Endless Possibilities: How Technology Affects Your Brain
In the current times, technology affects your brain in powerful ways that shape who you are as a person. This is especially the case for young people in the world today, who spend an average of 8-11.5 hours using technological devices. If you are one of those who live life depending on technology, how exactly does this technology affect your brain’s processes and development? Is technology necessarily a good shift in living, or does it have harmful effects for our health? Read below to find out how technology affects your brain!
According to Dr. Gary Small, a neuroscientist and professor at UCLA, “Young people are born into technology, and they’re using it 24/7. Their brains are wired to use it elegantly.” He declared conclusively, “The technology train has left. You have to deal with it, understand it, and get some perspective.” In order for us to gain some perspective on the workings of technology, let’s see its multiple effects on brain health.
Technology and Social Interaction
Dr. Small stated that the downside of great immersion in technological devices is that adolescents are not having conversations, looking people in the eye, or noticing verbal cues, which he feels are important “technologies,” in and of themselves that are extremely powerful in how we interact with each other.
However, there are several ways technology can positively foster interaction skills among people. Video games, for example, have built-in social components that allow kids to communicate. Also, texting is mainly about connecting with other people, not just using a gadget. Dr. Small affirmed, “Texting is an expression of what it means to be human. We love being connected to other people. It’s a very compelling emotional urge, and it’s hard to give up moment to moment.”
Dr. Small even knows a teacher who gives her students five-minute texting breaks in the middle of class as a way to gauge understanding of the subjects taught and take instant polls or other interactive quizzes.
However, to counteract the technology overflow students receive, Small suggests that time should be carved out in students’ school days for face-to-face emotional exercises and in-person communication. In his eyes, these tactics can “train empathetic behavior” in young adults.
Technology and Creativity
Parents and educators have shown increasing concern about whether or not technology affects your brain negatively by hindering creativity. Does hours of playing video games zap students’ inclination to write, paint, or sing? Dr. Small stated that the Internet conditions our minds to have a “staccato” train of thought, where we jump from idea to idea, just like we go from website to website. But does this impact our creativity levels?
From one angle, we’re trained not to think deeply about subjects: from how we text quick one-words or abbreviations for common phrases, to how we put a simple “Like” or thumbs up when we approve of a post or link. We’re experiencing information overload without any time to think, reflect, or do deep problem-solving, all of which is directly related to how technology affects the brain.
From the opposite angle, technology trains the brain to process new ideas quickly. We become more open to new ideas and we are able to express ourselves more freely. However, according to Small, “The brain is complex. The answers are not straightforward.”
Technology and Neuroplasticity
Neuroplasticity has been an increasingly interesting field of study for neuroscientists because it suggests how the brain forms new connections and builds brand-new neural networks. From a study performed by Simone Kuhn at Max Planck Institute for Human Development, it was shown that brain connectivity can be dramatically improved by video game usage. Video games can help stimulate the pre-existing neuronal connections in various brain regions and can improve memory formation, motor skills, spatial coordination, and strategic projection.
Gaming at a young age can even increase neurogenesis, which is the process that grows new neurons in the brain. Results from this study show that the size of a child’s brain can be directly linked with early life stimulation from video games and technological education.
Not only do the benefits of gaming extend to early life brain development, but they can also decelerate the degenerative nature of the brain during later mature life. Kuhn’s study also lends further insight into the field of cognitive aging, whereby our mind processes become slower in functioning and neural networks begin to deteriorate. Now posed are possibilities in gaming to help alleviate symptoms of dementia, Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, Huntington’s disease, ALS, and other neurodegenerative diseases.
Additionally, video games can be used to treat other mental health problems. Kuhn suggests that games should be a therapy tool, whereby they tackle various mental disorders like schizophrenia, post-traumatic stress disorder, and even depression.
Technology and Attention
Attention is the gateway to many aspects of thinking, such as perception, memory, language, learning, creativity, reasoning, problem-solving, and decision making. It is a highly malleable quality and most directly influenced by the environment in which it is used. This is especially true for children, who are subjected to pay attention in school for at least six hours on a normal school day.
Technology affects the brain by conditioning it to pay attention in ways unconventional to past notions. Before the advent of technology, people were able to focus on direct tasks in front of them, and reading was seen as a enjoyable past-time for a majority of young learners. However, our technology today makes learning seem like jet-skiing, where information is thrown to us from all sorts of angles, whereby we simply process it for the present and then move on.
Although technology may be detrimental in our long-term focus on new material, new studies show that screened media improve visual-spatial capabilities, increase attentional ability, reaction times, and the capacity to sort important details among the clutter. Also, the high use of search engines allow students to easily remember which sources to use for information and where material is found best. Because their minds are not so cluttered in remembering semantic facts, they have more room in their brains to engage in “higher-order” processing, like contemplation, critical thinking, and problem-solving.
Technology and Decision-Making
C. Shawn Green, PhD, conducted a study at the University of Rochester, where he sought to prove that active video-gamers were better at receiving sensory data and translating it into accurate decisions. Green separated two groups of people between the ages of 18 and 25 – one group was tasked with playing 50 hours of fast-paced video games while the other group played 50 hours of slow-paced video games. Afterwards, both groups were given a decision-making test. The first involved determining whether moving white dots were going left or right, and the second had participants were headphones to guess if a single toned sound came from the left ear or the right ear.
Green discovered that the fast-action gamers performed much better in the decision-making tests than the slow-action gamers. He suggested that this was the case because fast-action games require most modes of sensory perception – seeing, hearing, touching, and smelling. In these games, decisions are supposed to be made in split seconds by pressing the appropriate controller buttons with the added adrenaline rush of either losing the game or losing an imaginary life.
Along with decision-making improvements, Green found in his study that other cognitive functions in the brain, mainly in the frontal lobe, were turned on for fast-gamers. This was the case for all the fast-gamers, regardless of whether or not they were previously exposed to video games.
Can Technology Make Us Smarter?
In a study titled, “Your Brain on Google,” Dr. Gary Small and his research committee tested brain activity functioning on two different groups: 1. The “Internet-naive” group (participants were mostly 65 or older and had very minimal experience online) and 2. The “Internet-smart” group (participants were mostly in their 20s to 30s and had ongoing experience with the Internet). The groups were tested for information processing while either reading a book or conducting a Google search.
The results showed that from the “Internet-smart” group, there was twice as much brain activity in all parts of the brain while participants were conducting a Google search than while they were reading a book. And in the “Internet-naive” group, after a week of Googling subjects online, there was a significant increase in frontal lobe activity, which controls how you improve your short-term memory and make decisions. In Small’s words, “Google is making us smart. Searching online is brain exercise.”
Radiyyah is an undergraduate student at Macaulay Honors College and Queens College. She is currently pursuing a double Bachelor’s degree in Psychology and Neuroscience with a minor in Sociology. Radiyyah is passionate about all fields relating to the brain and social psychology and she hopes to continue her career in Neuropsychology research.