One of the questions I frequently get asked is, "is our technology dumbing us down?" I'm sometimes tempted to reply with a flippant answer, but the reality is it's more complicated than just yes or no.
It has opened our world.
While it's hard to imagine a world without it we have only had access to the world-wide-web since 1989. Invented by Tim Berners-Lee to facilitate information sharing between scientists, today we can access a seemingly infinite amount of information with just a few keystrokes. The challenge we now face is how to filter what we really require without getting lost down the myriad of rabbit holes of hyperlinks and related material. This accessibility of information has vastly expanded our knowledge base and I for one celebrate that.
It's helping us to learn more and faster.
Engaging with our technology has speeded up our thinking. Hurray you may think. The one problem is that this increased speed is not matched by accuracy, so where attention to detail counts, we have to slow our thinking down.
At school while many of our kids are still taught to learn and regurgitate information, more and more educators are now integrating learning with the new technologies of videos, video games, social media, and collaborative exercises to heighten engagement, provide meaning and relevancy and make learning fun.
(If I had had the opportunity to learn physics and chemistry by playing a video game, I might have not only enjoyed the subjects more, I might have actually understood them better.)
It simplifies some of the complexities of life.
The great thing about our modern technology is it does some of those really complicated things to help us out, though we may not understand how it all works. Working on a "need to know" basis frees us up to focus on what is relevant and outsource the rest. We use a calculator to do the math, we check the weather app to tell us the likelihood of rain; we monitor our heart rate and daily footsteps to help us stay healthy. Is this all bad or making us lazy? No. It's about choice and being selective in what we choose to learn and remember.
The distraction issue is real.
Bemoaning our shrinking attention span is a reflection of how successful our technologies have become in diverting us from the task at hand. Managing an increasing level of distraction is responsible for adding to the level of stress or cognitive load we experience, which can lead to a reduction in performance and productivity.
What matters is knowing how to manage our distractions, rather than feeling governed by them. Shifting focus every few minutes rapidly leads to mental fatigue, so the knowledge worker who is interrupted every 11 minutes quickly gets tired. Gloria Mark and others have shown it can take up to 24 minutes before we get back on task.
Being aware of this cognitive cost means you might want to think twice before feeling tempted to fill in that free 5 minutes updating your Facebook page, because the reality is you've just allocated almost half an hour to less focused activity.
It's making us tired.
Our ability to fall sleep is disturbed by the blue light emitted by our technology screens because of its effect on melatonin production and melanopsin stimulation. While this can be overcome by switching to a softer yellow light, the continual engagement with technology hyper stimulates the brain leading to reduced sleep quality, mental fatigue and loss of productivity the following day, as well as an increased risk of depressive symptoms. Cognitive fatigue is a performance killer. Choosing to disengage with all technology 90 minutes before bedtime and for a short period several times a day, helps to minimise this risk.
It's affecting our relationships.
Our technology has enabled us to connect with others to a level that was previously unimaginable, while paradoxically leading to greater disconnect with the person we are with. Having someone flick their gaze to every incoming ping, bling or chirrup on their phone while you're trying to have a conversation with them comes across as disrespectful, reduces personal connection and trust. Texting and emails are notorious to being open to misinterpretation and misunderstanding because they do not indicate the tone or mood of the sender. It diminishes empathy because breaking off a relationship or firing someone behind the safety screen of our technology fails to teach the social skills necessary to handle difficult conversations and strong emotion.
Is technology really shrinking our brain?
A study published in PlosOne in 2014 reported that higher media multi-tasking activity is associated with smaller gray matter density in the ACC - the brain area associated with cognitive and emotional control. Does this mean technology is dumbing us down by shrinking our brain?
We don't actually know the answer to that yet.
What the study showed was an association between the two, not a cause and effect. It could be that people with smaller ACCs are more prone to media multitasking rather then the multitasking causing brain shrinkage.
Meanwhile it might be prudent to choose not to multitask across different media (just in case). It reduces memory, accuracy, creativity and results in us taking longer to complete our work - multitasking is for the birds and so last century.
Perhaps the better question to ask is, "how to use our technology more wisely, to enjoy its amazing benefits and minimise any potential downside?"