Are we changing our brain? Part 1


Last Sunday, The Guardian ran an article that grabbed my attention. It’s been on my mind all week. The article “Why the modern world is bad for brain”, by Daniel Levitin discusses a topic that I’ve thought about for several years. I try not to be that proverbial chicken crying “the sky is falling”, but, it seems to me technology is changing us, even if it turns out to beonly our behavior.

The article discusses the effects multitasking has on the brain and how quickly we are becoming addicted to instant gratification and the stress this leads to, all thanks to modern technology.

Imagine that you are a prehistoric hunter. You spot a lion in the grass. Your brain is hardwired to focus on the grass and find patterns as part of the survival instinct. Once you correctly spot the lion your brain responds with “fight or flight”. Noting you are close to camp you run towards it, hoping to make it to safety before the lion takes chase. But wait. Is that Jane with a new pelt? You stop to admire the pelt and ask her how she got it to fit so tightly. This, sadly, is the last thing you do, as by now the lion has caught up and decided you are what’s for dinner.

Thankfully we no longer have to watch for predators in the grass, but we do have to admit, in some cases multitasking can get us killed. Texting and driving in the United States has led to enough deaths that the practice is now outlawed in many states. We think we can multitask but the truth is, we are not hardwired to do so. As we learned from the story above, focusing on one task at a time was a survival trait passed down from generation to generation. Those who lacked this trait usually did not live long enough to procreate.

In preparation for this article I read several studies concerning multitasking in the modern world. I cannot say I understand them all, and would defer to my science friends to help for help, but it does seem that studies suggest we are changing the hard-wire of our frontal cortex. We may be damaging our Executive functions.

Our Executive functions consist of advanced mental skills that help the brain organize and act on information. These skills allow people to plan, organize, prioritize, pay attention and get started on tasks. They also assist us with past information and experiences to solve current problems. If there is one area of the brain we don’t want to damage, this is it.

As Levitin points out in his article:

Our smartphones have become Swiss army knife–like appliances that include a dictionary, calculator, web browser, email, Game Boy, appointment calendar, voice recorder, guitar tuner, weather forecaster, GPS, texter, tweeter, Facebook updater, and flashlight. They’re more powerful and do more things than the most advanced computer at IBM corporate headquarters 30 years ago. And we use them all the time, part of a 21st-century mania for cramming everything we do into every single spare moment of downtime. We text while we’re walking across the street, catch up on email while standing in a queue – and while having lunch with friends, we surreptitiously check to see what our other friends are doing. At the kitchen counter, cosy and secure in our domicile, we write our shopping lists on smartphones while we are listening to that wonderfully informative podcast on urban beekeeping.

And, may I point out, it’s not just our smartphone that causes all this multitasking mania. How many are willing to admit that right now there are several tabs open on the computer? On an average day I have three. Not bad considering I know people who have more than one homepage, so that when they fire up their laptop 10 pages queue up automatically. We jump back and forth between Twitter, Facebook, Reddit, etc. all while watching TV or listening to music. Our ability to stay focused on one thing, one subject, drains away as we delude ourselves into thinking this type of behavior has no effect on our brain.

Levitin cites a study done by Glenn Wilson, a professor of psychology. His research found that being in a situation where you are trying to concentrate on a task, and an email is sitting unread in your inbox, can reduce your effective IQ by 10 points. I don’t know if I can afford to lose 10 points. What this study suggests, is just knowing we have e-mail causes us to break our concentration. We think we are not multitasking, yet just knowing we have information at our finger tips leads to stress. Do I open the e-mail? What if it is important? How should I prioritize my time? If this stresses us out, imagine what we are subconsciously doing to ourselves knowing we have access to all kinds of instant gratification and information? How many times have you switched back and forth from Twitter to Facebook because you want to make sure you haven’t missed anything?

Yesterday was National Readathon Day. Thanks to Random House, January 25 was a good excuse to unplug and read a book. With The Guardian article in mind, this is what I did. Oh, I will admit Sunday morning I caught up on my blog reading, but that was it. No Facebook, no Twitter, no Huffington Post, just me and a good Carl Sagan book.

It was easier than I thought it would be. In fact, by choosing to stay off the computer, my need to connect to others, to see what was going on in the world vanished. My mind was focused on my book and nothing else. I wasn’t distracted by a Twitter argument over whether the terms dialect and language are interchangeable. I wasn’t distracted by the need to know what my friends were doing at any given moment. My brain was focused on one task, and one task only. It was relaxing, and I found that the day seemed to go by slower. I didn’t look up from a computer screen a suddenly realize it was 5pm. I enjoyed the day for what it was. Quiet, calming, and thankfully, no lions, as I probably wouldn’t have noticed.

So here is an experiment I’m going to do on myself. I am going to focus on one aspect of the Internet at a time. It started with this article. Unlike my usual habit of web surfing pre-article writing, I ignored my e-mail. Ignored all social media and instead, opened up pages for citing purposes only. Once done, I will focus on one site at a time. No more multi-open pages, no more going back and forth and certainly no more TV and Internet. For one week it will be one or another. I want to see if there is any difference in my stress level or ability to really focus on what is in front of me. At work I will not look at and try not to think about my e-mail while reading contracts. I will instead turn off the notification bell and dedicate certain hours for my e-mail correspondence. We will have to see how well this goes over with my co-workers. Which leads nicely to part 2.

In part 2, I’ll go over some of our social norms that modern technology is changing and how this too is leading to everyday stress and anxiety.

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