How the Internet Redesigns your Mind

The following is the transcript for the video by the same name on my channel “What I’ve Learned,” originally posted on March 10th, 2017.

Imagine for a second that everyone had a magical cube in their pockets. With the right permutation, you could materialize all kinds of food or drink.

At first there was only one cube in existence and nobody knew what it did until after about a year of fiddling with the thing, someone found the permutation for water. After that, they started to quickly figure out how to make more things like tea and avocados and all kinds of vegetables.

Over several years, they figured out how to manufacture the cubes efficiently and inexpensively and with a lot more cubes and plenty of people to play with them, things rapidly progressed to the point where they were making more complex things like kimchi, butter or yogurt. Cube users were increasing exponentially and the whole world was excited about this- it was going to cure world hunger, standard of living would increase across the globe, everyone would have infinite access to healthy foods! Along the way people figured out how to make snacks like oreos. A couple days later beer was added to the list, and discussions began about whether or not to let minors have a cube. Then a bunch of hard liquors came out and a few people became slightly worried about the whole situation. Then a couple weeks later two guys from Virginia show up and say “Hey uhhh we just made cocaine with the cube.”  Most people thought it might be better if everyone didn’t have infinite supply of cocaine at all times, but at this point millions of people already had cubes and it was drastically improving their lives.

For the first time in most of these people’s lives, they were in a situation where they had access to a huge variety of choices at all moments during the day . They could do anything from having the highest quality nourishing meal, to deciding to add just one or two cookies to their lunch, or they could say “Work’s not going so well, maybe a spot of cocaine would help.” And that’s kind of what we have with the internet.

It’s unrealistic to say you get pathologically addicted to the internet as fast as you would to cocaine, but just as the mystical cube people can choose to nourish or poison their bodies at any point in the day, the internet allows us to subject our brains to information that enriches our intellect and gives us new perspectives, OR we can choose streams of information that leave us thinking “What I have been doing the last 30 minutes?”

The thing is, the problem goes deeper than just the minutes you lost to twitter, facebook or reddit. The way you use the internet literally changes your brain’s default way of operating, and part of it has to do with how intimately your brain interacts with tools. A 2010 research article from the association of psychological science found that when you are using a tool, your brain understands the tool not as something you are manipulating with your hands, but as an actual part of your body.

For example if you have someone hold a marker and then you could ask their brain to describe their right hand, the brain might say something like “I have 6 rods coming out of a meat filled slab. 5 of the rods are bendable and 3 of them are attached to a rigid, meatless rod.” Kind of like you are what you eat, from your brain’s perspective you are what you use.

Amazon | The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains | Carr,  Nicholas | Neuroscience

But what about more abstract tools? In Nicholas Carr’s book “The Shallows,” which is about how the internet affects your brain, he explains how different tools change our perception of the world and the the actual way we think, and not just what we think about.  One example is the very simple and useful tool that is the map. Without the map people would rely on their sight as well as their understanding of intricate smells and sounds to create a 3D landscape in their minds. The map then simplifies this complex process down to just visualizing your position in space as a point on a 2D plane. 

Another example is how originally our perception of time was an understanding of how cycles and rhythms of the natural world relate to each other. With the advent of the mechanical clock, we began to look at our day as just a compilation of neatly segmented slices of time.  

Even something as simple as the spaces between words can be considered a tool that changes the way we use our brains. Forawhile,therewerenospaces betweenwordsandeverythingwasjustjammedtogether,soyouhadtoreadthetext outloudtoseewhereonewordbeganandanotherended. This complicated and tiring task of pronouncing everything out loud meant people didn’t read for very long periods of time. Putting spaces between words made the task of reading much easier to the point that people could read silently to themselves for much longer stretches of time. Because people now had something they could engage with and stay concentrated on for hours at a time, deep focus became a more widespread skill. 

Naturally, we are wired in a way that our default state is to be always alert to new stimuli or pieces of information. From your brain’s perspective, being ready to rapidly switch your attention from gathering berries to examining the noise of a snapping twig is much more helpful for survival than the ability to contemplate one story or one subject for hours at a time. Getting distracted was useful. While there are some situations like hunting in which the ability to focus was necessary for survival, the book acted as one of the first tools that developed the contemplative and creative mind by rewiring the brain for enhanced concentration.

However, the recent internet environment is one that wires peoples’ brains for enhanced distractibility. At all times you have multiple streams of information in the form of notifications, advertisements, suggested videos, and messages from your friends and even something as innocent as a blog post or text article is usually peppered with hyperlinks you can choose to click on. Our brains are naturally on the alert for new information, and the more we’re exposed to this kind of virtual interface, the more our brain decides to rewire itself to respond to and even crave these internet distractions. Try and think about how long you usually stay on one tab, one application or one video at a time. Might be no
longer than a couple minutes or even a few seconds.

How many tab switches does it take to get a proper email written? If you’re on your computer, how many tabs do you have open right now? You might have flipped over to facebook in just the course of this video without even realizing it. I’ve even found myself opening up reddit on my phone while watching a movie on my TV that I’m enjoying. I’m already entertained, so what am I doing? 

Amazon | The Brain That Changes Itself: Stories of Personal Triumph from the  Frontiers of Brain Science | Doidge, Norman | Neuroscience

Findings in neuroplasticity research are consistently showing that the brain has the remarkable ability to literally rewire itself to be more suited to its environment. In stroke patients, because paralyzed limbs were a result of damage to the the area of the brain that controlled that limb, the assumption was there would be very little room for recovery. But, by doing things like putting a patient’s good hand in an oven mitt and taping it up with duct tape, they had no choice but to try to use the dysfunctional limb. In response their brains reconfigured themselves to map different areas to controlling that and remapped themselves to assign different neurons to the task of operating that limb. This produced remarkable recoveries of function in their dysfunctional limbs.

By the same token, you can exercise or let atrophy different modes of thinking. Maybe at some point you finally set some time aside to work on that big project you’ve been meaning to do, only to find yourself feeling uncomfortable and asking yourself “Why can’t I focus?”
The reason is the same as why most people can’t sign their names with their left hand. You don’t usually 

Alright, so what if we are gearing our brains to be distracted? Maybe things take a bit longer to do- that’s not that terrible.  

The problem with getting distracted has to do with how your short term memory processing works. Your brain, ironically, can be compared to a web browser. For example, when you’re shopping on Amazon, you might want to go back a couple pages to double check the price of something. You can do this by clicking the back button because the web browser stores those pages in its recent history. When you’re doing something like reading a book, your brain is processing and storing the information in short term memory so it can relate the paragraph you’re reading to the last couple paragraphs you just read. If you get distracted by a text message while you’re reading, you might find that when you go back to the sentence you were just on, you’re asking “Wait, who are they talking about?” This is because getting distracted and shifting your attention to the text message is like clearing your recent browser history. Your brain can’t hit the back button to review what it just read because it dumped what was in the short term memory to focus on the text message, so you have to reread the last paragraph or two. 

Being distracted like this gets in the way of the insightful, creative thinking necessary to complete fulfilling and ambitious tasks. You process information in the short term memory like this when you’re doing anything from working on a business idea, to practicing piano or writing an article. With enough time and uninterrupted focus, the information slowly trickles from your conscious short term memory to your subconscious long term memory.  And it’s only when information is in the long term memory that you can make insightful connections with other pieces of information you’ve picked up in the past. The reason you get those Aha! Moments and creative insights out of the blue is because in the background, your subconscious long term memory is processing new and old bits of information and making connections between them. This is also why you might not feel any improvement while practicing piano, but you’re suddenly better the next day. It’s because you focused and practiced long enough that the information went from your short term memory to your long term memory and the long term memory then did its processing job. 

When something distracts you and pulls your focus from the task at hand, this transfer of information from short term to long term memory gets interrupted. Unfortunately you can’t really be aware of this subconscious long term memory process is being disrupted. The reason you didn’t come up with any good ideas during the brain storming session or are having trouble grasping the material for a class could be that you’re clearing your brain’s recent browser history too often by getting distracted and you’re not letting your long term memory connect the dots for you.

The primary message of Cal Newport’s book “Deep Work” is that the ability to focus and concentrate deeply is crucial for being successful in fulfilling endeavors, whether it’s learning a new skill, writing a book, developing a business plan for a new company or creating a piece of art. To be truly productive and successful professionally or creatively in this competitive and fast moving world, you need to set up long blocks of time where you can work completely uninterrupted and you’ll need to have developed a mind where distraction is not the default mode.

When people are picking out what to eat they kind of have it in the back of their mind how that piece of food is going to change their body. They can expect that while processed junk food does taste good, it will make them gain weight and have less energy. But I don’t think enough people are thinking “Is the way I’m about to use my smart phone right now going to change my brain’s default setting to be more focused or more distracted?” 

Looking at a couple memes for 5 minutes when you need a quick break from work probably doesn’t feel like a big deal and it probably isn’t. Then again, your brain has the annoying ability to quickly habituate towards activities that provide enjoyment for very little energy. Have you ever been in that situation where it’s 4PM, you’ve been working pretty hard and you get the idea to go get a cookie. You figure just one cookie isn’t going to make you fat and it will help you get through the last bit of the day, so you get the cookie. But then the next day, 4PM rolls around and you suddenly have a craving for something sweet…

Looking back on my cube analogy, cocaine may seem like too intense of an example for the bad aspects of the internet. Well, research has shown that the difficulty with cocaine isn’t just that it rewires your pleasure center to make you addicted to it, cocaine actually damages the dendrites of the neurons in the prefrontal cortex- this is the area of the brain that is responsible for executive control. Executive control is essentially the ability to stay rational, maintain focus and exert willpower in order to achieve some sort of long term goal. This means that at the same time one area of the addict’s brain is wired to crave cocaine, the area that he needs to rely on to resist these cravings is damaged. So, it’s this kind of rewiring of the brain in a way that interferes with your ability to reach your personal potential that I’m pointing to when I make the comparison to certain negative aspects of the internet. 

While it happens slowly, these quick or instant bursts of new and interesting information from the internet can become a slippery slope into a brain that enjoys and desires distraction and prefer instant gratification. Also, consider this: in cases of people truly addicted to the internet they also have severely reduced executive function, similar to the cocaine addicts.

In many ways, the internet is an incredibly useful and helpful tool. But a deeper understanding  of which aspects of the internet affect your brain in what ways is necessary to modify your usage in a way that keeps your brain functioning the way you want it to. We’ll be looking at this more in depth soon, so stick around.

Why Sleep is Critical for the Body and Brain

The following is the transcript for the video by the same name on my channel “What I’ve Learned.”

After reading The Sleep Revolution which is all about the importance of a good night’s sleep… I found it really hard to… fall asleep. Before that I didn’t have much difficulty with it, but after being bombarded with endless statistics and research results illustrating the detriments of inadequate sleep, I became very anxious about how long I was lying awake in my bed. 

When we’re trying to get more out of life, sleep is usually the first thing that gets cut to make room in our schedules. Ironically, it can be hard to realize that by cutting back on sleep, we are decreasing productivity, creativity, concentration, patience, communication skills and a lot of what makes a good… human. That’s because less sleep results in a less effective brain and less healthy body. Pretty much whatever you’re doing, you end up doing it worse.

Of course there are some cases where you have no choice but to stay up late or wake up early. But I’d like to spend this video looking over why sleep is so important. By getting a new perspective on sleep, hopefully you’ll enjoy getting more of it rather than just feeling like you’re wasting 8 hours of your life. First, let’s take a look at what happens to your mind when you’re not completing the process of sleep properly. 

In 1999, two professors at Loughborough University wanted to test how sleep affects the brain’s ability to react to changing conditions. They developed a computer game set in the business world, and MBA students had to promote sales of a virtual product. Then, halfway through the game, the dynamics of the virtual marketplace suddenly changed. Now strategies that used to work resulted in terrible sales. Only students who could quickly change and adapt could survive. 

 Students were split into two groups, one with restricted sleep and another where they could sleep as much as they liked. Most of the students who slept well quickly adapted to the changes and maintained their sales. On the other hand, the sleep-deprived students were unable to modify their strategy appropriately and very quickly became bankrupt. 

The conclusion was that without sleep, their brains lost the ability to consider alternative solutions to problems. Brain scans have shown that when you’re lacking sleep, the neurons firing in the prefrontal cortex begin to slow down. The prefrontal cortex is particularly important for the behaviors that make us… human. This region is associated with planning, personality expression, decision making, attention control, reasoning, and problem solving. When you lack sleep, it’s harder for us to complete a thought or see a problem in a new way. 

In a talk on the role of sleep in learning and creativity, Robert Stickgold discusses an experiment where subjects were supposed to come up with a string of numbers based on a different set of numbers they were provided with. The instructions were complicated, but after several trials everyone got the hang of it and could slowly but consistently solve the number puzzle. However, there was a trick to make the process much faster. The last three numbers in the sequence always ended up being a mirror image of the 3 numbers before it. They wanted to see how long it would take people to pick up on the trick. So, after everyone got a hang of the instructions, they had them wait 12 hours and then try it again. But, they were split into three groups: those who learned how to do the puzzle in the morning and got tested at night, those who learned how to do it at night and then stayed awake all night before trying in the morning, and those who tried in the morning but had gotten a good night’s rest. 

The first two groups showed about the same chance of discovering the trick in the puzzle. But with the 3rd group, again the only difference is that they got to sleep, they were 2.5 times more likely to gain the insight into the puzzle and catch the trick.

[Robert Stickgold] “So you can gain these insights when you didn’t even know there was an insight to find, just by sleeping on it. It’s an amazing phenomenon, it really is. It’s like… how does it do it?

Two big things on the sleep to-do list that allow for such insights are memory consolidation and information processing. While asleep, your brain looks at the information you picked up throughout the day, prunes out the useless junk and keeps the things worth remembering. Of the four stages of sleep, slow wave sleep and rapid eye movement have been shown to move electrical impulses between the brain stem, hippocampus, thalamus and cortex. These four areas serve as relay stations for memory formation. During this process, your brain takes the information in the short term memory and moves the important bits to long term memory.

In this World Science Festival program, Neurobiology professor Matthew Wilson describes an experiment designed to gain insight into this information processing step. They analyzed the brain activity of rats while they were making their way through a maze, and then compared that to their brain activity while sleeping. What they saw was that as the rat went into non-REM deep sleep, its brain was lighting up as if it was actually back in the maze… except it was replaying the information about 10 times faster than normal, and it was playing the events backwards and forwards and skipping around. The idea is that during this non-REM deep sleep phase, your brain is quickly reviewing the information you’ve gained throughout the day and taking notes. It’s kind of like flipping around in your textbook before your test the next day.

REM sleep however is played out at normal speed. This is why your dreams, however ridiculous, will follow some sequence of events. While you dream, your brain is seeing how unrelated pieces of information fit together and simulating scenarios you might need to be prepared for. What if my boss turns into the monster from Pan’s Labyrinth, what would I do! Because your brain is playing around with information like this, some of our most creative insights can come to us in the form of dreams. August Kekulé in 1865 came up with the structure of the Benzene molecule in a dream. Elias Howe owes the invention of the sewing machine to a dream. Paul McCartney came up with the melody for Yesterday in a dream, and there’s all kinds of examples like this. 

Because of the timing at which these processes happen, it’s suggested that you should go to sleep 3 hours after acquiring declarative knowledge like after studying from a book, and you should go to sleep 1 hour after working on procedural knowledge like playing an instrument. Also if you’re trying to learn or remember something, you should definitely avoid alcohol. It’s thought that the reason we don’t remember much after drinking alcohol is that alcohol interferes with memory consolidation. 

So insufficient sleep interferes with creativity and memory, but it can also interfere with your personality and competence in general. As mentioned earlier, the more “human” part of your brain, the prefrontal cortex shows less activity when you’re sleep deprived. The Amygdala on the other hand, shows more activity. The amygdala is associated with processing emotional information and, as this study has found, “a lack of sleep inappropriately modulates the human emotional brain response to negative aversive stimuli.” Essentially, the less sleep you get, the more likely you are to interpret situations negatively, overreact to things and be more moody in general. This can manifest itself as more fights with your spouse as illustrated by this article, or as much more drastic behavior. 

In 2009, a band of American soldiers from the 172nd infantry found themselves in court martial for murdering two men in Baghdad against a superior’s orders. Their lawyers’ defense was that the soldiers were too sleep deprived to make rational decisions.

David Randall’s book Dreamland discusses several how in the early 80’s military studies found that sleep deprived air force pilots “changed their vocal patterns, no longer enunciating or speaking loudly enough [to be understood]”  by their co pilots. Maybe that didn’t bother the military that much because in 1996 ”…crew fatigue was blamed for thirty-two accidents that destroyed American military aircraft, including three F-14 jetfighters that cost $38 million each.” The military has spent millions of dollars testing all kinds of methods to keep soldiers awake longer, but in 2007 they concluded that the only way to recover from lost sleep was to …sleep.

One issue is that it’s “cool” to not sleep so much. Getting by on less sleep is the mark of a “hustler,” a hard worker who will stop at nothing to achieve their goals. During a speech, Arnold Schwarzenegger said “We sleep 6 hours a day, so that give you still 18 hours. There’s someone shaking their head out here in front and say probably ‘I don’t sleep 6 hours, I sleep 8 hours.’ Well, just sleep faster.”

Now some of you may say “I’m operating just fine on my 6 hours of sleep a night.” And you could be one of the 5% of the population with the genetic mutation that lets you get by on only 6 hours of sleep.  But as we discussed earlier, activity in the prefrontal cortex lessens when you lack sleep. And The prefrontal cortex is the only part of the brain that has the power of self-assessment, ….to think about how it is thinking. So if you’re not getting enough sleep, would your prefrontal cortex properly recognize that it’s working at sub-optimal capacity? Let’s put it this way: If your  brain was operating at say only 85% of its performance capacity, could it make the mistake of thinking it was performing at 100% capacity? 

It’s not only your brain that needs sleep, also on the sleep to do list is tissue repair, maintenance of metabolic pathways and the balancing of hormones. Sleep is very important for your body too. 

A study at the University of Chicago put participants on a calorie restricted diet and then randomly assigned them to sleep 5.5 hours or 8.5 hours each night. Those who slept only 5.5 hours lost 55% less body fat. Again, they were on the same diets. The sleep deprived group did lose weight, but they were losing more muscle. They lost 60% more fat-free mass compared to those who slept well. They also reported feeling hungrier. An important factor in this was that the sleep deprived group were shown to have much higher ghrelin levels. Ghrelin is a hormone that causes you to retain fat and feel more hungry. It has been shown that just one night of poor sleep leads to a 15% increase in this “hunger hormone.” 

Our bodies are very complex dynamic systems so usually it’s not only one hormone that gets disrupted. Lack of sleep also means lowered levels of the satiety hormone leptin, and less melatonin. Melatonin has some very powerful anti-aging and anti-cancer properties, and as the Journal of pineal research found, melatonin increases weight loss by increasing brown adipose tissue. Brown adipose tissue or BAT Fat actually acts a lot like muscle in that it increases your metabolic rate and burns white adipose tissue- white adipose tissue is the fat you don’t want. 

Inadequate sleep also increases Cortisol, which has been shown to increase the worst type of fat -visceral fat, the stuff that surrounds your organs. Cortisol also encourages your body to break down muscle for fuel through a process called gluconeogenesis. 

Whether you are trying to make some “gains” or just want to lose a bit of fat, your time in the gym needs to be complemented with proper sleep.

One more key hormone secreted during sleep is Human Growth Factor (HGH), otherwise known as “the youth hormone”. As the name suggests, it stimulates growth, cell reproduction and cell regeneration, which means increased muscle, more fat loss, and other things like improved skin elasticity. Human growth hormone even plays a role in  improving cognitive function and a deficiency in it has been linked with depression. At the University of Berkeley, lack of sleep was the top predictor of depression symptoms among graduate students. 

It’s important to get enough sleep, but also to get it at the right time. While it depends on each individual’s circadian rhythm, in general 10PM to 2AM is when your body secretes the most growth hormone (that is- IF you’re asleep at that time). 

Thomas Edison, a famous opponent of sleep, said that “Sleep is a criminal waste of time, inherited from our cave days.” Did him dying of type 2 diabetes in an era when the disease was exceptionally rare have anything to do with that? Maybe.

The other thing on the sleep to do list is waste cleanup. The brain takes up 2% of the body’s mass yet burns up one quarter of the body’s energy supply. Throughout the course of the day, the brain produces a decent amount of waste.

The brain handles this waste cleanup task during sleep via something called the glymphatic system in which brain cells shrink to allow for cerebrospinal fluid to flood into the brain and flush out the waste. Kind of like a dishwasher. One thing that needs to be flushed out is the compound adenosine. Adenosine is a byproduct of your neurons and other cells when they burn up adenosine triphosphate, the main molecule that our bodies use to store energy. As adenosine builds up, you start to slow down and accumulate a “sleep pressure”. When your adenosine levels reach a certain point, your body sends you signals to go to sleep.

Caffeine works by bonding to the same receptors as adenosine, tricking the body into thinking it’s not tired. While caffeine will wake you up, it will interfere with your sleep cycle if taken too late in the day. Cristopher Drake, associate professor of behavioral neurosciences at Wayne State University School of Medicine led a study that found that taking caffeine even 6 hours before bed can lead to a measurable objective loss of 1 hour of sleep. What this means is that it may seem like you got say 7 hours of sleep after having a coffee mid day, but a sleep monitor would show that you’re not properly dipping into the normal ranges of REM and deep sleep, leading to an actual sleep total of 6 hours. For this reason it’s recommended to finish your caffeine at least 8 or more hours before you go to sleep. 

Like adenosine, Amyloid beta is another waste product that is created in the brain as a consequence of being alive. Unfortunately, excess amyloid beta is toxic to the brain and Amyloid plaques have been thoroughly linked to Alzheimer’s disease. It’s understood that Alzheimer’s patients don’t create significantly more amyloid beta than other people, but they simply were not clearing it out enough. Of course other lifestyle factors like diet play a role here, but sleep could be particularly critical for avoiding neurodegenerative disease.

Artificial intelligence, robots, and all kinds of automation are already replacing jobs nowadays and the technology is only expected to get better and better. Machine intelligence may be the last invention humanity will ever need to make, but at least until that point we need to set ourselves up access our creative insights and take advantage of the more human faculties of our brains. As Daniel Pink says in A Whole New Mind, it’s the “creative and emphatic ‘right-brain’ oriented thinkers whose abilities mark the fault line between who gets ahead and who doesn’t.” Without enough sleep, our bodies as well as these creative, insightful and emotionally adept human faculties of our brains suffer.