Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Training the Brain

As a society, we are techno-addicts, shifting obsessively back and forth between gadgets, from smart phones and iPods to laptops and televisions, among others. Over the past 50 years, our consumption of information has more than tripled. The bulk of young people now spend 7-10 hours each day staring at screens—and that’s when they’re not at school or working! On average, we compulsively check our email about 37 times each day and visit about the same number of websites [1]. Awash in an ever-shifting sea of digital information, we all too rarely stop to consider the impact of this rampant technophilia on ourselves, our families, and our communities.

Several months ago, I argued on this blog [2] that the Internet is a mixed blessing, offering up the “Great Source” of information while simultaneously leading us toward the “extinction of experience”—that is, the absence of time spent outdoors in nature. If we are to stave off the deepening sustainability crisis, I suggested, our experience of reality must become less virtual and more “real.” Today I would like to build on this discussion. Instead of focusing on what we lose by not spending time outdoors, my emphasis here is directed at the influence of technology on our minds.

Last week, a cover story in the New York Times [1] tackled this timely topic and highlighted a number of revealing studies. Since you are likely a consumer of technology yourself, and thus have considerable personal experience, most of the results will likely come as no surprise. Heavy consumption of information technologies reduces attention spans and makes us more easily distracted. Regular email interruptions tend to increase stress and decrease short term memory, making it more difficult to learn or perform even simple tasks. Brain researchers are becoming increasingly convinced that excessive use of the Internet makes us more impatient, impulsive, forgetful, and even narcissistic.

More surprising perhaps is the multitasking myth. That is, with the exception of few “supertaskers” (about 3% of us), concurrent use of multiple technologies does not increase efficiency. Indeed committed multitaskers tend to be slower than non-multitaskers when attempting to do several tasks simultaneously. The problem, it seems, is that multitaskers have trained their brains to be highly sensitive to new information and thus tend to be easily distracted, always searching for that next digital tidbit.

At a deeper level, many psychologists now worry, and are attempting to document, what they see as impacts to our very identity wrought by a fixation on gadgets. The NY Times article cites one Stanford researcher, Elias Aboujaoude, referring to the “fracturing of the self” caused by excessive reliance on technology. Another Stanford researcher, Clifford Nass, thinks that, by limiting face-to-face interactions, heavy technology use reduces our empathy. The concern seems to be that all of this interaction with technology is somehow rewiring our brains in ways that diminishes our humanity.

Less than two decades ago, researchers thought that the brain ceased developing at the onset of adulthood. A slew of recent studies, however, demonstrate that the brain has the capacity to adapt throughout life, including in our senior years—a phenomenon dubbed “neuroplasticity.” To cite just one example, a study of Tibetan monks showed much higher gamma wave activity in the prefrontal cortex of the brain during meditation than in a control group, resulting in stronger feelings of happiness and compassion in the former [3]. The remarkable truth of the matter, then, seems to be that, one way or the other, we “train our brains,” actually rewiring parts of our neurocircuitry based upon the activities we choose to engage in. So it’s best to give serious consideration to the things we allow to dominate our minds.

Why are we so prone to techno-addiction? Some researchers suggest that, for the bulk of human evolution, an ability to pay attention to novel stimuli had a major survival advantage. To give the most simplistic example, that stimulus just might be an animal you’re hunting or a predator stalking you. More nuanced discussions have addressed the ability to recognize any novel patterns in one’s environment that might indicate the presence of food, medicine, or other items necessary for survival. Today, information technologies seem to tap into this ancient predisposition, making it more likely that we will become addicted to glowing gadgets.

Despite the tone of this piece, I’m no Luddite. On a personal level, I am a major technology user myself, and battle the daily siren call to “stay connected.” On a societal level, I see no path forward, whether sustainable or not, that does not embrace technology. So, as I see it, the key question is this: given our penchant for what may best be described as techno-addition, how are we going to learn to co-exist with information technologies?

Some psychologists compare our dependence on screen technologies to an eating disorder [1]. Like food, technology is now an essential component of our daily life. And just as a food addict cannot stop consuming calories, we must learn to moderate our consumption of technologies, both for ourselves and our children. At a minimum, this will require setting thoughtful constraints, such as limiting the number of times you check your email, and restricting children’s screen time to 1-2 hours per day (their choice of gadget?). In extreme cases, just as with any addiction, heavy technology users may require therapy to assess the underlying reasons for the repeated escape into the Internet [1].

The bottom line is that, despite their many advantages, phones, computers, and televisions can be dangerous tools. Our obsession with technology threatens not only our personal health, but also the health of our communities and even the biosphere. If we are to set sail and navigate a sustainable path into the future, we must limit the amount of time we allow ourselves (and our kids!) to be immersed in this ocean of information. Don’t forget to come out on the deck, breath the fresh air, and connect with each other and the spectacular world we inhabit. Your brain will be thankful.

1) Richtel, M. 2010. Hooked on gadgets, and paying a mental price. New York Times, June 7, 2010. (http://www.nytimes.com/2010/06/07/technology/07brain.html)

2) Sampson, S. D. 2010. The extinction of experience. The Whirlpool of Life (blog). (http://scottsampson.blogspot.com/2010/01/extinction-of-experience.html)

3) Kaufman, M. 2005. Meditation gives brain a change, study finds. The Washington Post, January 3, 2005. (http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A43006-2005Jan2.html).

Top three images courtesy of of Free Digital Photos: http://freedigitalphotos.net/
Bottom image courtesy of National Geographic: http://photography.nationalgeographic.com/photography/


  1. Good article. I'm going to have to read it over again when I have time (had to Tweet it, then I have a couple e-mails and an IM to deal with and need to finish all my Google Reader articles for today). Seriously... I like to think I'm one of the 3% of supertaskers (please say it's true! --is there a test, perhaps one online that I can take while copyediting?)... OK, really seriously -- this post has made me think about reconsidering taking my laptop with me on my honeymoon cruise to Alaska. They have wifi on the ship you know, and I could tweet about all the cool stuff I'm doing in between tweets and facebook posts...

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