This is Your Brain on Technology?

There is a lot of polarized dialogue about the role of communication technologies in our lives – particularly mobile devices and social media: Technology is either ruining us or making our lives better than ever before. For the worried crowd, there is the notion that these technologies are doing something to our brain; something not so good – like making us stupid, numbing us, weakening social skills. It recalls the famous anti-drug campaign: This is your brain on drugs. In the original commercial, the slogan is accompanied by a shot of an egg sizzling on a skillet.

So, this is your brain on technology? Is technology frying our brain? Is this a good metaphor?

One fundamental problem with this metaphor is that these technologies are not doing anything to us; our brain is not “on” technology. Rather, these technologies are tools. When we use tools, we change the world and ourselves. So, in this sense, of course our brain is changed by technology. But our brain is also changed when we read a book or bake a pie. We should not accord something like a mobile device a privileged place beyond other tools.  Rather, we should try to remember that the effects of technology are a two-way street: we choose to use tools in a certain way, which in turn influences us.

We would also do well to remember that the brain is an amazing, seemingly alchemical combination of genetic predispositions, experiences, random events, and personal choices. That is, our brains are an almost incomprehensibly complex nature-nurture stew.  This brain of ours is also incredibly resilient and able to recover from massive physical insults. So, using a tool like a mobile device isn’t going to “fry” our brain. Repeated use of any tool will shape our brain, surely, but fry it? No.

So, “this is your brain on technology” doesn’t work for me.

The metaphor I like better is to compare our brains “on technology” to a muscle. This is a multi-faceted metaphor. On one hand, like a muscle, if you don’t use your brain to think and reason and remember, there is the chance that you’ll become less mentally agile and sharp. That is, if you start using technology at the expense of using these complex and well-honed skills, then those skills will wither and weaken. It’s “use it or lose it.”

On the other hand, we use tools all the time to extend our abilities and strength –whether it’s the equipment in a gym that allows us to repeatedly use muscles in order to strengthen them; or whether it’s a tool that takes our muscle power and amplifies it (think of a lever). Similarly, by helping us do things better, technology may serve to strengthen rather than weaken us.

It is an open question whether one or both of these views are true – and for what people and under what conditions. But I believe that we need to leave behind notions of technology “doing” things to our brains, and instead think about the complex ways in which our brains work with technology – whether that technology is a book or a mobile device.


19 thoughts on “This is Your Brain on Technology?

  1. I was thinking about this – how should we classify our over-reliance on technology to say, find directions? After awhile nobody remembers how to get from one location to another. Each time I hear my friends say “there’s always google maps!”. I’ll agree that technology shapes our brain, it helps us to work more efficiently on most occasions, but are we not becoming over-dependent? We might be losing some skills – maybe part of evolution – but I’m not so sure we don’t need these skills anymore…

    1. Directions are a great example. It’s easy to imagine that after a generation or two of GPS that our internal maps of the world (and our ease with maps) will change and become less detailed and specific because we don’t have to REALLY know where things are in relation to each other any more. If this set of skills starts to weaken what others might be strengthened to take their place?

      1. Do we really not need to know how things are in relation to each other? I was thinking more in terms of being too comfortable. How many around us really still know how to read the map? Let’s just say we move out from the city into an unfamiliar countryside with little connections – I think problems would arise. Hmm, I haven’t thought about what gets strengthened – maybe our ability to find “shortcuts” – or more efficient ways to solve problems have been enhanced 😉

  2. I am of the mind that technology is a tool and we must learn ways to use each tool artfully and mindfully. There are tremendous upsides to technology, as well as downsides, but each generation has struggled with its own use of technology and the changes it brings. We need to ask, “Is this healthy and artful use?”

  3. Thanks for reminding me that our brains have been interacting with technology since the first human made the first tool! It would be fun to take an historical look at concerns about how new technology would affect our brains during different eras.

  4. The only thing I’m concerned with is how certain technology, by its use may be damaging our bodies in general through side effects we may yet be unaware of. The arguement with the maps though I find to be rather specious. If we’re looking at google maps we’re still learning where things are in relation to one another. While google might direct us there, it can’t lead us there, we’re still examining how things are in relation to one another. I feel the same way about arguements about how technology and the types of things we learn are affecting younger generations e.g., they won’t be able to concentrate on longer documents and books any more. Not sure I can agree. Those longer documents and books are simply being processed through a new medium. They haven’t exactly disappeared yet.

    1. Google maps is one thing but GPS is completely different – you can just mindlessly follow directions without learning about the locations of things.

      In terms of concentration, i don’t think we can rule out the possibility that being able to focus for long periods could change across generations depending on what people do in practice. If we as a culture start to prefer short versus long written media, why wouldn’t our skill sets change? I’m not saying this will happen. I’m just saying we should think about it and remember that we learn and our brains change through practice and repeated experiences.

      1. All true. On the other hand, with the ever rising incidence of ADD, people have also said it wasn’t detected earlier, because no where in history did we ever sit in classrooms and at work for such long periods of time concentrating on just one or two things. Maybe we’re not evolving so much as reverting to our actual animal nature? Who knows… its an interesting theory at any rate.

  5. The thing is, technology is a skill that must be learned, both at home and in schools. It has become a part of everyday, and a necessity. Of course, there are always those who will take it one step further, and base their entire lives around technology. But that shouldn’t happen. You’ve probably seen movies like The Matrix where computers have taken over our lives, and they could, but to that extent? Probably not. Humans are humans, and although we sometimes need technology, we can’t always rely on it.

    1. Belated reply… thanks for the comment! I agree with your point that we need to take the responsibility to use technologies wisely, as we would any tool. If we start to feel technology is taking over our lives, we need to take a step back and figure out how to make better choices.

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