Our Rewired Brains
There’s a growing chorus of concern that the time we spend immersed in
technology is reworking our neurocircuitry. But there are ways to avoid tech overload.
Gould Staley, 90, says she plays solitaire, organizes family photographs and exchanges letters with friends. None of those pastimes involve paper, however. The retired textile mill worker from LaGrange, Georgia, plays software card games, pops a DVD into her computer to view her photos and emails her letters. Forwarded emails are a pet peeve. “I sometimes get an email that has an awful lot of names on it that people have failed to delete before they send it,” Staley complains.
Staley’s computer diversions make her an anomaly, say neuroscientists and other experts who have been tracking how technology affects the brain. Staley’s generation typically comprises what neuroscientist Gary Small, MD, director of UCLA’s Memory & Aging Research Center, calls digital immigrants. Newer to the technology boom, they need to brush up on their digital know-how but are adept at social skills. In contrast, younger generations born into the techno surge—the digital natives, in Small’s parlance—tend to adapt easily to technology but are socially stunted.
Though the effects on these younger technophiles worry some neuroscientists and social scientists most, the technology boom, they say, has created a potential health risk for all ages of technology users. Scientists say we are at risk of developing a tech addiction, losing crucial aspects of our personalities and changing the way our brains work as we remain tethered to digital devices, both wired and wirelessly, and replace face-to-face contact with emails, text messages and social network sites.
“We’re spending so much time with technology, the concern is that it’s altering our brain functions,” says Small, co-author of iBrain: Surviving the Technological Alteration of the Modern Mind (Collins Living). “A basic principal is that the brain is sensitive to any kind of stimulus from moment to moment. If you repeat a stimulus, the neurocircuits that control that will strengthen; other areas will weaken.”
Constant Search for Contact
Small says our immersion in high technology has put us squarely in a state of continuous partial attention. It’s not the same as multitasking, which has purposes attached to each job, but a state in which our minds constantly search for any type of contact, to which we never fully pay attention. This state of heightened but split alertness and “perpetual connectivity,” Small says, feeds egos and enhances our sense of self-worth.
But that feeling of control doesn’t last too long and begins to erode, leading to a variation of stress that Small calls techno-brain burnout. He says it threatens to become epidemic.
To combat this burnout state, Small says, our adrenal glands secrete the stress hormones cortisol and adrenaline that give a short-term boost to energy and help memory. Over the long haul, however, they impair cognition, spur depression and change neural circuitry in areas of the brain responsible for mood and thought. Over time, the neuroscientist says, this exposure can reshape the underlying brain structure.
The physical impact may be even broader than that, says British technology critic Aric Sigman, a fellow of the Royal Society of Medicine, who links the lack of social connection from time spent online with unwanted physiological changes, increased incidence of illness and higher premature mortality. Sigman cites social scientists who report that the number of people who say there is no one with whom they discuss important matters nearly tripled in two decades.
Writing in the February issue of the journal Biologist, Sigman asserts that loneliness or lack of social connection has been shown to cause low-grade peripheral inflammation linked to diseases such as diabetes, cardiovascular disease and autoimmune disorders like rheumatoid arthritis and lupus.
Sigman isn’t convinced that electronic social networking is a form of connection that would combat
those risks. He cites an “Internet Paradox” study of 73 families a decade ago that concluded that more Internet usage was linked with less communication between family members in the same household, shrunken social circles and a rise in depression and loneliness.
“While the precise mechanisms underlying the association between social connection, morbidity and mortality continue to be investigated,” Sigman says in Biologist, “it is clear that this is a growing public health issue for all industrialized countries.” Healthcare practitioners should encourage people to interact more and pair up if they’re single, he suggests.
Prolonged technology use has spurred a range of purported physical ailments, too. These stem from radio frequency emissions from cellphones (a debate that has not been fully settled) and invisible electromagnetic fields (EMFs) from other electronics (even alarm clocks) that can contribute to headaches, fatigue and depression. Concerns have been raised about hearing loss from earbuds, as well as computer-related eyestrain, carpal tunnel syndrome, tendenitis or repetitive stress injury (see the box on this page).
The statistics tell the story of digital and tech ubiquity in our lives. Consider that one in six US households last year did not have a traditional landline phone compared with one in 17 just four years earlier, according to the National Center for Health Statistics. Displacing those landlines: mobile phones. The Nielsen Mobile research firm found that on average kids get their first cell phone before age 11.
The number of calls made on US cell phones has remained steady in recent years while the number of text messages has risen by 450%, Nielsen adds.
Adults and teens alike are pushing those numbers of text messages up. Last year, adults ages 25 to 44 for the first time were found to average more text messages each month than cellphone calls, according to Nielsen. The typical US teenager, meanwhile, sends or receives more than 1,700 text messages a month, while making or receiving just 230 calls. One 15-year-old New Jersey girl was reported to send upwards of 32,000 text messages a month, hitting a high of 38,000 messages.
Besides the social disconnect that comes from texting versus face-to-face contact, critics worry about illegal behavior that ranges from risky and inappropriate “sexting”—sending or receiving explicit messages by cellphone or computer—to the outright dangerous. In the latter case, federal officials have said the engineer of a commuter train that crashed and killed 25 people in California last year sent and received 43 text messages and made four phone calls while on duty that day, including one that he sent 22 seconds before the collision.
The physical risks of distraction aren’t limited to texting. Sigman points to the legislative proposals for a “distracted walking bill” in New York State in response to an increase in deaths caused by people who step into oncoming traffic because they are wearing MP3 players. Such tuning out of the world has been called iPod oblivion. The measure would outlaw the use of mobile phones, video games and other electronic devices while crossing a road.
Beyond text messaging, teens are using Twitter, email and social networks like Facebook and MySpace. Raising concerns about social network sites is British neuroscientist Susan Greenfield, professor of synaptic pharmacology at Lincoln College, Oxford. In February, Greenfield told the British House of Lords that children’s experiences on these sites “are devoid of cohesive narrative and long-term significance. As a consequence, the mid-21st century mind might almost be
infantilized, characterized by short attention spans, sensationalism, inability to empathize and a shaky sense of identity.”
Some neuroscientists want to tone down the debate and reel in the sensational headlines of late that have declared that social network sites can cause cancer or brain damage.
Responding to the report from Oxford, Stephan Bergeron, MD, said no firm studies have been undertaken to prove social network sites can retard the brain. But Bergeron, director of Brain Center America, which develops software games and tools to help sharpen the brain, cautions that people should limit their time online. “For some people who are particularly fragile, studies have shown that you start to see side effects if you spend more than an hour a day on one focused activity. Others can spend a few hours a day without any problem. There’s no clear line in the sand,” Bergeron says.
“It depends if you’re using a computer as a means or objective,” he adds. “Is it your objective to spend your whole day on Facebook, or is it a means to keep in touch with people who are far away and deepen your relationships with others? The more relationships we have with others, the better we are and the more self-esteem we have. But if you spend 10 hours a day on Facebook, and you get addicted to that, you don’t engage your whole brain.”
The Tech Solution
Small, the UCLA neuroscientist, says technology may end up being the solution to the problem. Virtual environments will become so sophisticated, he predicts, that we will be able to connect with
computers that perfectly simulate people. “You won’t know if you are going to a doctor or a virtual doctor,” Small says. “Then we will not have this problem of interfering with our face-to-face skills.”
Social network sites may also be a salve as they help provide valuable contact with others during the current stress-inducing economic downturn. “I used to think that social networking was not helpful therapeutically, but now I’m seeing that in many cases it helps people feel less isolated and it gives people a sense of community,” says Nancy Molitor, PhD, a Wilmette, Illinois, psychologist in private practice. “If you live alone and are laid off, that can be very difficult.”
Similarly, Ann Mack, director of Trendspotting at J. Walter Thompson, a research firm, says people under pressure from the economic decline will find help as we become increasingly mobile and less tethered to our desktop computers. “Several Web 2.0 phenomena will hit their stride, including social networking for professionals, a key resource for a recession,” Mack says. Career advisers, she adds, are likely to capitalize on online networks to help coach job seekers, helping spark a wave of new members on these sites.
Pragmatism rather than obsession may be partly responsible for the growing texting trend. Parents are adapting by learning to text so they can stay in touch with their kids, sometimes adopting texting shorthand like DYH (Do Your Homework). A survey done for AT&T showed that 73% of parents said their children were more likely to respond to a text message than a phone call.
Texting may even be helping literacy, several studies have found. A study published in the British Journal of Developmental Psychology found a positive association between texting and word reading ability when looking at kids ages 10 to 12. A 2006 University of Toronto study similarly found that teens had a strong command of grammar in their text messaging.
We may ultimately develop similar guidelines (see the box above) for our consumption of technology as we do for our diet. Says Small: “It’s a question of knowing about the issues. Replace [elements of] the technology. Use it in moderation. Make sure you schedule off-line time. And enjoy it.”
Staley, the 90-year-old Georgia woman who was born when phonographs were played through a Victrola horn but today accesses her preferred songs by going through the “favorites” page of her web browser, has a well-established physical social network of friends but also manages to benefit from her computer pursuits.
“It keeps you thinking,” she says of the digital part of her life. “You’ve got to be alert to do these things and be sure you don’t click on the wrong thing.”