The Working World

Are Your Digital Devices Rewiring Your Brain?

American innovation has revolutionized the way we think, interact, and explore our creativity. As human beings, it is our brains’ ability to draw reasonable conclusions and make logical decisions that separate us from other earthly creatures. With the gift of free cognitive thought, we make our own choices, develop our own visions, and form ideas, thoughts, and viewpoints that establish our individuality. Like the creatures we are, we learn some choices we make are good, while others are bad.

Are Your Digital Devices Rewiring Your Brain?Learning has always been a part of mankind’s curiosity. During the Renaissance Period, man read relentlessly and became diversely knowledgeable through self-education. As scholarly men rose, deep thinking gave way to various statesmen, politicians, intellects, authors, and lawyers. Many of who became our Founding Fathers. It is not surprising that when our Founding Fathers came together in Philadelphia, they converged into various groups to discuss, dispute, and support the makings of a document that has transcended time.

As evolution progressed and technology infiltrated our lives, one must ask, “are we really the same thinkers our ancestors were?”

Since the launch of the first personal computer and digital technology, our adoption to new methods of communication has edged its way into our lives. Today, our developed society functions almost seamlessly through technological devices that make life easier. We’re more informed, more socially connected, and free to discuss and respond to timely events that have an impact on our society. But how much of being connected affects our brain? The answer may be more than you think.

In the book The Shallows Nicholas Carr tackles this very question with some surprising utopia. Our digital dependency has crept upon us slowly. We’ve become addicted to the devices we own; never realizing the impact they’ve made on our lives. There’s a growing belief that digital technology is affecting us more than we think, and ironically many of us don’t know it.

On a daily basis we:

  • Stare at our screens spending most of our time on the Web
  • Click away at our computers and tablets for work, fun, and play
  • Check our smartphones to interact with others
  • Share our thoughts and feelings on multiple social media channels, such as Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube
  • Make purchases and reservations, build communities, and support causes online

Our daily routine is filled with repeated distractions from information that demands our attention; making each day the opposite of “ordinary.” Research is beginning to show that our devices affect our minds cognitive ability to function.

Being in front of a computer screen continuously and rapidly delivers content to our visual and auditory senses through hyperlinks, videos, buttons, and everything else online. Our fingers click, scroll, touch, and tap – navigating the repetitive function of instant information, and we hear sounds repetitively through chimes, alerts, music and whistles. We also become distracted by visual pop ups, reminders, RSS feeds and software updates, as well as open and close windows without blinking an eye.

The translation? The way we think, perform, concentrate, and focus our attention has changed; possibly in a way we can never get back. The days of quiet, which was once associated with the Renaissance Period and heavily focused on deep reading and thought, has become lost. We’ve become reliant on skimming information, quickly reviewing information that is relevant in our “need to know” day. We do this frequently when we look at road signs, menu items, headlines, grocery aisles, and our TV channels. We’ve lost the ability to focus, concentrate, and control our ability to have patience—something once derived from devoted attention.

In its simplest description, to store a memory, regions of the brain record an experience. The frontal lobe is where incoming messages are processed and working memory is stored, and it is here where the brain is most impacted. The Hippocampus (the region of brain deep within the temporal lobe) weaves new and old memories together, signaling a consolidation process, where the brain’s attention is required to pass new information from short-term working memory into long-term memories. If the brain becomes distracted during this cognitive process, there’s an increased risk in losing new content and new memory.

Repeated distractions that trigger rapid shifts in attention take a toll on the frontal lobe, which affect judgment, creativity, and focus, as well as lead to shallow thinking. Repeated distractions in thought is an indication that something about us is different, but it is not an obvious sign of the changes in our brain which happen unconsciously and without warning. The brain makes this transition silently and automatically. The biggest risk is a loss in human qualities to an Internet Digital Addiction (IDA). Nevertheless, studies are revealing progress in understanding the brain’s cognitive secret. But we shouldn’t take our responsibility in cerebral well-being too lightly.

This reverts back to the question, “Are we really the same thinkers our ancestors were?” If our dependency on digital technology has succumbed to less thinking and more fragmented thoughts, then is it reasonable to conclude the brain can rewire itself based on how we think? The answer is yes; it is possible, and research is backing this up.

While it’s important to recognize that our actions in the digital age have consequences, we must remember that digital interaction has a great set of benefits:

  • Our hand-eye coordination and reflexes are quicker and more reactive
  • Our ability to envision 3D graphics and visual animation is enhanced
  • Online word games often challenge the brain

The next question is, “What can we do to protect our brain, when we are so closely connected to digital technology?” The good news is we are in control. What we remember or forget is based on how present we are in the moment.

Here are a few tips to help keep ourselves focused:

  • Limit your exposure to repeated distractions
  • Check your email and social connections once or twice a day instead of once or twice an hour
  • Take regular breaks for mental sharpness
  • Exercise
  • Solve puzzles and word games to retain mental focus
  • Spend time personally (not virtually) with friends and family

Perhaps the Renaissance men really were better thinkers. They thought deeply on the content they read, and were able to recall facts and ideas with certainty to support their position. They embraced learning and creativity through the skills and talent learned from one another. Mankind thought, created, and succeed in using cognitive thinking to empower the world.

But has technology come full circle? Our world of progress has become so seamless, and our connection to digital technology so addictive—that it’s now changing the way we think. Ironically, our will power is a battle we fight within our own mind. Unlike the Renaissance men, whose struggles were based on life challenges; they never encountered a duel within the depths of their own minds.

Nicholas Carr summarizes the Internet by saying, “The Net may well be the single most powerful mind-altering technology that has ever come into general use.” And he’s probably right. Taking control means exercising self-restraint, and trading off one behavior for another. Good brain health is dependent on the decisions we make (or don’t make) and how willing we are to control our own behavior. But this decision is one only our brain can make!

Illustration by Jeff Stevens.

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By Liz Gross

Liz Gross is the Director of Campus Sonar. Her professional super powers include designing and analyzing market research, applying social media strategy to multiple areas of the business, explaining difficult concepts in simple language, and using social listening to develop consumer insights and assist with reputation management. She received her Ph.D. in Leadership for the Advancement of Learning and Service in Higher Education at Cardinal Stritch University.