Freud v. Facebook: How Technology Is Changing Our Brains

Vol. 3, No. 5


  • Are we losing our ability to connect on a deep level?


I enjoy technology. I started using computers in high school with an Apple IIe (circa 1983). I have accounts with Facebook, Skype, YouTube, Twitter, Google+, LinkedIn, FourSquare, Pinterest, and Yelp (most of which I rarely use). I have an iPad, a smartphone, and a notebook computer. I have always looked at technology as a way to improve my work environment and to provide some useful diversions at home. There is no doubt that technology has dramatically affected our day-to-day lives, but recently two books have researched how the Internet and technology actually affect the brain. Some of the news is not particularly good.

In 2010, Nicholas Carr caused quite a stir with his book The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains. Carr was concerned about the amount of time most Americans spend looking at television, computer monitors, or the screen on their mobile phones—sometimes using several devices at the same time. He referred to a 2009 Ball State University study revealing that most Americans spend at least 8½ hours a day looking at a screen. Nicholas Carr, The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains, 87, (Brendan Curry ed., W.W. Norton & Company, Inc. 2010). Carr also looked at research which described the plasticity of the human brain—the brain’s ability to rewire itself based upon different ways of thinking.

There is a sense that, once you become an adult, the brain is fully formed and does not change. Carr suggests that is not the case and that repeated exposure to technology can actually change the brain. For example, Carr noted that the Internet, by its nature, is not set up for deep reading. It is, however,  “precisely the kind of sensory and cognitive stimuli-repetitive, intensive, interactive, addictive-that have been shown to result in strong and rapid alterations in brain circuits and functions. “ Id. at 116. On the Internet, we constantly scan pages for the information we are looking for. His book suggests that reading books on electronic devices generally means that the reader will skim a given page and recall a lot less of the content. Id. at 135–36.

Carr wonders whether the next generation will have the attention to commit to reading classical literature, which requires a substantial time commitment and attention to detail. He mentioned a 2003 study that surveyed a number of professionals regarding their reading habits over the prior 10 years. Eighty-one percent (81%) of those surveyed reported they were spending more time browsing and scanning. Forty-five percent (45%) of those surveyed said their in-depth reading had declined. The author of the study concluded, “the digital environment tends to encourage people to explore many topics extensively, but at a more superficial level.” Carr concludes that the vast amount of online information reduces the necessity of deep reading and deep thought because the information is always stored on Internet. Id. at 138. For lawyers, who were taught to analyze and dissect a given case or statute to argue a point effectively, one wonders how that will affect the future of legal education and training. The digital connection to the brain does not end there, however.

In 2012, Dr. Larry Rosen wrote iDisorder: Understanding Our Obsession with Technology and Overcoming Its Hold on Us. Dr. Rosen looks at a number of mental disorders and how technology can actually reinforce some of these disorders. For example, he suggests that the narcissist personality type may well spend a lot of time on Facebook and Twitter to inform the world about their activities. Obsessive-compulsives may be those people who have to check email every five minutes regardless of where they are. Likewise, the people with ADHD may be those people who have one million things they’re working on, but lack the ability to complete a single task. Hypochondriacs troll the Internet to find exotic explanations for their various maladies, much to the chagrin of their health care professionals. Our online interactions may directly affect our mental state. According to Dr. Rosen, some research suggests that students who had more negative interactions on Facebook or MySpace were more likely to be depressed, regardless of whether they were heavy or light users of the sites. Larry Rosen, Ph.D. et al., iDisorder: Understanding Our Obsession with Technology and Overcoming Its Hold on Us, P. 85 (Laurie Harting ed., Palgrave Macmillan 2012). Technology can also impact how effectively we work on a day-to-day basis.

Recently, several colleagues were complaining about the days when they are really busy, but at the end of the day can’t account for a large chunk of their billable day. Most of us, myself included, consider ourselves to be multitaskers, but Dr. Rosen correctly points out that none of us can actually do multiple things at the same time; rather, we are task switchers—moving from one activity then back to the other. Even though we think we are being efficient, the research suggests that getting back to the original task can take anywhere from one minute to 25 minutes, depending on the industry. This is significant when one considers some research indicates that a quarter of our day is spent reading email. Dr. Rosen finds that there are more costs than benefits to multitasking, including: attention difficulties, poor decision-making, lack of in depth review of material, information overload, Internet addiction, poor sleep habits, and overuse of caffeine. Rosen, supra at 106. In addition to creating distractions, technology can also affect interpersonal communications.

Over the last several years, I have received several scorched earth email messages that were followed by sheepish apologies. I have sent email that I later recognized came across as terse or sarcastic when I did not intend it. The reason is pretty clear—the computer screen is a great way to avoid lengthy or uncomfortable face-to-face meetings. The research suggests that people who are communicating via computer are more uninhibited. The problem is, however, that most electronic communication does not really reflect a person’s tone. All of us have heard before that a large portion of communication is nonverbal. The words account for seven percent and the tone accounts for 38% of the message. Email, therefore, is significantly limiting the effectiveness and comprehension of the message. Is the person being sincere or sarcastic? Is the person being abrupt or simply pressed for time? A 2006 article from Christian Science Monitor cited a study from two professors, Michael Morris and Jeff Lowenstein, who got angry at each other in connection with some email exchanges and tried to figure out how it happened. After doing some research, the professors found that when parties are communicating by email, 78% of the time the sender believes he is communicating the information and the recipient believes she understands the communication 89% of the time, but, in fact, the recipient correctly interprets the information only 56% of the time. Another study found that people who interacted by email were less cooperative and felt justified in being noncooperative. Yet another study found that personal evaluations conducted via email rather than through paper form were more negative toward the employee. Michael Morris and Jeff Lowenstein concluded that it is very important for the sender to draft the email based upon how they perceive the recipient will understand the information. Even better, they suggest picking up the phone to avoid miscommunication, especially when the parties do not have a preexisting relationship.

Although it appears that the Internet and related technology are literally changing our brains, both Nicholas Carr and Dr. Larry Rosen have identified some ways to limit their effects. Dr. Rosen suggested taking technology breaks from time to time. For example, rather than checking email every time a new email comes in, a person should review email on an hourly basis. Block time daily that is interruption free—no calls, checking Facebook, or responding to emails. Dr. Rosen also stresses the importance of face-to-face contact versus digital contact. Think before responding to a terse email. Sometimes just getting out the office is helpful. Carr points to some research suggesting that it is important to get outdoors to recalibrate our brains. The study suggested simply looking at pictures of nature scenes has the same effect as actually being in nature. Carr, supra at 220.

As we have learned through countless science fiction books and movies, technology is not inherently good or bad—it’s how we use (or sometimes abuse) it. I haven’t closed my Facebook account and pulled out a quill pen in lieu of email quite yet. I have, however, tried to make a few more phone calls to resolve disputes and to remind myself that very few emails require my immediate attention. Technology is here to stay and a critical part of day-to-day practice, but the human connection is still the most critical part.



This article was published previously in the December 2012 issue of Res Gestae, a publication of the Indiana State Bar Association. Copyright 2012 Indiana State Bar Association. Republished with permission of the author.


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