Technology is changing how we think–literally. According to a new book, “iBrain: Surviving the Technological Alteration of the Modern Mind,” spending just a short time on the web alters our neural pathways.
Authors Gary Small and GiGi Vorgan outlined their research and findings in the most recent issue of Scientific American Mind. In their study, an MRI machine measured brain activity while “computer-naive” subjects (all three of them) “surfed” the web using specially designed Internet goggles (ps – we want). They were then compared to computer-savvy subjects. After just five days of web-surfing, the naive subjects had developed the same patterns of neural activation as the savvy ones. In some people, the Web surfing triggered reward pathways that have been linked to addiction.
So what does this mean? Well, Small theorizes that the barrage of digital stimuli our brains are now receiving can lead to social dysfunction.
As the brain evolves and shifts its focus toward new technological skills, it drifts away from fundamental social skills, such as reading facial expressions during conversation or grasping the emotional context of a subtle gesture. A 2002 Stanford University study found that for every hour we spend on our computers, traditional face-to-face interaction time with other people drops by nearly 30 minutes.
Basically, it seems the Internet is making us autistic. A Kaiser Family study from 2005 found that 8-18 year olds (so-called “digital natives”) expose their brains to 8.5 hours of digital and video sensory stimulation a day–and that was 3 years ago. This technology use has made millennial brains particularly adept at filtering information, making snap decisions, and fielding Facebook pokes, but at the expense of sustained concentration, reading body language, and making real-world friends. As technology spreads, natural selection will favor these newly wired brains, and older neural pathways will disappear, taking traditional communication skills with them.
In addition to changing our social skills, our new “wired” brains may also lead us to suffer from “techno-brain burnout,” i.e. psychological and brain stress caused by “continuous partial attention” to text messages, emails, IMs, Twitters, Facebook newsfeeds, Flickr photos, etc… Apparently, this continuous partial attention gives us a high, let’s call it bloggerphoria. Once people become used to this tech-tastic state, it fuels our egos and self-worth and want more, more , more!!! This explains a lot (e.g. Michael Arrington). In a nutshell: computers = crack pipes.
Overall, this isn’t a bad thing. Computers and technology are making us ruthlessly efficient and actually increasing our mental acuity, cognitive skills and intelligence. The truth is, our brains NEED to adapt and rewire themselves in order to live in our wired world. Yet Small issues a call for us to “maintain our people skills and our humanity.” Hasn’t he seen Terminator? Even cyborgs can learn empathy and compassion, though it may take a sequel or two…