in the world [television] was geared around consumption and passivity rather than creation and sharing . . .

Shirky: Right . . . television crowded out other forms of social engagement. Look, behavior is motivation filtered through opportunity. So if you see people behaving in new ways, like with Wikipedia and whatnot, it's very unlikely that their motivations have changed, because human nature doesn't change that quickly. It's quite likely that the opportunities have changed.

Others, such as The New Yorker's Malcolm Gladwell, have tempered Shirky's ideas, spawning a spirited back-and-forth in Foreign Affairs. But what's certainly true is that social media and collaborative websites like Wikipedia provide new opportunities for social engagement, and perhaps even social change—in ways in which our brains would not have even had to operate fifty years ago.

Our brain's plasticity in cyberspace can sometimes hurt us; it can also aid us, taking advantage of our minds' social and creative capacities. So we should ask thoughtful questions: which online habits and behaviours help us align our behaviours with Kingdom purposes, promoting our own health and well-being, as well as helping our neighbours both locally and globally to flourish? There are no easy answers to these questions, but becoming more mindful about how our brains are changed by our experiences online is a noble first step.


Rich Lopez graduated from Princeton University in 2009 with an A.B. in Psychology. In fall of 2011 Rich will begin a Ph.D program in Psychological and Brain Sciences at Dartmouth College. His research interests include social cognition and emotion, and he is particularly excited to take part in the rising field of social neuroscience. Outside of psychology, Rich is editor emeritus for Revisions, Princeton's only publication written from the Christian worldview. You'll often find him writing about all things psychological and spiritual on his blog, "Keep the Feast" (