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How technology is reshaping our brains

Linda Ray, CEO of NeuroCapability looks at how technology is reshaping our brains and asks is it time to rethink our love affair with our digital world?

Our love affair with technology is at an all-time high, but have we really considered the costs?

The first generation of young people are entering new careers having been born with devices as a constant part of their lives. Our relationship with and dependancy upon technology has grown significantly in the past two decades. But are we ignoring the impacts on our brain and at what cost?

The effects of our digital world have crept up on us, sabotaging our downtime and creating new social norms. We are even seeing new terms developed to explain experiences in the digital world.

‘Phubbing’ – a word used to describe the act of snubbing someone in a social setting by looking at your phone instead of paying attention.

But our love affair with technology is resulting in us losing our memory, our empathy, our capacity for conversation, our moments of insight and creativity and in doing so, what makes us human. These might sound like bold claims and messages of doom and gloom, but the evidence is mounting and clearly showing we must start to take action if we want to guard against the long-term consequences of these new habits.

Digital dementia

Digital dementia, a concept first described by German neuroscientist Manfred Spitzer in 2012, is on the rise. It is the term used to describe how overuse of digital technology is resulting in the breakdown of cognitive abilities in a way that is more commonly seen in people who have suffered a head injury or psychiatric illness.

Korean researchers investigated the impact of heavy digital use on Korean young people who are amongst the most prolific digital users in the world. They found heavy technology users see greater development of the left hemisphere, leaving the right side untapped or underdeveloped. The right side of the brain is associated with concentration and when under-developed affects both memory and attention span. When we don’t develop our memory muscle in the brain we see a drop in expressive and reflective language skills.

Drop in empathy and compassion

Sherry Turkle in her book Reclaiming Conversation – The power of talk in a digital age suggests we are being silenced by our technologies. In a way “cured of talking”. In the last 20 years, we have seen a 40% decline in the markers for empathy in college students, most markedly in the last 10 years.

Digital communication has replaced conversations. Communicating by text is safe. We fight by text and even break up by text. We can carefully craft and recraft a message and when we do this we are protected from the emotional impact of our message on the other.

We don’t see the impact of our interactions and in doing so, we are losing practice in the empathetic arts – learning to make eye contact, to listen and to attend to others. Without face to face communication, our conversations remain superficial. Turkle suggests the flight from conversation is a bit like climate change, hard for us to grasp the consequences of a future 30 years away, and questions whether we have assessed the full human consequences of digital technology.

Fear of being alone

Recent research shows that people are uncomfortable when left alone – even for a few minutes! Devices offer the illusion of companionship without the demands of intimacy. Living in a world where alone time is not valued and being alone makes us feel uncomfortable, we turn to our devices to keep us company. But what are we missing when we avoid this discomfort?

Boredom facilitates creativity and innovation. Insights require a ‘quiet’ brain – one that is not constantly distracted and active. Think about it…where do your best insights come from? Is it when you are texting?

Reforming our relationship with the digital world

What can we do to protect our brains from potentially harmful effects of the digital world?

  • Establish device free time and device free zones in the classroom, the home, and the workplace
  • Develop policies and protocols that manage in a proactive way the potential harms of the digital world
  • Don’t sleep with your phone
  • Stop multitasking
  • Pick up the phone or better still go see people and have a conversation with them

For more tips check out our BrainBites which will support you to establish a healthier relationship with your digital devices.

2 Responses

  1. Thanks for the practical and well thought out strategies to reduce the technology impact. Also appreciate the insights into negative tech outcomes. I’ve thought that for some time that technology is a neutral thing, similar to money. The use of either of these two things is what alters them from neutral for they both can be used for good outcomes. Both can be addictive and the pursuit of them can be consuming. Keep us posted on more tech risks. Thanks

  2. This is a really important article and topic. We need to return to a world of real conversation and connection with each other. Thank you for the work you are doing – very interesting.

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