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What is Twitter doing to your brain?

Unthinkable: New technology may give the impression your mind is no longer your own

Author John Boyne’s latest novel The Echo Chamber explores some of the extremes of social media. While humorous exaggeration abounds, the book has a serious message.

"Through my experiences, the people who tweet the most . . . I think they go a bit mad. I think it does something to your brain," Boyne told Ryan Tubridy in an RTÉ interview."If you are on your phone all day arguing with people over whatever your particular subject is I think it messes up the brain a bit, that you are just constantly in attack mode."

Another writer Douglas Coupland, who is associated with coining the term Generation X, made a similar point recently, describing how "around 2010 my own brain started feeling truly different".

He told the Guardian: "I realised that I was never going to go back to my old, pre-internet brain: I'd been completely rewired. Ten years later I don't even remember what my pre-internet brain felt like."


How to categorise this change is open to debate. Should we mourn the loss of our old brains? And if so should we say the internet has caused a kind of brain damage?


“There is no real damage being done [to the brain], it’s just a manipulation,” according to Billy O’Connor, foundation professor and chair of physiology at the University of Limerick Medical School.

The human brain was never designed to cater for 10,000 likes from 10,000 individuals

“What the internet companies do is take advantage of our need for nurturing – our need to be liked and to like others.”

This manipulation can be disorientating as “the human brain was never designed to cater for 10,000 likes from 10,000 individuals, especially not [for] a 13-year-old.

“We are not designed for this avalanche of nurturing that comes through social media – this attention . . . The dopamine is always on call, and you can be elated or let down at any minute depending on what the latest news is.”

Some people are clearly finding it too much. Cognitive scientist Ann-Sophie Barwich, who was interviewed recently for this column for her work on the sense of smell, deleted her Twitter account last year and posted a blog afterwards which is recommended reading for any user of the platform.

“It took me a while to realise how much I needed to get off Twitter because it restructured my attention,” she tells The Irish Times. “There was something about Twitter that even if you were off for a week or a month it was not enough to take away what was going on for me – this hum of social anxiety – this very strange way in which you recognise your thoughts being directed at something. I just noticed how much it was affecting my attention and decision-making.”

She acknowledges that social media can be helpful in connecting people and many academics feel it’s necessary to raise their profile. However, “I think we are often conflating visibility or constant exposure with actually people having read your work.”

Her Twitter link to more than 6,000 followers, and her record of a thousand tweets have been permanently erased, but she believes she is now capable of having more meaningful conversations, both online and offline, albeit in a smaller circle.

Modes of thinking

"I think social media, with its very different dynamics and rules, has changed the way we interact with other people, and the way we define our selves, through interactions with others," says neurogeneticist and active Twitter user Kevin Mitchell.

However, the Trinity College Dublin professor shies away from any talk of technology corrupting our brains. “I don’t think we should say that our ‘brains have been rewired’, but our habits and modes of thinking and conceptual metaphors have certainly changed. It’s funny, for example, having to explain to young people how Covid can spread by saying it can ‘go viral, like a meme!’

“So I would say that our ways of thinking have changed, but this is probably not a new thing. Our ways of thinking have probably been continually changing over time, with every new technological development – think of Plato decrying the invention of writing and what it would do to young minds.”

There is no point in your life when your brain is settled as 'you'

O’Connor agrees, saying it is important to remember that plasticity is a defining feature of the brain. “So you yourself were not identical to even who you were before this conversation.” There is no point in your life when your brain is settled as ‘you’.

This question of personal identity feeds into a long-running philosophical debate about where exactly consciousness lies. Under the ‘extended mind theory’, consciousness does not reside exclusively in the brain but rather straddles it and the environment. Philosophers supporting this hypothesis have suggested that the tools which we use to upload information – a notebook, for example, or a search engine – are indistinguishable from the mind itself.

If the extended mind theory is true then it would mean our minds are literally being altered each time Facebook or Google change their algorithm.

But is it true? Or does it just feel like it’s true because our heads are in such a tizzy from staring at our smartphones?

“The idea of the mind being separate from the body goes back to Aristotle,” O’Connor notes, “but as a neuroscientist talking to you now – and all neuroscientists think like this – the body and the mind are one and the same thing.”

As for theories which place the mind – or part of the mind – outside the brain, “supernatural philosophy can be neither proved nor disproved”.

Whatever about the internet literally colonising our minds, O'Connor believes Big Tech has a profound influence on our thinking. "There are only two industries that call their customers users: the illegal drugs industry and the software industry," says O'Connor, who hosts neuroscience blog Inside the Brain.

“The people who use the product are the product. What’s scary is a lot of us know this and we still pick up our phones and 20 minutes disappears.”


Could the demise of the pre-internet brain be seen as a sort of biodiversity loss? O’Connor is sceptical of the idea, although he says “we are becoming dangerously dependent on one special type of technology”.

Some people fall into an “addictive cycle” on social media, he adds. “You could call addiction a type of brain damage; it’s a psychological disempowerment. But what’s really going on there is making bad decisions regardless of the outcome.”

On the flip side, “There’s no doubt social media has tremendous positive effects . . . it can reduce loneliness or connect people up who have illnesses. Patient empowerment is a huge positive effect of Twitter.”

Social media is “not going to go away so it will be forced to become a force for social good,” he argues. “‘Nothing vast enters the life of mortals without a curse’ – that’s Sophocles. I just think we’re going through this editing stage at the moment; the flaws will be ironed out.”

We are about to witness a major leap in human consciousness. We are going to have a global human brain.

Moreover, he sees the current upheaval as part of a bigger process first prophesied in the 1940s by Jesuit priest and scientist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin – the evolution of a higher level of collective consciousness.

“We are about to witness a major leap in human consciousness,” says O’Connor. “Social media it’s just one step towards that. We are going to have a global human brain that is everybody interacting at the same time.”

His optimism is shared by Coupland, who believes technology is leading to a convergence of minds. He said he found “comfort in the fact that brains all over the planet have been rewired similarly to mine”.

What is certain is that anyone nostalgic for their old brain has a rough ride ahead. Ever-more rapid advances in technology will amplify the sensation that your mind isn’t entirely your own. As the nature of individual and global consciousness continues to evolve, it is left to each one of us to come up with our own coping mechanisms.

Boyne is back on Twitter after a break from the platform. Barwich is still glad to have deleted her account: “Frankly, I thought I would have regrets but I didn’t.”