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Do Digital Tools Threaten Learning, Spirituality, and Well-Being?

A 2010 book by well-known social commentator Nicholas Carr, titled The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains, raises an ongoing, increasingly important question for computer science and the use of digital tools.  In essence, Carr argues that extensive use of the internet is changing our brains.  As a result of such use, he contends, we are becoming more scattered and less and less able to concentrate, to attain in-depth learning, as well as to empathize with others.


This question is as important to the faith community as to broader society but in my experience remains relatively unaddressed by people of faith.   And so in an article for the journal of the primary accrediting agency for American seminaries, Theological Education (Vol.52, No. 2, 2019), titled “Neurobiological Data on What Online Education Could be Doing to Our Spirituality and Our Brains,” and also in a new book titled  Finding Peaks and Valleys in a Flat World (Vernon Press), I have discussed in more detail precisely what brain dynamics seem to be involved in extensive use of the internet and other digital tools.  And I also raise in these publications the implications that these insalubrious brain dynamics might have for faith.  My goal is to encourage people of faith with expertise in neuroscience, psychology and computer science to embrace this study of the impact of digital life on cognition and attention, and the search for  tools or techniques to counter these brain dynamics and the problems they pose for faith and society.


Here’s the analysis in a nutshell.  The human brain is plastic.  When some neural activities are consistently repeated, they change the brain.  Our brains are unique in the animal kingdom.  We  have proportionately larger frontal lobes, that part of the human brain which functions to administer and guide the brain as a whole.  The frontal lobe governs our cognition and voluntary movements.  As such it keeps our emotions and instinctual responses in check.  It also plays a role in spiritual exercises and other human activities related to social engagement.  The use of this part of the brain is encouraged by the human body because as it is exercised, connections with other parts of the brain are developed and strengthened.   Such connections are facilitated/rewarded by the secretion of pleasurable brain chemicals (called momoamines), particularly an amphetamine-like chemical termed dopamine and another called oxytocin which create feelings of contentment.


The frontal lobe, also the seat of concentration, must be active in order to experience these chemicals.  If it is not active, we  become victims of our environment or of what we perceive immediately (hence, Carr’s “The Shallows”).  Conversely, we may also be more likely to act according to passion or emotion.  Since the brain is plastic, the less we use the frontal lobe the more it is likely to atrophy, with the result that we are less able to concentrate, control emotions, and experience the “good brain chemicals”.


Another intriguing finding about the human brain has been provided by Australian educational psychologist John Sweller.  His research suggests that intelligence is derived from the schemas we have acquired over longer periods of time.  We understand concepts because we have schemas associated with those concepts.  Thus, to work intelligently we need to be able to transfer information from our working memory to long-term memory and to weave the working memory into the long-term schemas we have stored.


Life on the internet introduces dynamics which impede these processes.  The internet keeps us moving, with lots of multi-tasking.  We use different senses simultaneously, such that our attention is spread across these sensual inputs.  Even if we merely focus on the ocular – on the process of viewing a text on our computer compared to a printed book or magazine — the internet-linked computer continually tempts us to move from the text before us  to other, related links, not to mention the latest email, Facebook post, or text received.


Research suggests that such diversion of attention strains our cognitive ability and diminishes our understanding.  A 2007 study conducted by Steven Rockwell and Loy Singleton as well as other studies conducted by researchers at Cornell and Kansas State University demonstrate  that students focusing on a text or lecture retain the information better than those studying the same phenomena on the Internet.


Why does this happen?  Again, it appears to involve a chemical reward.  Neurobiologists like Eric Kandel have discerned that for memory to persist, the incoming information must be thoroughly and deeply processed.  This depends on associating the new information with knowledge already stored in memory through forging new neural connections.  This process begins in the frontal lobe of the cerebral cortex, the part of the brain which controls the mind’s focus.  When such associations and neural connections transpire, the neurons of the frontal cortex send signals to neurons in the midbrain that produce the brain chemical dopamine.  This pleasurable chemical facilitates these connections.  You need dopamine for a present memory to be remembered long-term.  And if these connections are not made, or if once made these neural connections do not continue to be used, they harden and are of no use.  Use it or lose it is a core principle of our plastic brains.


If you are not focused, but rather, scattered (as can happen through internet use), the prefrontal cortex of the brain is not active so the dopamine does not flow and you do not remember long term what you experienced.  Such lack of concentration and loss of focus also makes you less happy.  You may begin to try to compensate by seeking the latest pleasures in a narcissistic manner, subliminally coming to believe you are the celebrity the internet can make you think you are.


Research by Andrew Newberg and others suggests that dopamine and associated use of the prefrontal cortex al contribute to spiritual reflection, social behavior, and even strengthen our immune systems.  We lessen these healthy brain dynamics if we engage too much on internet activities which scatter the attention.


All this suggests a potential for having a stunted interior and reflective life, less ethical behavior, and experiencing poorer health.  If such grim potential outcomes are borne out by continuing research, and yet our conversion to digital life continues to surge (as seems a virtual certainty from present indications), can other digital tools help us overcome these brain dynamics associated with internet use?  If so, what are they, so we can all use them to our benefit?  Can Artificial Intelligence itself be a source of solutions that promote long-term memory and the spiritual, moral, and health benefits that seem to accrue to human beings from vigorous intellectual exercise, weaving our working memories into long-term schemas?  It is important for people of faith vigilantly to champion AI research into the dimensions of transcendence, morality, and happiness which our brain chemicals afford us through the exercise of human intelligence.

Rev. Dr. Mark Ellingsen

is professor of church history at the Interdenominational Theological Center in Atlanta, Georgia, and an ordained pastor in the Evangelical Lutheran Church. His area of expertise is the History of Christian Thought from the post-Biblical era through the present. Dr. Ellingsen holds Masters degrees in Divinity, Arts, and Philosophy and a Ph.D from Yale University.

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