You’d be the first to say technology has enhanced your life. How many days did you work from home last year? What about all that formerly wasted time waiting for friends to arrive at the bar; now, you happily check your email. Too bad the many smart gadgets in your life also cast a dark shadow. They are hurting your brain. Seriously. Physically.
Let's begin with the fact that using a GPS device most probably is affecting development in your hippocampus. Researchers at McGill University explained how there are two major ways of navigating through the world. A spatial navigation method uses landmarks and visual cues to essentially create mental maps that help you understand both where you are now and how you can get to where you want to go. A stimulus-response navigation method is traveling by memorized or provided directions, like the kind given you by a GPS.
After taking functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scans of two groups of older adults — GPS-users and non-GPS users — the researchers found those who navigated spatially had higher activity and a higher volume of gray matter in the hippocampus when compared to the GPS-users. Plus, they performed better on a test used to diagnose mild cognitive impairment. The study did not prove the lower gray matter directly resulted from overuse of a GPS; however, taken together with the famous study of London cab drivers, it makes sense to turn off the GPS.
Another way you're being made dumb? Searching for answers on the Internet or by any other technological device is just too easy. The “generation effect” refers to the discovery that we better understand and remember answers we have generated for ourselves in comparison to those answers we have simply read. If you solve a math problem, for example, you will have better recall of that answer later than if it is merely provided for you (on your iPad screen or by way of a calculator). Although scientists don’t understand the underlying reasons entirely, many believe that reading an answer requires less cognitive work than generating one, and this accounts for the effect. No pain, no gain, essentially. Well, isn't the Internet just one big pre-prepared answer to all of your (auto-corrected) questions? Bingo.
Playing video games, staring at a TV, updating your Facebook page, ordering food — technology is helping you become much less active, which in turn harms your body and your precious brain. Exercise has been shown to make it easier for the brain to grow new neuronal connections. The Internet may boost interconnectivity in some areas of your brain, but your generally static lifestyle is, at the same time, upping the difficulty factor for your brain to create these connections. Because you generally move around less than you would if you weren't so entranced by tech, you are more rarely boosting your heart rate and so you also have less oxygen pumping to your brain. Exercise has been shown to protect against Alzheimer’s disease. Are you exercising while checking out YouTube?
Technology does not give without taking. As old and boring as that sounds, it's the simple truth. After reviewing the literature, Patricia Greenfield, a developmental psychologist, found that any screen-based technology we use, including video games, will certainly enhance our visual-spatial skills — in beneficial and highly sophisticated ways — but only at the expense of developing other mental abilities, including critical thinking, knowledge acquisition, and imagination. Her article published in Science concluded that generally our contemporary technologies have weakened our capacity for deep processing, which can be developed through reading an extended text. Note to self: Pick up a freakin' book!
Your online behavior has shaped your brain in ways you cannot easily escape. Because neurons and synapses adapt to circumstances, your time spent interacting with a computer means you are remodeling your brain. What do you do most of the time online? You skim and hop from link to link, check your email while waiting for a page to load — you multitask. Unfortunately, all this multitasking means you've created an easily distracted brain. As Nicholas Carr recounts, researchers at Stanford gave a series of cognitive tests to one group of heavy media multitaskers and another group of light media multitaskers. The heavy multitaskers were found to be more easily distracted, less able to control their working memory, and less able to concentrate on a task when compared to the light multitaskers. Finding it hard to read a whole book, sit through a whole movie? Join the parade; it's happening to everyone.
None of this damage is permanent, if you want your brain to be another kind of brain, you simply have to spend more time doing something other than jabbing the tech needle directly into the vein. Yet, in all likelihood, as time passes there will only be more technologies and entertainments on which you will be able to spend your time. The one thing you need to remember is this: Along with the new games, you do not get more time. Spend what you've got wisely.