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The brains of millennials are not being rewired by the internet

Opinion, 08 May 2015

There is a popular idea.

One that you probably encounter every week in some variant.

It goes along these lines.

The internet is rewiring the brains of millennials, as they evolve and adapt to the new processing skills they need to survive in today's information saturated environment.

Among the essential adaptations are things like rapidly searching, assessing quality, and synthesizing vast quantities of information and data.

Some pundits go as far as to add that the ability to think about one thing in isolation, in some depth, will be of far less consequence for most people in the near future, therefore contributing to new social and labour divides between these new 'supertaskers' and the previous generation of dullards.

On the other hand perhaps the internet has produced a generation addicted to quick-fixes of info-nuggets, self-obsessed, averse to any critical analysis, making shallow choices and chasing instant gratification.

There's not much wrong with that description either, except there's nothing particularly new or adapted to behold, and it certainly wasn't the product of the internet.

It's a fairly standard illustration of young human behaviour throughout the ages.

I prefer the explanation offered by the evolutionary psychologist, Steven Pinker.

'Claims that the Internet is changing human thought are propelled by a number of forces: the pressure on pundits to announce that this or that "changes everything"; a superficial conception of what "thinking" is that conflates content with process…

'The most interesting trend in the development of the Internet is not how it is changing people's ways of thinking but how it is adapting to the way that people think.'

The most popular and successful things on the internet are the tools that have adapted themselves to serve natural human behaviour.

Facebook, Twitter, Tinder, Instagram and new arrivals such as Snapchat and Periscope work so well because they are perfectly adapted to allow us to display (or most often fake) specific personality traits.

These traits are the 'central six' as described by another evolutionary psychologist, Geoffrey Miller.

The central six are General intelligence, Openness, Conscientiousness, Agreeableness, Stability and Extraversion.

This set supersedes any Myers-Briggs nonsense, and the briefest perusal of anyone's Twitter stream can reveal points to be placed against each of these criteria.

[Note: While it will not always give an exact score of the real personality traits of an individual it will give an accurate representation of what they are attempting to fake.

Miller's general description of humans as 'hypersocial, semi-monogamous, status-seeking primates' serves as a decent rule of thumb for all behaviour]

Additionally, it seems that much of the 'rewiring the brain' narrative – particularly in media and comms circles – seems to stem from the proliferation of neuro-bollocks (this shall be addressed in another post) and the brain-as-computer metaphor.

There are a large number of reasons why this metaphor is not useful and, for the most part, completely wrong. However, one particular difference should be most interesting for us advertising types.

Computers are binary with a numerically ordered and numbered memory. If it wants to find something it goes to a specific address and picks up the piece of information.

This is known as byte-addressable memory.

While the promise of highly targeted advertising's effectiveness sounds plausible, it is also binary – byte addressable.

But brain chemistry runs on content addressable memory or associative memory. The big difference is that when a memory is piqued in the human mind a signal is sent to the entire memory and those memory locations that have a scrap of related information all respond at once.

This is why familiar and popular brands become salient in buying or usage contexts – the number and quality of associations is strong enough to bring the brand 'to mind'.

With that thought perhaps another interesting development of the Internet is not how it is changing the way brands advertise but how the internet is adapting to the way that advertising works.

For example, Facebook Video Ads are now being bought and measured in a way that's pretty similar to how advertisers have historically bought and measured on TV.

And Bloomberg reports that Snapchat's new 'Discover' feature 'looks a lot like a basic cable package'.

The free service includes 11 'TV' channels, including CNN, ESPN, the Food Network, National Geographic, People, and Vice, alongside Comedy Central.

The channels produce their own videos and also sell their own ads, giving Snapchat a cut of the revenue.

Interestingly, with a user base of 100 million, Snapchat says it doesn't track user behaviour to target ads; advertisers get the run of the whole network.

It may be that the internet is adapting to the way that advertising – and the human mind – works.

For both advertisers and humans the principal appeal of the internet is for signaling (or faking) the central six personality traits to everyone else.

In 'The Tyranny of Dead Internet Ideas' as referenced in Don Marti's seminal piece on signaling from a brand point of view 'How Signalling Breaks Down' – Don Weaver says:

'One can argue, and maybe I'm the first one to do it, that all this targeting and audience segmentation might be creating an internet that's worse for the consumer.

'By downplaying the need for context, we're actually dis-incentivizing the creation of quality content and environments.'

So the internet is not rewiring our brains, it's adapting to how our brains work.

Likewise successful advertising and marketing on the internet – as with any other medium – will be the kind that adapts best to human nature rather than simply employing what technology can do.

The human mind is not a computer.

Albeit at the risk of muddling, and if we must have a metaphor, perhaps the one offered by Charlotte Blease – a cognitive scientist at the University College Dublin who suggests that perhaps the human mind is more like an iPhone.

'Its 'apps' are program-specific processes that evolved based on our ancestral environment. Our minds have apps for mating behaviour, predation-avoidance, kin selection, and so on.

'If we were transported back to the Stone Age, we'd still have all the right instincts.

'We'd have all the right faculties to respond to the problems presented in that environment, but in the modern world we're more likely to get knocked over.

'What's modern is in our environment, not our minds.'

About the author

Eaon Pritchard is Head of Strategy - Government Services, Dentsu Aegis Network, Australia.