The new Technological Brain: Plusses and Minuses
One of the magazines I enjoy reading is Scientific Mind, an outgrowth of Scientific American. Scientific Mind can also be found on the Internet but a subscription is necessary to have access to the articles.
The October/November issue of Scientific Mind ran an interesting article on the impact of the technological age on the human brain. The article sites a lot of research that has been done on the brain and the way is has been affected by such things as video games, e.mail, video conferencing, instant messaging, e-shopping, surfing the internet and other types of digital stimulation.
The studies upon which the article is based divide people into two categories: 1) "digital natives," who are young people who were raised with digital technology and who do not have library skills because they surf the net for information needed for homework and other assignments and lack social skills because so much of their socialization occurs on the net. 2) "digital immigrants," who came to computers as adults (baby boomers) and who were raised with the old fashioned library and social skills.
The major theme of this review of the research is that the digital age has sped the development of the human brain in fascinating ways. For example, the hippocampus, a part of the brain responsible for learning and remembering new information, has become larger among those who constantly use digital technology, particularly young people. This enlarged part of the brain can also be responsible for a greater sense of self confidence among those to whom this has happened.
In addition, the modern technological age has helped increase cognitive abilities, increased ability to take in visual peripheral information and, in fact, to have sharper and more focused attention.
There is a down side to all of these developments that all of us, particularly parents, need to be aware of in monitoring their children's activities. One down side is that relying on such digital devices as e.mail, instant messaging and cell phone communication, is that there is a lack of face to face communication. This lack of interaction with those directly around you is the loss of the ability to read facial and non verbal expressions and communications. In fact, without voice communication due to e.mailing and instant messaging, there is even the loss of the ability to hear and interpret variations in tones of voice and other vocal expression.
A second down side to the digital age is what is referred to as "techno brain burnout." All of us are aware of this phenomenon when, after a long period of time using a computer or other digital device, we feel "spacy and tired," find ourselves making more mistakes and are aware of a sense of stress. To overcome the impact of this burnout people can do such things as: take a short nap, leave the computer and do some other type of task, go outside and take a long walk or just change the routine.
It is an interesting thing that as modern technological developments have speeded the ability to communicate world wide, and bring people together, we seem to be further apart than ever. Perhaps that is partially a result of the loss of the ability to see and perceive facial and vocal expressions and nuances when using the computer or cell phones. It is vital that we not lose our humanity as we continue to lunge forward into greater and greater areas of technological sophistication.
I am reminded of a woman who e.mailed me several years ago because she was feeling lonely and had difficulties relating to people. She was interested in psychotherapy. Her e.mail included her telephone number. When I called her she was instantantly annoyed and wanted to know why I had not answered her by e.mail. I reminded her that she reported difficulty with relationships and that direct contact seemed most important. She thanked me but I never heard from her again. It seems she was looking for "e.mail therapy."
Your comments are encouraged.
Allan N. Schwartz, PhD