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Our Connected Brains


This morning I checked my email within 4 minutes of waking up. I have re-checked it countless times since. I have sent seventeen text messages (including two during a lull in a meeting). I have Skyped my brother in New Zealand. I haven’t tweeted but I’ve been peppered with Facebook friend requests and pokes. In short, a pretty average day- nearly 8 hours in front of this computer, usually with multiple applications running. 

In an event at The School of Life last week - the first of a series looking at everyday questions through the lens of neuroscience – we asked psychologist and cognitive scientist, Dr Tom Stafford whether this reliance on technology is affecting our brains. 

The technological age is very young. The internet as we know it is less than two decades old, yet for most of us it now dominates daily life.  Our smartphones are designed to be with us at all times, ready to deliver all we want to know everywhere immediately. Many have raised concerns about whether the endless live stream we’re exposed to is affecting our ability to concentrate. Pullitzer Prize-winning writer Nicholas Carr starts his well-known book “The Shallows” with an admission: “I am not thinking the way I used to think”… “the deep reading that used to come naturally to me has become a struggle”. This sentiment certainly struck a chord with some in the room on Thursday. However, Stafford is quick to point out that this is not in fact a new problem: “The single biggest finding from over 40 years of psychologists’ research into attention is that it is – and will always be - finite.”

To prove his point, Stafford asked us to try tracking four animated dots as they bounced through a space filled by other identical moving dots. Some in the room were very good, others less so. Interestingly, those who regularly played action computer games were particularly adept. It seems through practice we can improve our ability to multi-task and balance competing demands on our attention - just as we can learn to focus more deeply, but, crucially, we can’t have it all. We have to choose how and where we direct our finite attention. 

If you’ve made it this far without checking your email, well done. But can you remember what you’ve just read? An older generation, many whom spent hours learning poems or capital cities by heart, often lament a younger generation’s reliance on Google in the place of recall. Has continuous access to a whole universe of web-stored information damaged our ability to remember? 

Psychologists, including Dan Wegner at Harvard, have clearly shown it is affecting how we use our memory. When exposed to new information, we are less likely to allocate memory capacity to the information itself, but we do form very detailed memories of how to retrieve that information if we might need it again. Wegner calls this ability to outsource the business part of remembering information transactive memory. 

This, of course, is nothing new. For all of human time we have been implanting memories inside each other’s heads for safe keeping, for thousands of years we have been writing things down, for hundreds of years we have been printing books, for decades we have been recording information within computational machines.  The big difference now is the sheer volume and accessibility of information. However, according to Stafford, rather than worrying about our brains’ new reliance on the internet, we should in fact be cherishing the unprecedented access to new experience and new knowledge that we can access through the web.

So if our lack of focus can’t be blamed on our constant flitting between web browser windows and it’s not Google’s fault we can’t remember our niece’s birthday, what about the question of whether social media is killing our ability to foster meaningful relationships? 

Harvard professor Sherry Turkle sees an increasingly bleak and lonely world emerging: “the ties we form on the internet are not, in the end, the ties that bind”. Yet again Stafford is unconvinced: “when newspapers become more widely read, pundits feared the end of conversations – but we’re still talking.” We may spend more time chatting online, but the bars and cafés outside are thronging as usual. Convincing research shows that those with more “friends” online also have more fruitful social lives offline. Our brains are hard-wired to seek out social interactions. Technology gives us new ways to connect, the trick is find the forms of connection work for us.

Stafford wrapped up the talk by giving examples of how technology could be designed to play our psychological strengths. He ended on a hopeful note: we have the power to make forms of technology that foster our concentration, reason and empathy rather than work against them.

Overall, this was the main take-away point from the evening: we are not passive agents, we have choices to make. Stafford showed us that while our brains are, to some extent, adapting to the new circumstances in which we find ourselves, technological stimuli do not have any privileged access. Our brains simply adapt to the way we live. The information, entertainment and connectedness that the internet provides is highly compelling and often hugely useful. However ultimately we have to decide which devices to use, when to use them, and when to simply turn them off. 

Dr Ben Martynoga is a neuroscientist at the National Institute of Medical Research

 The Connected Brain with Dr Tom Stafford was part of the Grey Matters series at The School of Life, co-curated by Dr Ben Martynoga. For the first time ever neuroscientists can see what is happening in our brains as we think, feel, sleep, argue, fall in love or surf the internet. This series provides a unique chance to engage directly with key scientists working at the cutting edge of their fields. 

Also coming up at The School of Life:

Friday 12 July - Dance Night with Peter Lovatt

Wednesday 24 July - Internationally renowned design critic Alice Rawsthorn talks with curator Beatrice Galilee on why design matters. For more info and tickets please click here

Image: Film still from "Connected" by Tiffany Shlain http://connectedthefilm.com/

Posted by Dr Ben Martynoga on 26 June 2013

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