Good news for those of us wondering whether the relatives we add on Facebook were always stupid or if the internet made them that way. While we can’t blame social media for rotting our brains from the inside out, researchers have established that spending lots of time on the internet (even if you’re reading “important” websites) decays your brain and makes it harder for you to retain new knowledge.
The reason your brain is becoming worse and worse at comprehending and saving, though, isn’t because of the stuff you read. It’s because the hyperlinks you see in almost every piece of writing you read online is forcing your brain out of reading mode and into decision mode. So every time you hit an underlined piece of writing in a different color you’re forced to ask yourself whether you want to click or not. The good news is that this might keep us sharper for longer periods of our lives. But, as Fortune points out, the downside is that getting “lost” in the information you’re taking in is much harder. Ironically, you’ve now got access to more information than you’ve had before, but the same medium that provides it is making it harder and harder for you to retain that info.
When you read a book, you comprehend more. According to a study in the Journal of Digital Information, those who read documents with hypertext didn’t retain as much information as those who read text without links. Indeed, book reading is under stimulating. That is a good thing because your brain can transfer this information from your “working memory” to “long-term memory.” Neuroscientists have discovered that long-term memory isn’t just where you store random facts, but “schemas” that help you organize thoughts and concepts. But there is only so much you can transfer into your long-term memory at once, what scientists call the “cognitive load.”
So does that mean you should stop reading the internet, swear off your phone and computer, and lock yourself in a library? It may sound ideal, but the reality is you just need to read more and browse less. That’s because when you’re focused on a book you’re taking in a continuous stream of information from one source. When you’re reading online — probably even with Kindle, which constantly allows you to see what others have marked — you’re getting your info from a lot of sources, breaking everything down, and turning words and ideas into “data,” which is almost cool because that means we’re one step closer to becoming robots, but also means we’re not living up to our full intellectual potential.