For the first time, humans have the answers to nearly every question in the palm of their hand, limited only by their download speed. The question we need to be asking, however, is how technology is affecting our brains.
Your brain is the original computer. It’s able to process information, source out relevant memories and files from your past, and answer critical questions in the blink of an eye. Probably faster. But what happens to your brain and your cognition when a new kid enters the playground? I’m talking about technology.
There are three critical aspects of cognition being affected by technology:
Attention is our brain’s ability to focus on tasks, objects, conversations, and thoughts. When it comes to technology, many people are vying for your attention at any given time. The problem is, these people have become increasingly good at designing websites, apps, and platforms to influence your brain’s ability to stay focused.
Notifications are designed to prey on our stress response — that’s why they’re red and not blue. Research at Florida State University has shown that even one notification on your phone can weaken your ability to stay on task.
When you consider that your smartphone is never very far away, it’s no wonder that more and more data shows technology’s harmful effect on our ability to stay focused. Our phones are pulling our attention away from other things in two key ways: endogenously or exogenously.
This means that we’re distracted by a task because we internally think of our devices or technology (endogenous). This distraction is caused by perceived boredom or lack of interest in the task at hand and the perceived reward or gamified interaction we expect to have with technology. Distraction can also be caused externally (exogenous) by the chime of a notification or a flashing light on a nearby device. This ongoing distraction causes our cognitive function to suffer as we find it harder and harder to keep our attention focused.
What Can You Do?
Start leaving your devices in another room and on silent when you need to focus. Having the device removed from our field of vision and out of ear-shot will better allow our cognitive ability to focus on the immediate task at hand without distraction. This could mean:
- No phones at the dinner table.
- Silent phones when out with friends.
- No technology in the bedroom.
- Application limiting apps.
There was a time when remembering countless phone numbers was commonplace. Now, you can’t even remember your own phone number half the time. Technology is a valuable resource for storing and organizing essential information to free up that space in our memory and reduce stress. However, technology could be having a few harmful effects on your ability to remember.
A six-day Internet search training paradigm revealed that those who participated showed decreased functional connectivity in the brain’s areas responsible for long-term memory formation and retrieval. This essentially means that reliance on the Internet for memory could reduce the ability to retrieve long-term memory due to a lack of functional connectivity to this region in the brain.
Our memories have shifted from being a place where we store facts to a place where we remember to search and find these facts in an external source: the Internet. There are benefits and drawbacks to this. The advantage is that we no longer need to remember every mundane detail. The disadvantage is that we’re no longer relying on ourselves to remember things that could be valuable. As well, the very act of using the Internet as a form of external memory could be reducing our ability to store and access long-term memories.
What Can You Do?
To increase your memory, try a few of these tips:
- Try brain exercise games such as Memory, crosswords, and trivia without the use of devices.
- Use technology for good, and start exercising your memory with memory games.
- Whenever possible, research using books, write down notes by hand, and quiz yourself to work on fact recall.
- Practice gratitude journaling to start accessing long-term memories to write them down. This will further solidify the memories as well as push your brain to recall things from farther back.
Executive function is the part of cognition that’s responsible for anything from anticipation and problem-solving to emotional self-regulation and social awareness. This is the most troubling area to be affected by technology, in my opinion.
When we look at how technology affects cognition, you can’t ignore the social and emotional repercussions. Social media is increasing both depression and anxiety rates and has created a new form of emotional trauma and risk for youth: cyberbullying.
Many people have friend groups online that are far larger than a reasonable social circle offline. However, research suggests that the way friendship is structured isn’t dramatically different in the online and offline world. This research suggests that most of us have a maximum number of close friends that we see in a kind of hierarchy. Those higher up on the hierarchy are the ones we see the most and as we move down the list, we see these friends less often. If we look at the number of “close friends” a person has on Facebook — the ones engaged with most often— we see that this is about the same number as in-person friendships. Because this number remains relatively consistent across the board, it suggests that a limit in the amount of close friends we have exists both online and offline.
If social media isn’t creating an overdose of superficial connections, is it really doing any harm to the quality of friendships we do have? As it turns out, it is in some ways. Mobile device use can become distracting and take away from quality interaction with friends. High technology and internet use are also linked to reduced emotional intelligence and social skills. This same study suggests that high internet usage leads to individuals feeling a greater sense of loneliness despite being “connected” to so many. So if you’re connected to everyone, why feel so disconnected?
The artificial social environment created on social platforms allows us to compare ourselves to others directly. This upward comparison isn’t unique to technology. It’s something that we see in offline social circles as well. However, technology and social media have created a perfect storm. In these comparisons, individuals are comparing themselves to the idealized versions of others. More commonly than not, this comparison can lead to negative self-evaluation and a sense of them vs. me.
What Are the Solutions?
The answer to this question is similar to the two solutions above: put the devices away. Allowing yourself to connect to a few quality friends and relatives will increase your social connection, help you develop better emotional intelligence, and create stronger support networks crucial to a healthy life. Create rules for yourself and your friends. Turn the phones off when out together and talk on the phone more than you use a social feed to stay up to date.
Technology can be a valuable tool. It can help us organize our time, set reminders, keep in contact with influential people, and connect with facts and friends worldwide. However, when we overindulge in technology, we can see the harmful effects technology has on our cognition. Healthy technology use requires awareness and habits. This is what I speak about in greater detail in my new book, The Tech Solution. Pick up your copy online today.