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Our 53rd Year

Is Tech Dumbing Us Down?

Scientists tell us that keeping our minds active is as important as physical exercise, so iphones, laptops, and the like must be making us smarter, right?

According to The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains, a Pulitzer-nominated 2011 book by Nicholas Carr, tech advancements definitely have their positive side, but excessive use can come with unintended, possibly severe, consequences. Here are some of the ways:

Tech messes with your sleep.

Gadgets like smartphones, tablets and laptops emit blue-enriched light which can suppress the body’s release of melatonin at night. Melatonin is a key hormone that helps regulate our internal clock, telling our body when it’s nighttime and when to feel sleepy. Blue light can disrupt this process, making it impossible to stick to a quality sleep schedule.

Loss of sleep over time negatively affects the brain. You can suffer from increasingly bad moods, decreased focus at work, memory loss, as well as loss of actual brain tissue. In short, you can be less of fun to be around.

Tech makes us more easily distracted.

Constantly stepping away from an important project to check a smartphone, flip between multiple browser or dash off a text has been shown to make real concentration much harder. In fact, toggling back and forth results in performing all your duties worse.

This is more apparent with teens than ever. A 2012 Pew Research Center survey of more than 2,400 teachers found that 87% of the educators agreed with the statement, “today’s digital technologies are creating an easily distracted generation with short attention spans.” 64% agreed with the idea that “today’s digital technologies do more to distract students than to help them academically.”

Forgetting made easier.

As Nicholas Carr explains in The Shallows, a memory comes in two types: transient working memory and long-term memory, which is more permanent. Information needs to pass from working memory into long-term memory in order to be stored. Any break in the processes of working memory – like, say, stopping to check email or text in the middle of reading an article, can erase information from your mind before that transfer occurs.

Also, working memory can only take in so much at once. Taking in too much information – which happens a lot online – is like “having water poured into a glass continuously all day long, so whatever was there at the top has to spill out as the new water comes in. We can only wonder, what brilliant ideas have gotten lost in the overload?

Flabby memory – overreliance on the Internet to remember for you.

Before the digital age, people used to retain vast quantities of knowledge in their heads, like reciting entire novels word for word, or numerous phone numbers, addresses, birthdays.  But tech has eliminated the need and the drive to do so. When you know that Google or your smartphone can keep track of information for you, you’re less likely to store it in your memory. A little external storage is okay – we’ve always relied on others to outsource some information, but nowadays tech enables us to rely more than ever on external sources to fill in the gaps of our knowledge. We’re asking less and less of our memory and those muscles can get flabby.

We’re more forgetful about everything than we’ve ever been.

Studies find that  millennials are actually more likely to forget what day it is or where they put their keys than people over the age of 55. According to a 2013 Trending Machine survey, tech is one of the main culprits: “This is a population that has grown up multitasking using technology, often compounded by lack of sleep, all of which results in high levels of forgetfulness.”

Concentration goes out the window.

Studies show that we don’t absorb information read online as well as if we’d read it in a book. A lot of the blame goes to hypertext, those colorful little links scattered throughout online articles, makes your brain work harder than it would normally, leaving less brain power to process what you’re reading. Even just reading on screens, like a laptop or iPad – links or no links – has been found to diminish comprehension.

As Carl wrote in The Shallows, research shows that reading linked text “entails a lot of mental calisthenics – evaluating hyperlinks, deciding whether to click, adjusting to different formats – that are extraneous to the process of reading. This gives your brain more work to do, making it harder to absorb information. Text peppered with photos, videos and ads is even worse.

Lost without GPS.

People who rely on GPS to get around have less activity in the hippocampus, an area of the brain involved in both memory and navigation, according to a series of 2010 McGill University studies. Researchers concluded that using spatial memory – which involves applying visual cues to develop “cognitive maps” that remember routes – rather than operating on GPS autopilot, can help avert memory problems later in life.

A 2008 University of London study found that taxi drivers had more developed hippocampi than non-taxi drivers, probably because they developed their spatial memory rather than relying on GPS (though this may change as more taxi drivers use smartphones).

Internet addiction disorder (IAD).

According to a ground breaking 2012 Chinese study focusing on brain structure and function, IAD is becoming a serious mental health issue around the globe. It seems that spending too much time on the Internet can actually cause changes in the brain that mimic those caused by drug and alcohol dependence.

These Internet addicts – most notably obsessive gamers who shun food, school and sleep to play for days on end – have abnormal white and grey matter in their brains which disrupts and cripples the regions involved in processing emotion and regulating attention and decision-making. The study found that alcoholics and drug addicts have strikingly similar brain abnormalities.

In Sum

Now that you’re thoroughly paranoid about the negative effects of tech, remember it’s the constant, excessive use of technology that is so dangerous. Targeted use for a specific time period can be good for brain stimulation, as has been shown with brain game sites like Lumosity, Happy Neuron, Brainbuilder, etc., whereas, nonstop multi-tasking has the opposite effect: it numbs the brain.

You do have the power to prevent brain drain: just log off every once in a while and enjoy the actual, rather than virtual, world!

The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains by Nicholas Carr
 “8 Ways Technology Makes You Stupid” by Rebecca Hiscott

Studies have found that for middle-aged and older adults with little online experience, performing Internet searches for even a short period of time can change brain activity patterns and enhance function. There are apps designed specifically to boost brainpower, such as Luminosity which can improve memory, problem solving skills, processing speeds, especially in older adults.