Technology is changing our brains as well as our lives. If you’re reading this, it’s likely that you’re staring into a screen. Our inability to look away from our tablets, smartphones and social networking platforms is changing the way we process information and perceive the world, according to Adam Alter, author of the new book “Irresistible: The Rise of Addictive Technology and the Business of Keeping Us Hooked.”
In one Gallup Panel survey, 52 percent of smartphone owners reported checking their mobile devices a few times an hour or more. Data confirms that young people are even more wired: More than seven in 10 young smartphone users check their device a few times an hour or more often, and 22 percent admit to looking at it every few minutes.
The digital age is transforming our behavior when we limit our communication to 140 characters and use emojis to express our emotions. When we’re bored, we simply reach for our gadgets.
To mark Brain Awareness Week, here are five ways that modern technology is impacting our brains and our lives.
We have decreased attention spans:
It takes a much shorter time for us to grow bored and move onto the next thing. "Ten years ago, before the iPad and iPhone were mainstream, the average person had an attention span of about 12 seconds," Alter said in an NPR interview this week. Now, he says, "research suggests that there's been a drop from 12 to eight seconds ... shorter than the attention of the average goldfish, which is nine seconds."
We are more easily distracted:
A Microsoft Corp. study surveyed 2,000 participants and studied the brain activity of 112 others using electroencephalograms (EEGs) while they performed several activities across devices. It found that “heavy multi-screeners find it difficult to filter out irrelevant stimuli — they’re more easily distracted by multiple streams of media.” In other words, it’s hard to complete a necessary task when our phone signals in incoming message.
In “The Distracted Mind: Ancient Brains in a High-Tech World,” the authors argue that distraction impacts our productivity, relationships, and ability to learn. They say our brains have not changed much since we were cavemen, yet our ancestors did not have to deal with the vast amounts of digital data inundating our lives.
We can more easily multitask:
The Microsoft report says our ability to multitask has drastically improved in the mobile age. While that may sound like good news, Psychology Today reminds us that, “multitasking, as most people understand it, is a myth that has been promulgated by the ‘technological-industrial complex’ to make overly scheduled and stressed-out people feel productive and efficient.” That’s because performing various activities involving the same type of brain processing isn’t possible; you can’t talk on the phone, read e-mail, send an instant message, and watch YouTube videos all at the same time and still retain information.
We have grown addicted to digital technology:
Admit it; you’ve been tempted to stop working and check your Facebook feed to see how many “likes” you’ve received on your latest post. Similar to chemical dependence, technology and its built-in gratification are hard to resist. We simply can’t stop ourselves from compulsively checking our texts and scrolling down our social media feeds.
“The technology is designed to hook us that way. Email is bottomless. Social media platforms are endless. Twitter? The feed never really ends. You could sit there 24 hours a day and you’ll never get to the end. And so you come back for more and more,” Alter told the New York Times. “We are engineered in such a way that as long as an experience hits the right buttons, our brains will release the neurotransmitter dopamine. We’ll get a flood of dopamine that makes us feel wonderful in the short term, though in the long term you build a tolerance and want more.”
Our ability to socially interact in person is impaired:
It’s a common sight to see two people eating together at a restaurant, but instead of talking to each other they are staring down at their cellphones. The consequences may be worse for children growing up in the digital age. In his book, Alter spells out research that shows kids who spend a lot of time staring at screens rather than engaging with others suffer from an inability to empathize and read social cues.
“When kids are asked to detect people's emotions — happy, sad, angry, surprised — based on nonverbal cues, those who spend a lot of time on tech struggle to decipher one emotion from another at a much higher rate than kids who spend more time interacting in the real world,” Alter said in an interview. "One of the things that happens with our brains is we get used to whatever is the most rapid thing we're experiencing.”
The good news is that there are ways to rely on technology and still have balanced lives. The authors of “The Distracted Mind” and others say we can recalibrate our brains and lead healthier lives with meditation and physical exercise as well as putting down our phones during meals and offline social interactions.