(By Stom Stafford)

Being online does change your brain, but so does making a cup of tea. A better question to ask is what parts of the brain are regular internet users using.

This modern age has brought with it a new set of worries. As well as watching our weight and worrying about our souls, we now have to worry about our brain fitness too – if you believe the headlines. Is instant messaging eroding the attention centres of our brains? Are Facebook, Twitter and other social media tools preventing you from forming normal human bonds? And don’t forget email – apparently it releases the same addictive neurochemicals as crack cocaine!

Brain workout 

Worrying about the internet is just the latest in a long line of fears society has had about the changes technologies might bring. People worried about books when they first became popularly available. In Ancient Greece, Socrates worried about the effect of writing, saying it would erode young people’s ability to remember. The same thing happened with television and telephones. These technologies did change us, and the way we live our lives, but nothing like the doom-mongers predicted would stem from them.

But is the internet affecting our brains in a different, more extraordinary way? There is little evidence to suggest harm. Here we are, millions of us, including me and you, right now, using the internet, and we seem okay. Some people worry that, even though we cannot see any ill-effects of the internet on our minds, there might be something hidden going on. I am not so worried about this, and I’ll tell you why.

We regularly do things that have a profound effect on our brains – such as reading or competitive sports – with little thought for our brain fitness. When scientists look at people who have spent thousands of hours on an activity they often see changes in the brain. Taxi drivers, famously, have a larger hippocampus, a part of the brain recruited for navigation. Musicians’ brains devote more neural territory to brain regions needed for playing their instruments. So much so, in fact, that if you look at the motor cortex of string players you see bulges on one side (because the fine motor control for playing a violin, for example, is only on one hand), whereas the motor cortex of keyboard players bulges on both sides (because piano playing requires fine control of both hands).

So practice definitely can change our brains. By accepting this notion, though, we replace a vague worry about the internet with a specific worry: if we use the internet regularly, what are we practicing?

Get a life

In the absence of any substantial evidence, I would hazard a guess that the majority of internet use is either information search or communication, using email and social media. If this is so, using the internet should affect our brains so that we are better at these things. Probably this is already happening, part of a general cultural change which involves us getting better and better at dealing with abstract information

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