How the Internet Rewires Our Brains for Focus (or Lack Thereof)

Is there a negative correlation between internet and focus? The internet, a vast ocean of information at our fingertips, has revolutionized communication, access to knowledge, and entertainment. But this constant connectivity comes at a cost. Many of us struggle to focus in an age of distractions, endless notifications, and the allure of the next online rabbit hole. So, how exactly does the internet impact our ability to concentrate, and what’s happening in our brains?

The Allure of the New:

Our brains are wired for novelty. Dopamine, a neurotransmitter associated with reward and motivation, surges when we encounter something new and potentially rewarding.  Social media feeds, news websites, and even email inboxes exploit this by constantly presenting fresh content, triggering dopamine release and keeping us engaged – but not necessarily focused.  

This 2014 study published in Behavioral Neuroscience explores the effects of dopamine surges on decision making in monkeys, and finds that frequent dopamine surges contribute to impulsivity and excessive novelty seeking behaviors. In simpler words, this means that the brain is being trained to crave more of what is new instead of slowing down and focusing on something familiar. This can contribute to difficulties maintaining long-term relationships, completing long-term projects and tasks, and anything that requires sustained focus. 

Multitasking Mayhem:

The internet thrives on multitasking –  switching between tabs, checking social media while working, and responding to texts all at once. However, our brains are not built for true multitasking.  Rapidly shifting attention between tasks can lead to cognitive overload, reducing efficiency and accuracy.  Studies suggest the internet may even decrease our working memory capacity, the brain’s temporary storage for information we’re actively using. 

This 2017 study explores the effects of chronic media multitasking (switching between multiple forms of media) and finds that those who frequently perform this behavior are prone to high attentional impulsivity, difficulty filtering out distractions in both the environment and in their minds, and difficulty holding information in their minds (utilizing working memory). It’s still unclear whether chronic media multitasking is the cause of these outcomes or whether a cognitive predisposition leads to chronic media multitasking, but there is a definite correlation that science is still working to understand. 

The Attention Span Squeeze: Internet and Focus

The internet bombards us with information in bite-sized chunks, from short videos to clickbait headlines. This constant stream of stimuli can shorten our attention span, making it difficult to focus on tasks that require sustained concentration, like reading a book or completing a complex project.

ADHD On The Rise:

The prevalence of ADHD in both children and adults has been steadily rising, and many experts believe it has something to do with the internet. 

This 2023 study published in the Journal for Psychiatric Research examines problematic internet usage and its relationship to attention deficit, hyperactivity, and impulsivity. It compiled the results of 24 different studies on the topic and found significant associations.

Furthermore, these studies revealed that problematic internet usage is also linked to other concerning mental health outcomes, such as anxiety, depression, obsessive compulsive disorder, social withdrawal, distress, and family conflicts. 

Neuroplasticity: A Double-Edged Sword:

The good news: our brains are remarkably plastic. Neuroplasticity refers to the brain’s ability to adapt and change throughout life. The constant stimulation of the internet may actually alter neural pathways, potentially making it easier for us to navigate complex information environments. However, this  increased ability to switch attention may come at the cost of sustained focus.

Thanks to neuroplasticity, you can “rewire” the neural connections in your brain by changing your behaviors. You can rebuild focus by participating in more focus-building activities and decreasing your exposure to focus-harming activities. 

Optimizing for Focus in a Digital Age:

So, how can we harness the power of the internet without sacrificing our ability to focus? Here are some strategies:

  • Mindful Browsing: Approach the internet with intention. Set specific goals for what you want to achieve online and avoid aimless scrolling.
  • Embrace Single-Tasking: Dedicate focused time blocks to tasks that require concentration, turning off notifications and silencing distractions.
  • Prioritize Sleep: Adequate sleep is crucial for cognitive function and focus. Limit screen time before bed to avoid blue light exposure which can disrupt sleep patterns.
  • Take Breaks and Go Analog: Schedule regular breaks from screens and incorporate analog activities like reading a book, spending time in nature, or engaging in hobbies that promote focus.

The internet is a powerful tool, but it’s important to be mindful of its impact on our brains. By understanding the neuroscience behind our struggles with focus and implementing these strategies, we can learn to navigate the digital world effectively while preserving our ability to concentrate and think deeply.

Product Recommendations:

CBG (Cannabigerol) has shown promise in helping increase focus and articulation. Taking CBG won’t cancel out potentially damaging behaviors such as media multitasking and problematic internet usage, but it may be able to help you reclaim some of your focus to perhaps address and reduce those behaviors. 

Furthermore, CBG may help increase focus when you’re rebuilding neural connections through focus-building activities such as reading a book.

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