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This is your brain … this is your brain on technology: Part I - Francis Moran & AssociatesFrancis Moran & Associates

This is your brain … this is your brain on technology: Part I

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This is the next contribution to this blog by Associate Bob Bailly, a Calgary-based neuro-marketing practitioner.

By Bob Bailly

Do you ever wonder, as I often do, if there is a dark side to modern video and digital technology? If we are indeed creatures of our animal evolution, then is our technology becoming harmful to our bodies, or, more particularly, our brains? If you work for a technology-driven company, are there unintended psychological consequences arising from what you do?

UCLA-based neuroscientist Gary Small and his author wife Gigi Vorgan think so. They say exposure to technology is actually changing the human brain, and these changes are especially pronounced in young people who have grown up with computers – what they refer to as “Digital Natives.” And their research has some far reaching implications for parents, educators and young people themselves as new media technologies become more and more pervasive.

Using functional MRI scanning to monitor brain activity of subjects, two groups of subjects – those with lots of experience using the Internet, and those who had little to no experience with computers – were asked to perform a simple Google search.

Those experienced with using computers demonstrated activity in the front-left part of the brain called the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex. Those with no experience showed no activity in that region at all.

Subsequently, Small asked both groups to practice Google searching for one hour a day for five days, and when they came back, he scanned them again. This time, both groups showed activity in the front left part of their brains. According to Small, this shows that after only “five hours on the Internet, the naïve subjects had already rewired their brains.”

What is distressing, however, is that Small and Vorgan believe that for people who use computers all day, every day, the brain changes may be even more extensive. While some neural connections are being added and others are growing stronger, “the neural circuits that control the more traditional learning methods are neglected and gradually diminished.” They go on to speculate that “the pathways for human interaction and communication weaken as customary one-on-one skills atrophy.”

But Jeffery Helm, a Vancouver-based neuroscientist, says it’s just a matter of adaptation. Our brain wiring is adapting to our technology. Every change in how we interact is a hard-wired change in the brain.”

Are our brains plastic?

Other thinkers on the subject also don’t see this a very big deal. For instance, Marc Prensky, a New York-based designer of learning games and author of Digital Game-Based Learning, in a 2001 article entitled “Do They Really Think Differently,” describes how the phenomena of neuroplasticity produces a brain that is constantly reorganizing itself throughout our lives, regardless of whether we work with computers or not.

“Stimulation of various kinds actually changes brain structure and affects the way people think, and these transformations go on throughout life. The brain constantly reorganizes itself all of our child and adult lives, a phenomenon technically known as neurolasticity,” he wrote.

Judy Illes, a neuroethicist at UBC in Vancouver agrees.

“Why would significant exposure to technology be different than anything else in our environment?” she said. “Cells in the brain connect in different ways in response to the way the brain reacts to the environment … What’s new, however, is in kids who play computer games repetitively. There we see changes in cortical and subcortical structures – structures like relay systems, motor outputs, etc.”

Oh those video games

Citing studies from Tokyo’s Nihon University, Small and Vogan say their studies have shown video game play actually shuts down activity in the brain’s frontal lobe both during game play and afterward – in fact, impairing development in the areas of the brain involved in abstract thinking and planning. This is of particular significance because it is occurring in young people whose brains haven’t yet finished maturing.

Another one of the great paradoxes of our modern life is that, while people have more information available to them than ever before, we’ve never known less. In The Dumbest Generation, English professor Mark Bauerlein at Emory University says that compared to previous generations, today’s students compare poorly.

“They don’t know any more history or civics, economics or science, literature or current events,” he said. “They read less on their own, both books and newspapers, and you would have to canvas a lot of college English instructors and employers before you found one who said that they compose better paragraphs.”

In 2004, as a director with the National Endowment of the Arts, Bauerlein was involved in a report that found that leisure reading in the U.S. had dropped significantly over a 20-year period, with the biggest drop noted among young people ages 18 to 24. In 2002, only 43 percent voluntarily read anything outside of school, down from 60 percent in 1982.

He believes that “acquiring information means you store it in your mind. You think it through and you remember it. That’s a slow reading pattern, a slow analysis process.”

It’s also very different than the shallow and diffuse process involved in mental multi-tasking we perform daily on our computers, portable phones, TVs and the like. Small calls this “continuous partial attention.” Since we are always on the alert for the next bit of exciting news or information, we no longer take the time to reflect and or make thoughtful decisions.

The death of empathy

Here’s another perspective: Even Facebook may be changing how we behave.

An ongoing study is being carried out by researchers from the University of Michigan Institute for Social Research, and the findings are startling.

To date, the study has examined personality tests from 13,737 American college students taken over 30 years and compared their test scores on the Davis Interpersonal Reactivity Index. This test looks at empathic concern, an emotional response to the distress of others, and “perspective-taking,” or the ability to imagine another person’s perspective.

The researchers found a 48-percent decrease in empathic concerns and a 34-percent decrease in perspective-taking between tests taken in 1979 and 2009. They have concluded that college kids today show little to no empathy to others, they do not show emotions as much and they do not care for others as much. The study also noted that the most sizeable drop in empathy came after 2000 as social networks such as Facebook and Myspace began to flourish – two technologically driven developments that focus on “me” rather than the world at large.

As we engage customers more and more through online offerings, as communication moves more towards digital encounters, or as teachers and students come to grips with teaching and learning in the digital age, this is certainly food for thought. Much more research must be done to understand how technology is impacting our cognitive abilities and our emotional and social behaviour. In my next posting, we’ll further examine how our brains adapt and the role technology can play, for good or ill, in brain development.

Image: dreamstime


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    October 27, 2011 8:43 am

    […] This is your mind … this is your mind on technology: Part I […]

  • Jeff Nelson

    November 11, 2011 12:58 am

    Very interesting article Bob. Thanks.

  • Anna

    June 05, 2017 2:31 am

    As a freelancer who spends much of her time on the computer writing, I find that I have a brain which connects empathically to people despite how much time I spend on technology. In fact, I am not happy being immersed daily in what I called ‘imposed’ social interaction (social interaction brought on by having to interact with co-workers). Such social interaction used to make be egregious, used to make me dislike co-workers, and have a generally negative view on work life. Furthermore, people like me who are generally empathic can ‘hide’ in our homes and be safe from others while we work; safe from their criticisms and aversions, safe from bullying and harassment. Furthermore, our talents as writers, photographers, or whatever, flourish absolutely under one important condition – freedom.

    I support moving work to an online domain because I see also how harmful the 9 – 5 is for people; how it drains them, how its endless cacophony of alarm clocks and ringing bells–lunch hours and lunch rooms, forced staff retreats and uncomfortable interactions with bosses–is killing them. I support allowing technology make us more efficient, happier. I support voluntary–not forced–interaction. I support eliminating the workplace altogether and creating NEW modes of working, either from home or through community-based platforms such as outdoor spaces.

    • Bob Bailly

      June 05, 2017 12:07 pm

      Your new mode of working means no face to face interaction yet you call yourself empathetic. How can removing yourself from daily human social interactions and possibly understand what makes other people tick. Research from UCLA suggests messages conveyed face to face are understood primarily by reading body language (57%) and tone of voice (35%), and that words convey only 7%. By interacting only through computer based non-video technology is like weightlifting only using your right forearm.

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