Digital Overload: Your Brain On Gadgets
The average person today consumes almost three times as much information as what the typical person consumed in 1960, according to research at the University of California, San Diego.
And The New York Times reports that the average computer user checks 40 websites a day and can switch programs 36 times an hour.
"It's an onslaught of information coming in today," says Times technology journalist Matt Richtel. "At one time a screen meant maybe something in your living room. But now it's something in your pocket so it goes everywhere -- it can be behind the wheel, it can be at the dinner table, it can be in the bathroom. We see it everywhere today."
Richtel has spent the past several months researching the toll technology and "information juggling" are taking on our lives -- and our brains. His series "Your Brain On Computers" describes how multitasking on computers and digital gadgets affects the way people process information -- and how quickly they can then become distracted.
The Brain In The Wild
Recently Richtel accompanied several scientists, all of whom are studying the brain, on a weeklong retreat to a remote corner of Utah. The rules of the vacation? No cell phones, no Internet access and no technological distractions.
"Partly they wanted to go on vacation and see it through a neurologic lens," he says. "They wanted to take a look at what was happening to their brain and their perspectives -- and by extension, ours -- as they got off the grid."
The scientists were divided in half about how they felt about information overload. Two of the five -- whom Richtel termed "the believers" -- thought that the constant stream of data coming into their lives was making it increasingly difficult to focus and concentrate, and that heading back into nature could help them recharge. The other three neuroscientists -- "the skeptics" -- thought that the benefits of having constant access to information far outweighed any consequences.
While out in the wild, the scientists -- skeptics included -- noticed something significant happening on the third day they couldn't use their hand-held devices, computers and mobile phones.
"You start to feel more relaxed. Maybe you sleep a little better. Maybe you don't reach for your phone pinging in your pocket," Richtel says. "Maybe you wait a little longer before answering a question. Maybe you don't feel in a rush to do anything -- your sense of urgency fades." Richtel terms it the "three-day effect."
Though the three-day effect didn't surprise the neuroscientists on the trip, they realized it presented a new research problem.
"They said, 'Let us see if there's anything in this three-day effect that might be the basis for future study that might help us understand when we're overwhelmed with data and what happens to us when we get away from it,' " explains Richtel, who accompanied the scientists on the trip. "To some extent, the skeptics did see a bit of a change in their perspective. They did say [things like] 'I am not as engaged in my world when I'm constantly using devices as I am when I am away from them.' They also said that revelation will inform [their] research going forward and may help us reach broader conclusions. But they didn't say, 'I understand now what is happening to the brain.' They simply said, 'There is something that merits real study here.' "
Streaming Information And The Brain
Richtel says another question scientists are asking is how much is too much, when it comes to processing technology.
Just as food nourishes us and we need it for life, so too — in the 21st century and the modern age — we need technology. You cannot survive without the communication tools; the productivity tools are essential.
"What is the line right now when we go from a kind of technology nourishment to a kind of stepping backwards, to a kind of distraction -- where instead of informing us, [technology] distracts us and impedes our productivity?" he asks. "There's growing evidence that that line is closer than we've imagined or acknowledged."
He points to one study conducted at Stanford University, which showed that heavy multimedia users have trouble filtering out irrelevant information -- and trouble focusing on tasks. Other research, he says, says that heavy video game playing may release dopamine, which is thought to be involved with addictive behaviors.
"When you check your information, when you get a buzz in your pocket, when you get a ring -- you get what they call a dopamine squirt. You get a little rush of adrenaline," he says. "Well, guess what happens in its absence? You feel bored. You're conditioned by a neurological response: 'Check me check me check me check me.' "
Richtel says that research is ongoing, particularly into how heavy technology may fundamentally alter the frontal lobe during childhood, how addictive behavior can lead to poor decision-making and how the brain is rewired when it is constantly inundated with new information.
But it's not all doom and gloom, he says. There are enormous benefits associated with technology, too. Research from the University of Rochester indicates that certain video gamers have more visual acuity than those who don't game. And there's value in offloading thinking to a computer, he says -- by, for example, using Google Maps instead of calling for directions or organizing information in Excel instead of keeping track of it in your head.
"There's some stuff being done at UCSF where scientists are trying to figure out if they can train older drivers to pick up more information in their surroundings that would let them react more quickly," he says. "Could they effectively develop games that would have transferability outside the game environment into the real-world environment? A key word in this discussion is transfer. How do tasks we perform on the Internet transfer to real life? That stuff is still very much in its embryonic stages."
One way of looking at all of this research, he says, is to think of technology the way we think about food.
"Just as food nourishes us and we need it for life, so too -- in the 21st century and the modern age -- we need technology. You cannot survive without the communication tools; the productivity tools are essential," he says. "And yet, food has pros and cons to it. We know that some food is Twinkies and some food is Brussels sprouts. And we know that if we overeat, it causes problems. Similarly, after 20 years of glorifying technology as if all computers were good and all use of it was good, science is beginning to embrace the idea that some technology is Twinkies and some technology is Brussels sprouts."
In addition to covering technology and telecommunications for The New York Times, Matt Richtel also writes a syndicated comic strip, Rudy Park, and is the author of Hooked, a thriller set in Silicon Valley. Richtel received the Pulitzer Prize in 2010 for a series in The New York Times on driving while multitasking.
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