Technology, stimulation, and the brain

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It’s clear that more studies are needed to determine how modern technologies are affecting our brains. But what sort of research questions should we be asking?

Last week, Matthew Warren blogged about technology and the teenage brain, applauding recent empirical investigations of how technology use affects people’s brains and arguing that more research is needed before we can address alarmist claims that technology is harming our children. This week, I will consider what questions such research ought to pose to best understand the impact of technological innovations on our brains and behaviour.

As computers, tablets, mobile phones, and MP3 players have become ubiquitous, parents and teachers have voiced concerns that the hyper-technological lifestyle of today’s youngsters is doing them harm. Accordingly, researchers have begun to investigate whether these claims have any basis. Many of these investigations focus on the effect of a particular technology on brain function – the effect of Google on memory or of Internet use on social interaction. I’d argue, however, that the most significant effects of modern technologies on our brains and behaviour will arise from a feature common to all of them: that they are highly stimulating. Furthermore, I expect these effects to be magnified by our tendency to use multiple technologies simultaneously.

Speed and simultaneity in the high-tech world

A unifying feature of all the technologies that have critics worried is their speed. Consider communication. We type faster than we can write, sometimes even faster than we can talk, and so our thoughts fly onto the page, into blog posts and e-mails and instant messages, at record speeds. Ever-increasing broadband width delivers those thoughts to our friends, colleagues, and the world at large at faster and faster rates. And with the invention of mobile phones, and then of smart phones, the speed at which these thoughts are received has also increased, so that they can be read within an instant of us sending them. It’s not just communication that has sped up. Information gathering has, too. Instead of walking to the library, or even to the bookcase, and paging through the dictionary or encyclopaedia to find an answer to a question, we type it into Google and have our answer (or, more likely, a multitude of answers, and a whole slew of information on the topic) within moments.

The speed of modern technologies means that they require us to process more information in a given amount of time that we would if using, say, a pen and paper, or a physical dictionary. This effect is enhanced when we use multiple technologies at once. Think, for example, of a typical morning commute. Ten years ago, the stimuli a commuter would have needed to simultaneously process might have included the sounds and motion of the train, the behaviour of other passengers, and perhaps the text of a novel or newspaper. Nowadays, the commuter is likely to have an iPod in one hand and a smart phone in the other, possibly a laptop balanced on his knee, and to be listening to music, monitoring incoming e-mails, sending and receiving texts, and checking Facebook and Twitter and the BBC headlines, simultaneously or in quick succession – all that in addition to processing the stimuli of the train and other travellers.

How does this intensity of stimulation, and the speed of information processing it requires, affect the nervous system? Research on this question is still in its infancy, but other branches of study can give us a clue to what we’re likely to find. Studies on stress, sleep, and memory suggest how modern technology might influence our brains and behaviour.

Stress

Fast, intense stimulation drives the nervous system into a state of arousal. The body’s stress response system activates in order to allow us to deal effectively with the situation. That response evolved to deal with acute stressors, such as being chased by a predator, and it is very beneficial when the stress – or intense stimulation – is short term. For an athlete about to compete, a student about to sit an exam, or a lawyer about to cross-examine a witness, the burst of adrenaline and focus that the stress response provides are useful to successfully completing the task at hand. However, there is a growing body of evidence that chronic activation of this system can be damaging to our health. The stress response affects all sorts of body functions, from how we store energy to how our immune systems work, and continuous activation of this response may influence our susceptibility to everything from eating disorders and autoimmune diseases to depression and addiction. (For a thorough and engaging introduction to this subject, check out Robert Sapolsky’s Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers). Importantly, stress has significant – albeit complex – effects on cognitive functions like memory, both at a behavioural and a molecular level.

Does the technological stimulation we expose ourselves to have similar effects? Given how continuous, rapid-fire, and intense this stimulation often is, I think it’s likely that our use of technology is engaging our stress response system. If that’s the case, this is a prime route by which technology could alter brain function and behaviour. Studies investigating this link – for example, by monitoring stress hormone levels while people surf the Internet or text (or do both at once) – would help us determine how concerned we should be about such effects. Of course, the critical question is whether the way we use technology causes our stress response system to be chronically activated, so continuously monitoring this system as people go about their daily lives, and correlating these data with technology use, would be the most useful approach.

Sleep

A second avenue by which technology use could affect our brains and behaviour is sleep. Although the function of sleep remains one of the most hotly debated areas of neuroscience, it is clear that sleep is critical to brain function. Numerous studies have demonstrated that sleep deprivation or disruption affects memory, executive function, and mood. As in research on stress, these finding include evidence at multiple levels of biology, from molecules to network activity to behaviour, from both animal models and humans.

The data on how technology use affects sleep are already coming in. They indicate that people now sleep significantly less than they used to and that this is particularly true of younger generations. Furthermore, increased use of computers and mobile phones, especially just before bed, is correlated with increased sleep disruption, suggesting that our use of these technologies may be contributing to the epidemic levels of sleep deprivation our society is now experiencing. Given how stimulating modern technology is, it wouldn’t be surprising if using it hampered our ability to wind down sufficiently, and early enough, to get a good night’s sleep. Presented with the limitless information and entertainment available on the Internet, it can be hard to turn away from the next TV episode, YouTube video, Facebook update, or tweet and make ourselves go to sleep; the Onion’s recent satire on this subject rings awfully true.

Memory

As seen above, technology could affect our cognitive abilities indirectly, through its effects on the stress response system and on sleep. There may be more direct effects as well, particularly on our ability to concentrate on any one thing. Although the best way to model working memory is still a matter of debate, researchers agree that it is a limited resource and that the precision with which information is stored decreases as working memory load increases. So, while it may be that no individual technology affects our cognitive abilities, our propensity to use these technologies all at once might have effects on memory and attention, and studies should therefore be carefully designed to reflect this.

What state do you want your brain to be in?

Much of the panic over how technology could be harming our children involves concerns that these technologies might permanently change the brain – hence the focus on young brains that are still developing. While further research may uncover such long-term effects, it is as important to consider the more immediate question of how technology is influencing our brain function and behaviour every time we use it. To answer that question, it is critical to study technology use in context, and in particular to take into account that we often use multiple technologies at once.

Ultimately, the results of such research will only provide information on how technology affects the nervous system. It will then be up to us to consider what state we want our nervous systems to be in. Sometimes, the speed and intensity of the high-tech lifestyle may be useful. For example, some studies suggest that training on working memory tasks that require people to keep multiple pieces of information in mind at once enhances their ability to focus their attention on such tasks. So perhaps juggling simultaneous inputs from multiple technologies enhances our ability to multi-task. In other contexts, however, that proficiency might not be so useful. I could have written this blog post much more efficiently and fluently if I hadn’t tried to do so while running an experiment that required me to stop writing and collect data every five minutes. Like my experiment, modern technologies are constantly grabbing our attention – with the next song on the playlist, the ping of an incoming e-mail, the buzzing of the phone in our pocket – and we need to consider just how much attention we want to give them.

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Clio Korn
Clio Korn is a Neuroscience D.Phil. student in the Department of Psychiatry, University of Oxford.
Clio Korn

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