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How Technology Is Changing Our Brain

How Technology Is Changing Our Brain
How have modern technologies like computers and cell phones changed the brains of young people? What are the benefits and downsides of the newly evolving brain wired on microprocessors and limitless information? We'll explore these issues with a UCLA brain and memory expert.

This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH (Host): Sure your teenager can figure out an iPhone or tweet a video like it's second nature to them, but that doesn't mean they actually think differently than you. It doesn’t, right? Actually, it could. New research gives a clue that technology and the vast information it provides may actually be changing and re-tooling the way the brains of young people work. The generation called millennials, who grew up alongside the digital technology explosion, are displaying faster-decision making skills and, of course, an affinity for the workings of high-tech devices. But that doesn't necessarily leave the rest of us out in the cold. My guest, Dr. Gary Small, says using high-tech devices may be a good way for adults to keep their brains young. And those young people, with all that fast cognition, may eventually have to brush up on their face-to-face communication skills. Gary Small is director of UCLA’s Memory & Aging Research Center and author of “iBRAIN: Surviving the Technological Alteration of the Modern Mind,” as well as “The Memory Bible” and “The Longevity Bible.” Welcome, Gary.


DR. GARY SMALL (Director, Memory & Aging Research Center, UCLA): Thank you, Maureen. I’m so happy to be here to be off my e-mail for a few moments.

CAVANAUGH: I’m glad we could give you a break there.

DR. SMALL: This is almost a face-to-face conversation.


DR. SMALL: I’m delighted.


CAVANAUGH: Now, Gary, your latest book is “iBRAIN: Surviving the Technological Alteration of the Modern Mind.” How is technology altering our brains?

DR. SMALL: Technology is everywhere and our brains are very sensitive to any kind of stimulation from moment to moment, so think about it. The average young person spends at least nine hours a day with their technology. If you add it all up, TV, iPhones, Blackberries, computers, you name it, now their brains are being exposed to that technology from moment to moment. What is happening? Well, we think that it’s actually altering the neurocircuitry in the brain. So we have a new generation of what we call digital natives. These young people grow up with the technology, they love it, they’re great at it. But the downside is they’re not spending as much time talking face to face so there’s concern that they don’t look people in the eye when they have a conversation or they don’t recognize subtle, non-verbal cues. Then you have my generation, the digital immigrants, who come to the technology more reluctantly. We have a little more face-to-face time, maybe a little less Facebook-to-Facebook time, and we are in a new situation. It’s really changed the generation gap to what I call a brain gap because our brains are wired differently. So what “iBRAIN” tries to do is bridge this brain gap by trying to upgrade the tech skills of us digital immigrants and help younger people with their face-to-face human contact skills.

CAVANAUGH: Now, I’m wondering, what kind of technologies really do, as you say, alter the way the brain works? It’s obviously not just TV because then you and I would be on the same page with the younger – the youngest generation because that’s really what you’re talking about, the people who are the millennials, is that correct?

DR. SMALL: The millennials would be the biggest group in the digital immigrant – or, digital native crowd.

CAVANAUGH: Right. So what technologies specifically, doing what specifically seems to change the way people’s brains work?

DR. SMALL: This is a new area of study and it’s complex. People always want, especially from the media, want to know the bottom line.


DR. SMALL: You know, is it good? Is it bad? But, unfortunately, or fortunately, the technology is complex and our brains are complex. So, for example, the study we did at UCLA, which we affectionately entitled “Your Brain on Google,” was really the first of its kind. And, interestingly, the international headline was “Google’s Making Us Smart.” Now, I don’t know if that’s true but we did find that when we looked at older people who had experience, prior experience, searching online, there was a much greater degree of brain activation when they searched online and we measured that activity on the scanner compared to people who were naïve. So the idea that was assumed was that we’re exercising our brains when we’re searching online, and it makes sense to some extent. We saw a lot of activity in the front part of the brain, the thinking brain, the part of the brain that makes decisions. So when we search online, we’re making lots of decisions. Should I go to this website? Should I go to that one, and so forth.

CAVANAUGH: That’s very true. Now, you actually did sort of an MRI scan of the brain while people were using the internet and Googling?

DR. SMALL: It was a very interesting study. One of the most difficult parts of this study was finding people who were naïve to the computer.


DR. SMALL: Now we know they’re out there but you can’t recruit them online so you have to find them by word of mouth. There are these people. They hang out in libraries and they’re very – very much against adopting the technology, and I think that’s the extreme because we find more and more older people are using the technology. To measure the brain from moment to moment, to look at blood flow in different regions, we used an MRI scanner where it’s altered so we can actually look at function in the brain. And anyone who’s had an MRI scan knows it’s a very narrow tube so you cannot get a computer actually in the tube.


DR. SMALL: So we used these goggles that allowed us to present images that simulated a webpage and the volunteers had a little keypad where they could work a mouse. So we had a simulated internet search experience and we gave people directions to get information, and it was age appropriate, it wasn’t find a great skate park in San Diego, it was, you know, find a nice place to take a nature walk or something like that. And we tested people, we knew they got the content. And there really was this dramatic difference in the people who had prior experience, and it was also much different from when they read a simulated book page where there was much less activity.

CAVANAUGH: That’s fascinating. And I’d like to take a phone call now from Patricia in Solana Beach. Hello, Patricia.

PATRICIA (Caller, Solana Beach): Hi, how are you?

CAVANAUGH: Just great.

PATRICIA: Great. My comment is that I train horses for a living and I do hunter/jumpers. And for anybody that isn’t familiar with that, in order to ride a horse down through two fences that are in a line, it requires a large amount of spatial awareness and depth perception and almost an intuitive moment-to-moment decision making because you’re both communicating with your animal plus having to gauge the distance from which you are to these fences and so on. And what I find is that when I get deep into my other thing that I do, which is web design and video creation and I get kind of deep into coding or really deep into, you know, editing, when I come back out to try and ride, and specifically jump those fences, I have a hard time making that transition from that – two different styles of decision making. And I was curious what his thoughts are on that.

CAVANAUGH: Thank you for that. That’s fascinating.

DR. SMALL: It is a very interesting observation, and what you’re doing is you’re using very different parts of your brain and it takes a while for the brain to adjust from one program, if you will, to another. So it’s probably exercising your brain and the kind of activity you have in both situations may very well be good for your brain and keep your neurocircuits working. To me, it’s a form of what I’ve called cross-training your brain.


DR. SMALL: And one of the messages that we try to get across in “iBRAIN” is that it’s a good idea to balance different sorts of activities. Don’t spend hours and hours on Facebook or IMing. Try to take breaks and do different kinds of things to exercise different parts of your brain.

CAVANAUGH: I want to talk a little bit about the people that you define as digital natives. We’ve – we all know that, you know, if you can’t work something as a middle-aged adult, give it to someone who’s younger and they’ll figure out how to use the iPhone, they’ll figure out how you can use Twitter, all these – Is it just simply a matter of not being intimidated by the devices or is it somehow that they understand how they work a little bit better than people of another generation?

DR. SMALL: I think it’s a bit of both because, you know, they – they’re in this culture that is very comfortable with the technology. Their brains are also very different. A young person’s brain is still developing. In fact, there’s a process called pruning, which means that the – 60% of the synaptic connections in the brain, or the connection sites between one cell and another, are literally pruned away through development and that process continues through adolescence. We know that young people, for example, are very good at learning languages or learning musical instruments. They do it better, more quickly, than a middle-aged person. But there’s also a downside to the young brain. For example, the frontal lobe, the thinking brain, is not fully developed so a young person has more trouble with complex reasoning and looking forward. And I can attest to that because I recently taught my sixteen year old daughter to drive a car, and I think about six months ago I had jet black hair. So, you know, it was a bit like…

CAVANAUGH: And you don’t anymore.

DR. SMALL: Yes, I don’t. Thank you, Maureen, for pointing that out to the audience. But, you know, it was a little bit – Rachel, didn’t you see that car? You know, whatever, Dad. You know, I saw that. But the idea of thinking ahead and a car’s coming, it takes more practice and that’s a normal part of adolescence to develop the frontal lobe.

CAVANAUGH: As you take this idea of maybe – of technology being very good at using Google and other digital devices, the way that strengthens the brain, what are the consequences in affecting how people who are good at that will act in the world?

DR. SMALL: Well, there can be positive and negative…


DR. SMALL: …to it. In “iBRAIN” we’re focused a bit on some of the negatives and the concern about face-to-face human contact skills. A lot of these people get addicted to technology. They have a hard time giving it up. A recent study found that young people, these were people 17 to 23, when they played a violent videogame, for example, they had a harder time recognizing the emotional expression of a face. So that’s just one bit of direct evidence suggesting what we often observe in everyday life. You see the millennials texting as they walk. I don’t know if you knew, in London there’s actually pads on some of the poles so people don’t injure themselves while they’re texting and walking.

CAVANAUGH: No, I didn’t know that. Oh, that’s come up recently, hasn’t it?

DR. SMALL: Yes. I can give you another 17 year old daugh – now, she’s 17, my daughter.

CAVANAUGH: Yes, yes.

DR. SMALL: Another story. The other day we took her and her friend out to a movie and dinner and I was talking to her and I said, Rachel, you know, I don’t feel as if you’re really listening to me when you text while I talk. So she looked up and said, don’t worry, Dad, I don’t do this with my teachers, and then went back to her texting. So it was – It’s kind of – It’s part of their culture. They’re used to it. I mean, I – my younger teenager, you know, I’ll drive them around with their friends and rather than talking, they’re connecting online with other people.

CAVANAUGH: Now I would imagine – I’ve always – When I see that, I always assume this is something that kids are going to grow out of. Now we don’t have actual – any evidence to prove that because texting hasn’t been around that long, but do you expect that as, you know, how young girls used to spend – write notes to each other and – in school and all of that, do you expect that avalanche, that overwhelming addiction to texting will sort of like slide off as children – as young people get older?

DR. SMALL: I don’t know what’s going to happen. You know, one thing – one issue is empathy skills are still being learned in a teenager. So are we – these young people losing their capacity for empathy? In 20 years, will they have less empathy? Or will we define empathy in a different way? I mean, there’s a sense of empathy and a lot of feeling expressed online. You get a text message from someone, it can make you feel great from moment to moment, it’s a very personal experience we have with the technology. And in a sense, the debate that I’m trying to bring to the surface is one that results from the primitive nature of these technologies today. In the future we may have electronic communication technologies that provide virtual images or holographs of people right in the room, just like on “Star Wars.” And your brain may not be able to distinguish whether you’re really talking to your radio guest or just a holograph of that person.

CAVANAUGH: Like CNN’s election coverage.

DR. SMALL: Yeah.

CAVANAUGH: Let me take another call from Beau in San Diego. Good morning, Beau.

BEAU (Caller, San Diego): Hi, good morning. Great, great topic. Great presentation. I got – it’s kind of a two or three pronged thing. Is, I’m wondering, does this create more creativity in people or is it just a different morphing of the way people define intelligence? And the other part is that I’m sixty-th…

DR. SMALL: Could we – Could we start with that because I – you’re testing my short term memory with the second question. The creativity issue, again, there’s two sides of it. It can, in a sense, dampen our creativity that we’re in a way sacrificing depth for breadth. You know, any information you want you just get it online in a moment and you don’t really ponder deeper questions. On the other hand, we can use these technologies to be very creative, create electronic music and art and all kinds of interesting things.

CAVANAUGH: And, Beau, to your second question?

BEAU: Well, the other part of it is that I sense this is, you know, the philosophy of America is still the wild west, you know, rugged individualism. And I’m 63 and I’m kind of – Well, I’m not kind of, I’m a very face-to-face person, you know, looking for subtle cues and responding to the other person and, you know, hey, here’s the conversational ball. You ask a question, I give you the answer and I say something and it goes back and forth. And what I sense is in younger people is that that is gone, you know. That there’s – When you talk about empathy and compassion, and part of it is that I think that people are getting more and more away from our humanness by this technology.

DR. SMALL: You expressed a concern that many of us express. You know, our ability to communicate face-to-face in these subtle ways, this is something that has evolved over hundreds of thousands of years and I would hate to see us lose that ability because the digital age overtakes us and redefines what we call humanity.

CAVANAUGH: And, Gary, I do want to talk to you because there is hope for older people, I want them to know that. A lot of your research is about how older people can keep their brains young. But one of the things – We kind of dubbed this segment called – we called it “The Evolving Brain.” And since this year marks the 200th anniversary of Charles Darwin and his early studies on evolution, is there any reason to think that the changes that are taking place in the activity in the brain because of technology is actually making the brain evolve in the way that we understand that term?

DR. SMALL: Well, you know, it’s evolving, I would say, in two ways, in a sense, that it’s changing from moment to moment. We know that it evolves. Every kind of mental activity we experience, there is change in the neurocircuitry, in the synapses, the connection sites, and so if we choose to spend a lot of time with one activity for a long period of time, our brain wiring will change. Now also the brain is very plastic even at an older age, so it can change back, so there’s the hope there we can change our patterns. Now in the Darwinian sense, I think there will be evolution as well. If you think about the basic principle of Darwinian evolution, it has to do with natural selection meaning that mutations or genetic variants that are favored to a particular environment will be more likely to do well or excel or survive. Now if our environment is changing, then we’d expect a different kind of brain in future generations. So – And I don’t know what that brain’s going to look like. You know, it may be a bigger frontal lobe, it may be smaller. You know, we may be looking like people from outer space. We may have really big thumbs from all the texting. I haven’t got a clue. But I’m excited to find out what it’s going to be like.

CAVANAUGH: Well, they better make those keyboards bigger, that’s all I have to say if the thumbs grow.

DR. SMALL: You know, thinking – thinking about the future brain, we do have a chapter on the future brain in “iBRAIN.” We talk about some of the new technology in computer-brain interfaces, and this is actually developed from people who have had strokes, other kinds of motor diseases, and they have volunteers now who can put a sensor on the forehead and actually control a computer by their thoughts. So in the future, what we may have, instead of wearing a little Bluetooth earpiece, you’re going to be wearing a little sensor or a headband and you’ll be, you know, at the corner coffee shop and thinking you want to meet your friends so you think about that thought, it’s wirelessly beamed to your handheld which goes wirelessly to your friend, they get the thought on their little sensor and then they meet you for a cappuccino and you don’t even have to talk; you can’t just read each others minds while you sip your coffee.

CAVANAUGH: Thank heaven we’re still drinking coffee.

DR. SMALL: I’m – We’re joking about it but…


DR. SMALL: …I really believe that that technology is not far away. And the next step would be actually implants in our brains.

CAVANAUGH: Now when you say not far away, what kind of time scale are you using?

DR. SMALL: Well, you know, I’m a psychiatrist so I try not to predict the future too accurately. It’s hard to tell. I mean, it could be 20 years when this kind of technology would be adapted. Think about today, everybody has their own phone they’re carrying around. We didn’t have that 20, 30 years ago. We wouldn’t have even imagined it. So I think it’s very hard to really get our heads around what’s it going to be like in 10, 20 years because the advances are just so rapid.

CAVANAUGH: My guest is Dr. Gary Small. And let’s take a phone call now from Mara in Carmel Valley. Good morning, Mara.

MARA (Caller, Carmel Valley): Good morning. Well, I have a very interesting example of how, you know, kids are already changing the way that they’re – they’re beginning to think in text. So I was at dinner with some friends of ours, and my friend’s husband is a junior high school teacher and I know all the kids are texting, texting, they’re never on the phone. And I asked him if that was affecting them, you know, in school, and he said – he said, yeah, he said it’s really affecting their writing. They’re beginning to, when they do, you know, papers and write for class, they’re actually beginning to write in text.


MARA: Can you believe that?


MARA: And he said also that it’s – you know, it’s almost like very uncool for the teenagers to like be seen on the phone so they’ll actually be berated by their friends, like why’re you, you know, on the phone? And, you know, and I think part of this may be, you know, if the kids are in class, you know, the teacher’s going to see that they’re on the phone…

DR. SMALL: Umm-hmm.

MARA: …but if they, you know, just are texting under their desk, it’s very discreet and they can get away with that in class. So – But I thought the writing, abbreviating in text, in, you know, their actual language skills are beginning to change how they think. Anyway, that’s it. I just wanted to share.

CAVANAUGH: Thank you. LOL.

DR. SMALL: Yeah. By the way, PRW is a good one to know. That means ‘parents are watching.’


DR. SMALL: So, yeah, this is so interesting. I think educators are challenged by the new technology. You have a whole generation that is used to the fast-paced bombardment of all kinds of things, the razzle dazzle of the internet and all the web pages. And they have to go to school and there’s just this talking and writing on the blackboard, if there are blackboards anymore. And so they have to be innovative to engage the kids. There are concerns. Will they really learn proper English? Will they know how to write an essay, a paragraph, if they’re just texting all the time and using shorthand. Another question, will our language evolve? And this often happens with language, is that we may see a new kind of shorthand language and what we know as old-time prose may be something of the past.

CAVANAUGH: That would be interesting, the first novel written in text.

DR. SMALL: Oh, my goodness. You know, a related topic…


DR. SMALL: …is what’s going to happen with old-fashioned books and newspapers. I mean, will everything become paperless in the future?

CAVANAUGH: Let’s take another call now from Christine in San Diego. Good morning, Christine.

DR. SMALL: I think I’m scaring you.

CHRISTINE (Caller, San Diego): Hi, good morning. I was fascinated when I just got in the car and heard you guys talking about this. I have a sister and her child is having some learning disabilities and he’s not autistic but he’s kind of having – he’s on the spectrum. He has a little bit of problems reading facial cues and with language. And I’ve often wondered if possibly, and I know this is probably a controversial statement, but if the rise in autism we’re seeing could possibly have something to do with an evolutionary change particularly with the rise in boys, as men no longer need to go out and be hunters and all that but need to be sort of savvy with technology and less dependent on things like reading facial cues and those kind of things that kids with autism seem to have deficits in but they seem to be strong in areas like maybe math and computers. And I’ve always kind of wondered if possibly this could be linked to that somehow.

CAVANAUGH: Thank you, Christine, for that question.

DR. SMALL: Well, there is certainly controversy related to this question that you raise, a very interesting question. And we have to be careful when we attribute cause and effect relationships to associations that we see. There was a study that was done, it was very interesting, it was just – we talk about it in “iBRAIN.” It was just recently published in a scholarly journal. An economist noticed – his son actually was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder and, of course, he was concerned about him and one of the things he did was to stop the television at home, and that certainly helped his son. And we know for a lot of these kids with learning difficulties and autism spectrum problems, there’s intensive physical therapy, occupational therapy, talking to the kids, keeping them away from the technology, and that often helps. Well, this economist did a study where he looked at the rate of precipitation or rainfall, of all things, in three states that had a lot of variability in rainfall: California, Oregon and Washington. And he found that in months or years where there was more rainfall, there were higher rates of autism. And the one interpretation was that the kids were indoors more and they were more exposed to television. As a follow-up, they also found that cable television households also had a higher rate of autism. Now that’s not absolute proof because people could argue, well, if they’re indoors more, maybe they’re exposed to mold or something else. We don’t know for sure. But I think these are interesting questions we need to understand. We need to do studies so we can attribute cause and effect and that should drive public policy.

CAVANAUGH: Let’s take another call. Jonathan is in Chula Vista. Good morning, Jonathan.

JONATHAN (Caller, Chula Vista): Hi. Yeah, I was commenting on the fact that he said that eventually we’ll have like headbands like Bluetooths that we can just think…


JONATHAN: …and then that would move into maybe possible implants into the brain. Now I know that my Bluetooth that I’m using right now is really weak, that anybody can hack into it and pretty much listen to my conversations so what would stop people hacking into our brain and literally knowing what we think?


JONATHAN: And knowing what we’re…

CAVANAUGH: Jonathan, you’re right. We are losing you a little bit. But his question is…

DR. SMALL: I understand.

CAVANAUGH: Yeah, could they hack into our brain?

DR. SMALL: Well, I think we’ll have to walk around with tinfoil hats so that people – we won’t get spammed. But I, you know, I think that, sure, that’s a possibility. I mean, we even have – there’s tremendous privacy risks with the internet today, all kinds of – there’s whole criminal divisions that deal with internet crime, so I think those are certainly concerns. But I think as we – as the technology continues, as our brains evolve with the technology, I think this will happen. We will have little implants so that you can actually use the computer as external memory or a searching devise so you won’t have to – the mouse and the keyboard will be a very primitive device and you’ll just think about it and you’ll be online instantaneously.

CAVANAUGH: Now when we started our conversation, you were talking about this MRI study you did about people who had these Google eyeglasses on and how you saw which areas of their brains were stimulated…


CAVANAUGH: …by that. You have also found that this kind of activity helps people whose brains are getting older, and I wonder how it does that? How does actually surfing on the internet and making that kind of – becoming more adept at technology actually stimulate an older brain?

DR. SMALL: You know, I wish I could answer that in tremendous detail but because we’ve just started to study this, I can’t. I can speculate. I can tell you how I understand the field – and also, from other studies we’ve done with aging brains and how they respond to mental stimulation. What we’ve found in this study was this greater activity in the brain in people who had experience. And one way of interpreting that is that the internet is sort of a natural exercise treadmill for our minds. You can push yourself as far as you want. You can change the elevation of the treadmill, you can change the rate or increase the rate or the scope of your searches depending on your comfort level. And so we’re constantly pushing that envelope. Now what we find with other kinds of studies is that when a mental activity becomes more routine and we’re used to it, we actually see less activity in the brain and we interpret that as brain efficiency. So I think there’s this tension that occurs and so we can always push ourself with that. Another aspect of the question you asked is that we can develop programs, computerized programs, that actually exercise the brain in a very specific way, and many companies are doing this where they teach older people memory techniques. And we’ve shown that we can improve mental ability through these techniques. So we can use these computer programs to really make our brains better as we age.

CAVANAUGH: In fact, you have something that you call Memory Boot Camps. How does that work?

DR. SMALL: Did you want to sign up?


DR. SMALL: We have a half day Brain Boot Camp at the UCLA Semmel Institute and the way it works is we’ve taken the memory books that I’ve done and we’ve put it into a short course and we demonstrate it and we teach people memory techniques, we teach them healthy lifestyle, diet, physical exercise, relaxation exercises, to not only improve memory capacity but, hopefully, to improve their brain health and possibly stave off Alzheimer’s. So if people come in, the Brain Boot Camp was actually for people who didn’t want to take our five-week course, which is available in about seven states throughout the U.S. So these are very popular courses that people are taking because everybody’s noticing memory change as they age and they want to do something about it.

CAVANAUGH: And where is that again?

DR. SMALL: You – Maureen, you took my one joke. Now I got to remember another one.

CAVANAUGH: Let’s take another call. It’s Allyn in North Park. Good morning, Allyn.

ALLYN (Caller, North Park): Hi. Yeah, one of the things that I am wondering if you or someone can test is the actually diminishing of the importance of hearing and listening. I notice that people, you know, they get orders wrong or they just can’t wait for you to finish your thought because…

CAVANAUGH: You know, I’m going to do exactly that, Allyn, and I’m so sorry because we’re running up against the clock. I think we do have the gist of your question though, and that is the hearing and whether people are really listening to what you say and retaining that information in order to act properly upon it.

DR. SMALL: Well, I think that’s a problem for the aging brain because we know that vision and auditory acuity diminish as we age. But we can use technology to help that and there are enlarged computer screens. Older people really like these electronic books because they can increase the font size and they don’t have to schlep around a whole bunch of books if they have back pain. They can have many volumes on a little device. And I think for younger people, the lack of listening and seeing is really distraction and multi-tasking and that’s something we have to be aware of and really try to control. We know from studies of the middle-age brain that multi-tasking may give us a perception of being more efficient, but we make more errors.

CAVANAUGH: Dr. Gary Small, thank you so much for being here.

DR. SMALL: Thank you, Maureen. That was your name.

CAVANAUGH: That’s it.

DR. SMALL: Yes, thank you.

CAVANAUGH: I knew it would come to you. And thanks everyone who called. Sorry we couldn’t get to all of you but please do try again on another topic. We love to hear from you. You’ve been listening to These Days on KPBS.