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.