How is high-speed high-volume inter-connectivity affecting our brains?

December 30, 2008 | By | Reply More

What happens to our brains when we sit at our computers for long periods of time interacting with the cyber world? This question was considered in an article called “Meet Your iBrain,” appearing in the October/November 2008 issue of scientific American Mind.

The authors cite a 2005 Kaiser family foundation study that found that “young people 8 to 18 years of age exposed their brains to 8 1/2 hours of digital and video sensory stimulation per day.”  [This number seems extraordinarily high to me–I suspect there this is a typo based on other studies].  One hour of that amount was using a computer.   FMRI studies the article indicates that there are some differences between those of us who process our information through a computer versus other methods of interacting.

The authors indicate that the “high-tech revolution” has plunged us into a state of “continuous partial attention,” which means that we are continually staying busy but never truly focusing. This is different than multitasking, where each task has a purpose and we strive for efficiency and productivity. Continuous partial attention means that

[W]e scan for an opportunity for any type of contact at every given moment. We virtually chat as our text messages flow, and we keep tabs on active buddy lists (friends and other screen names in an instant message program); everything, everywhere, is connected through our peripheral attention.

The authors suggest that this mode of connecting puts our brains into “a heightened state of stress, disrupting our ability to be thoughtful. The authors confirm that rather than contemplating and reflecting carefully, many heavy computer users get addicted to receiving exciting bits of information that have no relevance to each other.  They suggest that this activity is truly addictive, and that it feeds users’ “ego and sense of self-worth, and it becomes irresistible.”  The authors cite studies that suggest that a sense of self-worth significantly correlates with the size of the hippocampus.

So what happens when you work on the Internet for hours at a time? Many people get spaced out, fatigued and end up in an irritable “digital fog.” This constitutes a new form of “mental stress,” which the authors term “techno-brain burnout.” They see this form of stress as an epidemic that will, over time, impair cognition and lead to depression. They found that performances can be improved by having users focus on different portions of the computer screen and by having the users take short naps.

They admit that use of the Internet sharpens some cognitive skills, such as the ability to react to visual stimuli and the ability to employ certain forms of attention. We also get better at scanning and sifting large amounts of information, when we do this on a regular basis.  Web surfers looking for articles on health efficiently spend an average of only 2 seconds on a particular site; in other words, we get good at rapidly scanning and locking onto relevant information.  Playing computer games can also sharpen some cognitive skills, such as reaction times. The authors warn, though, that development of these Internet skills might correlate with a decrease in the ability to absorb information through “traditional learning methods.”

It seemed to me that this article raised legitimate concerns, but that these concerns are not yet backed up with substantial research. I am reporting on this article at this time, because the concerns raised in the article are concerns that I also have—the symptoms described in this article are symptoms that several teachers have told me that they’ve been noticing increasingly.  When we have more research, we can make use of it to become better users of interconnected computers. Or, perhaps, we will learn that, in order to stay socially and cognitively healthy, we will need to balance our time online with traditional methods of absorbing information and interacting with each other.

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About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

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