Our mobile phones have become an extension of our arms. And as a new part of our bodies, they are restructuring the way we think and how our brains process information.

Although this may sound like the beginning of a futuristic movie where the main character is a human-robot hybrid, this is actually happening in the present.

Research reveals the Internet has already changed our brain structure. It is actually changing which parts of the brain we use, how we use them and how these parts are interconnected. Just like the introduction of writing did over 5,000 years ago.

These and other consequences were analyzed by writer Nicholas Carr in 2010 in his famous book What is the Internet doing to our brains?, and his controversial article on The Atlantic “Is Google making us stupid?”

Carr’s main argument is that the Internet can have detrimental effects and may damage our capacity for concentration and contemplation.

After Carr’s research, many professors and neuroscientists have studied how digital platforms are affecting our attention, distractibility, and memory. But it is not all bad news. Used in the right way, new technologies can be very positive.

Tech is not only helping us be more connected with each other, but it is also developing particular parts of our brain, making us better at certain skills.

Let’s see three areas where the Internet is changing the way we think, for better or worse:

1. Abstract thinking and concrete details

According to a recent study conducted by Dartmouth College, “using digital platforms such as tablets and laptops for reading may make you more inclined to focus on concrete details rather than interpreting information more abstractly.”

Their findings are an example of how digital technology is shaping our cognitive function.

As Marianne Stenger explains in one of her articles for Open Colleges, “although this isn’t a bad thing per se, there are times when it’s beneficial to foster abstract thinking, so it’s important to be aware of how technology can affect our perceptions.”

2. Reading and skimming

Skimming instead of reading can be a double-edged sword. On the one hand, as we are dealing with huge torrents of information online, we are developing digital brains that find it difficult to focus on reading a novel, line by line.

But on the other hand, it can be very useful because our brains have learned to scan through information. We find what we are really interested in much faster, instead of spending a long time reading irrelevant content.

In this sense, these two different approaches to reading are necessary. But it all depends on what we want to get from our reading at each moment. So we should train our brain to be good at both.

For instance, skimming is a good technique when we want to quickly find the main facts and figures within a long text. However, if we want to enjoy a reflexive reading, it is important to slow down and opt for deeper reading.

3. Memory and learning

According to neuroscientist Ali Jennings, the Internet is totally changing the way we think. Memory is a good example of how the digital age is affecting our brain.

“It has been found that if we have access to information whenever, then we don’t bother to remember the information itself; all we do is just remember where we need to go to find it.”

However, now that we have all human knowledge at our fingerprints, we don’t need to memorize mundane facts and figures anymore. We can use our brainpower to keep up with more important material that can’t be Googled, such as our own creative ideas.

In this sense, learning is now more enjoyable because we can go online and use the Internet to explore further and faster.

An optimistic perspective

Just like cars, guitars or canes for the blind, mobile phones have become our latest mind extensions. As such, they are reshaping our brain and changing the way we think. But we shouldn’t get stuck into the idea that the Internet has made us more distractible. Tech devices are also influencing our cognitive function in positive ways.

To take advantage of our new digital brains, we should become aware of how digital media is affecting our perceptions and the way we interact with the world.



How Digital Technology Shapes Cognitive Function

Maria Kennedy

Maria Kennedy is a wellness and education writer for Open Colleges. She covers stories about women, nutrition, personal growth, food and travel among others. In her free time, she loves practicing yoga and traveling with her husband and kids.