How Facebook and Twitter warp your brain

Tweet this and watch your IQ fall: A psychologist says micro-blogging makes us stupid. But not Facebook!

Published September 9, 2009 5:18PM (EDT)

Dr Tracy Alloway of Scotland's University of Stirling has a theory, pithily summarized by Australia's "Facebook makes you sharper but Twitter makes you thicker."

Alloway studies what she calls "working memory" -- "the new IQ" or "our ability to remember and manipulate information."

Staying abreast of all your Facebook action, theorizes Alloway, is like playing strategy games or solving puzzles -- "It hones the ability to remember information and to use it."

But text messaging, micro-blogging on Twitter and watching YouTube were likely to weaken "working memory".

"On Twitter you receive an endless stream of information, but it's also very succinct," Dr Alloway said.

"You don't have to process that information. Your attention span is being reduced and you're not engaging your brain and improving nerve connections."

Dr. Alloway is the director of The Centre for Memory & Learning in the Lifespan at the University of Stirling and is the author of a long list of academic articles on the topic of "working memory." But the neuroscience of Facebook and Twitter addiction still appears to be in its infancy, and Alloway's theories raise some important additional research questions.

  • What happens to people who are avid users of both Twitter and Facebook? Do the effects cancel each other out, leaving us just as dumb as when we started?
  • What about people who pipe their tweets into Facebook? Are they making all their Facebook friends stupider? Or are they getting stupider while their friends smarten up?
  • And finally, how much dumber do we become after reading a blog post about a psychologist's theories as to how Facebook and Twitter make us smarter or dumber?

HTWW intends to start thinking about the global economy at some point today, but first I have to tweet this post, write about it on Facebook, text some friends and watch some YouTube videos about zany cyclists. If any brain cells remain functional after that point, maybe we'll learn something about what the crash of Lehman Brothers did to financial markets almost exactly one year ago.

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

MORE FROM Andrew Leonard

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Facebook How The World Works Social Media Twitter