What overloads the brain

Brain overload from too much information

The experts from the Leibniz Institute for Knowledge Media in Tübingen also report that digital technologies leave their mark on this important part of the brain. Housed in an imposing yellow brick building with a view of the medieval city center, around 90 IWM scientists are researching how computers, tablets and the Internet can improve learning and teaching. Similar to the Magdeburg researchers, they also use eye tracking and EEG caps.

"Digital media are neither good nor bad per se," explains psychology professor Ulrike Cress, director of the institute. "They have certain properties that influence thinking. We analyze how we use media better to facilitate learning processes. And how we avoid negative effects, for example - in relation to the Internet - overloading the brain with too much information."

Working group leader Peter Gerjets has an example ready for the keyword overload: "Reading and learning on the Internet is different than in a book," he says. "This is because digital texts contain different functionalities than analog, printed texts."

Basically, reading, unlike seeing and speaking, is not biologically innate, but is learned. This means that the brain first creates the broad reading streets, the network connections of the cells. Whereby a person achieves top performance when reading: The brain has to create connections in a flash, suppress nonsensical word meanings and much more.

In experiments, the people from Tübingen had their test subjects use Wikipedia-like texts that contained links to click on to learn. And in comparison, texts without links. The result: links mean distraction. "If you look at the same word when it is marked as a link, the pupil becomes measurably larger, an indicator of cognitive stress." The brain starts up, namely the working memory. Obviously, this requires resources that are also important for learning. The learning outcome can decrease.

Unopened links are distracting

"The exciting thing is: Links are distracting even if they are not opened - just because they are there," continues Professor Gerjets. "Even if we tell test subjects not to click on the links, but only to concentrate on their learning goal, we can show that their learning performance is falling." The explanation: The link can trigger an impulse in the head, the desire to jump to the new website. The brain has to suppress it. "And suppression also burdens the working memory."

Distraction, suppression of impulses, learning - everything demands its share of limited resources. How exactly is the connection and how does it affect your mind in the long term? Peter Gerjets' answer: You have to research further.

Experts suspect similar reactions to excessive demands when trying to find out more about complex, opinion-heavy topics on the Internet. "Think of the subject of vaccination protection, everything that is buzzing through the net, including fake news," says the psychologist Gerjets. You can find a lot of information. But, and that would be a mammoth job, one would have to check the sources for credibility and compare them - also a task for the working memory. "Then at some point the brain switches to a stop mode." When doing internet research, often only the first few links are called up - then it is canceled.

Despite such alarm signals, the father of a family has no concerns about encouraging their own child to learn language using an app. And both he and IWM director Cress agree: "Excessive demands and the potential for distraction are not arguments against a medium as such, but against its uncontrolled use."

Maryanne Wolf's analysis sounds more drastic. The cognitive and literary scholar from Los Angeles has specialized fully in reading. More precisely, the differences between paper and screen. It draws on experiences that many people know: If you regularly read on the screen for hours, it is often more difficult than in the past to master long distances concentrated on paper. Intensive reading suddenly becomes stressful.

Wolf analyzes in her book "Fast Reading, Slow Reading" that one generally scurries across large areas digitally. You tap the text for keywords, skim the rest. This superficial scanning is designed for speed. The deep immersion in writing, on the other hand, is more likely to be encouraged by paper.

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