Dealing with the Brain-Technology Crisis

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Dealing with the Brain-Technology Crisis

In 2008, The Atlantic1 published an article titled "Is Google Making Us Stupid?"  It half-jokingly raised the issue of how information technology is changing the way we behave and think.  Meanwhile, scientists have been seriously looking into this question for years, and a recent spate of publications show that this is far from a joke. 

Among the leaders in studying this phenomenon are Gary Small, a professor of psychiatry at UCLA, and Torkel Klingberg, a cognitive neuroscientist at Sweden's Karolinska Institute. 

Small's new book iBrain2 and Klingberg's The Overflowing Brain3 both examine how technology is causing an accelerated transformation in the human brain.  And as both scientists report, this has both good and bad effects. 

In a Scientific American Mind4 article, Small shows how computers, smart phones, and video games, along with Google and Wikipedia, are forging new neural networks in our brains, even as older and more traditional pathways atrophy.  Not surprisingly, this leads to changes in behaviors and even emotions. 

For example: 

  • Researchers at Stanford University found that each hour we spend with information technology reduces face time with real people by half an hour. 
  • Scientists at the University of Texas studied 1,000 children and learned that three-fourths of them watch television or view videos an average of 80 minutes a day.  Five- and six-year-olds put in another 50 minutes at the computer. 
  • A study by the Kaiser Family Foundation in 2005 reported that people aged 8 to 18 spend eight-and-a-half hours a day in front of digital or video devices.  Most of that time is passive, such as watching videos or listening to music. 

Small's team at UCLA assessed the effects of spending hours a day on computers and interacting with digital devices to see what changes actually took place in the brain.  The researchers studied two groups of people: one group had no experience with computers, while the other group was computer-savvy.  The researchers asked both groups to perform searches on Google and tracked the activity in their brains. 

During the Internet searches, the computer-savvy subjects used an area of the brain called the dorso-lateral prefrontal cortex.  In the other group, this brain region remained inactive.  The dorsolateral prefrontal cortex is involved in planning, organizing, and regulating the voluntary physical movements we make...

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