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Is technology harming our brains?

29 Apr, 2013

Detail of Google Glass

The new Big Picture Debates the Brain app explores social and ethical questions about the human brain. Erinma Ochu considers one: the impact of technology on the brain and the wider societal implications.

Whether we like it or not, it’s nigh on impossible to extract ourselves from technology these days. By the time you’ve been woken up by your alarm clock, made a cup of coffee and sent your first tweet, technology has extended a helping hand to ease you into your daily routine and connect you with the outside world.

It’s important to acknowledge the ‘helping hand’ that technology extends to us. Indeed, scientists studying the brain also rely on technology to provide tools to help unlock the secrets of how the brain works. Big neuroscience projects, such as the Human Connectome Project (which aims to map the major connections between nerve cells in the brain) would be impossible without the ‘helping hand’ of modern technology.

I used technology in writing this article, crowdsourcing opinions on Twitter. Colleagues pointed out the positive impact technology can have, citing, for instance, its increasing use by the computer literate elderly to reduce their isolation. Building on David Gauntlett’s ideas, social media, like DIY and knitting, can be seen as a creative endeavour that, enhances connectivity and collaboration, helping people swap ideas and make sense of the world around us. In essence, technology extends human creativity and builds community. [1]

Two sides

But what is the impact of this on the human brain? Neuroscientist Susan Greenfield has argued, controversially, in the media that the Internet, particularly social media, could bring about a physical change in the anatomy of our brains. [2] Some studies have suggested that video games reduce both the quality of sleep and the ability of kids to remember vocabulary, which points to the importance of our brains getting enough rest being critical [3]. Everything from Google [4], Satnav [5] and mobile phones [6] has come under scrutiny. Yet for every study that argues that digital technology is making us stupid, distracted and addicted, there are others that pose the counterargument.

Perhaps social media simply amplifies aspects of our personality? A Dutch study looking at teenage use of social networks found, unsurprisingly, that positive feedback left on status updates enhanced the self-esteem and wellbeing of that person while negative comments had the opposite effect. [7] Another study revealed that instant messaging was a form of emotional release for teenagers. [8] If the virtual amplifies aspects of our personalities online, it might be interesting to learn more in this regard.

There’s an App for that…

As luck would have it, there are apps you can try out on your smartphone, including Mappiness, which explores how happy you are in different contexts, and the Great Brain Experiment (created by the Wellcome Trust Centre for Neuroimaging), which tests your memory, impulsivity, attention and decision-making, feeding the data back to researchers to aid our understanding of the brain.

Opinions from my online discussions were divided. @sandflyman wondered whether doctors will worry that patients, with information available at the click of a button, might have more knowledge than them. @malangela asked whether new technologies ever address our needs or just create new ones. @nimble_monkey mused on the longer term impact of wearable technologies like Google Glass.

But as @malangela pointed out, technology has always provoked mixed reactions. In ancient Greece the then new technology of ‘writing’ was viewed with suspicion. In 400 BC, Plato warned that writing would weaken – or even destroy – memory. The same arguments that Plato made against writing can be made against the Internet and digital technologies. As Neil Postman wrote in 1993, “every technology is both a burden and a blessing; not either-or, but this-and-that”. [9]

And as @cultureprobe asserted [11], and Bran Richards reinforces [12], there is a shadow side to technology. Whilst not everyone has access to the internet [10] or smartphones, the scarce resources and toxic raw materials needed to make these technologies can fuel social conflict and devastate the environment in some of the poorest parts of the world. Perhaps a more unifying view is to consider the wider impact of technology on society, our health, the environment and as part of that, our brains.

Thanks to the following Twitter for their insights and contributions: @nimble_monkey, @malangela, @sandflyman, @DrTomCrick @utafrith @stevieflow @cultureprobe & @noveltyshoe.

Explore more questions like this in the new Big Picture Debates the Brain app, available for iPad in the App Store now or play online.

References

[1] David Gauntlett. Making is Connecting. March 2011. Polity Press: www.makingisconnecting.org

[2] http://www.theage.com.au/technology/technology-news/social-media-causing-mind-change-20110713-1he3v.html

[3] Dr. Patti M. Valkenburg, Jochen Peter, and Alexander P. Schouten. Friend Networking Sites and Their Relationship to Adolescents’ Well-Being and Social Self-Esteem. CyberPsychology & Behavior. October 2006, 9(5): 584-590. doi:10.1089/cpb.2006.9.584.

[4] http://www.mapsofworld.com/poll/is-google-making-us-stupid-facts-infographic.html

[5] http://www.telegraph.co.uk/motoring/news/9314524/Satnavs-accused-of-distracting-drivers.html

[6] http://www.webmd.com/brain/news/20110222/cell-phones-affect-brain-but-does-it-matter

[7] Dworak, M., Diplsportwiss,  Schierl T., Bruns T. and Struder H.K. Impact of Singular Excessive Computer Game and Television Exposure on Sleep Patterns and Memory Performance of School-aged Children. Pediatrics Vol. 120 No. 5 November 1, 2007 pp. 978 -985

http://pediatrics.aappublications.org/content/120/5/978.abstract

[8] Michal Dolev-Cohen, Azy Barak, Adolescents’ use of Instant Messaging as a means of emotional relief, Computers in Human Behavior, Volume 29, Issue 1, January 2013, Pages 58-63, ISSN 0747-5632, 10.1016/j.chb.2012.07.016. (http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0747563212002191)

[9] Neil Postman (1993) Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology. Vintage, pp 3 – 5.

[10] Graham M, Zook M, 2013, “Augmented realities and uneven geographies: exploring the geolinguistic contours of the web” Environment and Planning A 45(1) 77 – 99

[11] http://cultureprobe.wordpress.com/2012/05/27/arts-digital-technology-the-shadow-side

[12] Richards, B., Walker, S. and Blair, L. “Cyber-sustainability: leaving a lasting legacy of human wellbeing.” Proceedings of the 25th BCS Conference on Human-Computer Interaction. British Computer Society, 2011.

Erinma Ochu

Dr Erinma Ochu is a neuroscientist turned science communicator and Wellcome Trust Engagement Fellow based in Life Sciences at the University of Manchester. 

Image credit: Flickr/zugaldia

UPDATED 2/5/13: Corrected Susan Greenfield’s profession.

11 Comments leave one →
  1. 29 Apr, 2013 3:12 pm

    its our ingnorace that is giving technology a gap to hurt us b’cause how can something with out life control you

    • 6 May, 2013 12:23 pm

      Good point @mariontasha. Its important we are aware that on one level, we are in control of what we do with technology and that we do have options. We can choose to not engage with technology at all (increasingly difficult!) and can become more aware of decisions being made on our behalf where technology is concerned. This is where public engagement with technology and how government and society use technology is incredibly important. This e-petition is a case in point: http://epetitions.direct.gov.uk/petitions/32400

  2. 30 Apr, 2013 7:23 am

    Interesting post. I worry that my children’s school use iPads I stead of blackboards. instead of teaching kids coding basics tgey simply do their homework on iPads instead of jotters. I love it when my kids play creatively with technology demystifying animation production, film making, photography but where blogging helps me connect with people, I online mistake and my children’s lives could be ruined.

    • 6 May, 2013 12:13 pm

      Hi Nnena, i understand your fears – but it needn’t ruin anyone’s lives – moderation by parents and school are key and giving kids an understanding of how their brains work and that they need quiet time and sleep. A game that i used to play and indeed improvised with your lovely kids is the ‘mouse and the hawk’. If you think they are overstimulated and its close to bedtime – ask them to play that game with you.

  3. 30 Apr, 2013 7:54 am

    Just a minor point. Susan Greenfield is not a neurologist. She’s a neuroscientist with expertise in pharmacology.

    • 2 May, 2013 12:15 pm

      Noted, thanks Dorothy. I have updated the text.

  4. 2 May, 2013 9:48 am

    Hi Erinma, thanks for reference. Interesting piece! I just posted my latest thinking on digital innovation, mindfulness and existential angst http://wp.me/p1pYO3-7B :-)

    • 6 May, 2013 12:25 pm

      Hey @cultureprobe. I have indeed read that post – and discussed with some artists i was visiting last week. Why do we film everything rather than experience it? Good question be great to discuss further…

  5. 2 May, 2013 9:50 am

    cheers for ref, interesting piece! I just posted my latest ponderings re digital technology, mindfulness and existential angst http://wp.me/p1pYO3-7B :-)

  6. 6 May, 2013 12:02 pm

    Reblogged this on everyoneandeverything and commented:
    A blog post elsewhere in cyberspace, written with ideas and thoughts from a bunch of other peeps.

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