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.

 

Pattern Recognition: How Technology Might Make Us Smarter

There is a lot of talk about how technology might be making us stupid. The examples are legion, and possibilities endless: we can’t spell anymore; we can’t remember anything anymore because we have a big, giant, virtual brain called the internet; we have flea-like attention spans; etc, etc, etc,..

To over-generalize like this is certainly giving technology a bum rap. And of course, many argue the opposite – that using different technologies improves key abilities  like working memory and eye-hand coordination. I think that there is always the risk of losing skills (aka becoming more stupid) if use shortcuts all the time and look at things superficially rather than using our brains to understand something at a deeper level. But there are many opportunities to gain new abilities via technology.

One ability that I think might be enhanced by the use of internet-based platforms, like social media, web browsers, and online shopping, is pattern recognition. From the point of view of psychology, pattern recognition refers to perceiving that a set of separate items make up a greater whole – such as faces, objects, words, melodies, etc. This process often happens automatically and spontaneously, and seems to be an innate ability of most animals. Certainly, the tendency to see patterns is fundamentally human – even patterns that don’t exist, such as the Man in the Moon.

How would using the internet help strengthen our pattern recognition abilities? To use the internet, we have to become skilled at skimming through large quantities of information rapidly, instantly judging whether we’ve found the information, website, or person that we’re looking for. Also, we have to rapidly shift from site to site. To process all that information slowly and serially would keep us busy all day. We have to put it together, see the patterns, and glean the information that we need. Children are frighteningly good at this. They have no difficulty sorting through complex arrays of information and graphics.  It feels like they read the patterns of the computer interfaces like native speakers. It’s not for nothing that we call children growing up today digital natives.

One of my favorite books of the last decade, Pattern Recognition, by the great technovisionary William Gibson, plays with the idea of what pattern recognition means to us today. Set in the present (rather than some future dystopia, which is more usual for him), the protagonist, Cayce (pronounced case not cas-ee) has an extreme psychological sensitivity to corporate logos, and has what amounts to an allergic reaction to successful advertising. So, companies hire her to judge the effectiveness of their proposed corporate logos and advertising strategies. Her ability is to effortlessly identify the je ne sais quoi – that special pattern – that makes a logo powerful and effective. I think that Gibson is thinking about our era as one in which highly skilled pattern recognition defines what we do and who we are becoming.

So, the question arises: Does that mean I want to sit my 3-year-old in front of a device for hours a day to help him build these abilities? No. But perhaps focusing on the skills he can build will help me think through how to structure his use of things like the iPad more effectively – such as what apps to choose for him, how to dovetail what he’s learning on the device with what he’s doing in the world (e.g., building blocks all the time, learning about letters and numbers), and how to help him see the patterns in what he’s doing.

Of course it is way too simplistic to demonize any technology by saying it will make us stupid. It’s all about the costs and benefits of how we use the technology. That’s why the research community needs to step up to the plate and try to understand how all these aspects of our children’s technological lives are changing them (or not) – what technology offers us, and what we in turn bring to the table in that equation.  We know shockingly little. As parents, we can either cut our children off from technology all together, or try to use our best judgment and make our children’s interactions with technology useful and powerful.  As adults, we can do the same – clearly, we need to think carefully about how we want to integrate these devices into our lives.

Now, sit down and look through your twitter feed or Facebook newsfeed, and see all the information you have to sort through. Tons of it! Reams – just in a given day…. And feel how your pattern recognition abilities are growing!


 

This is Your Brain on Facebook: Social Media and Teens’ Emotional Health

Social media are an integral part of the social landscape of teens today. This seems to have happened overnight, and now we are faced with some difficult questions: What does it mean if teens spend more time interacting via social media and less time interacting face to face? Should we be concerned that teens post suicidal thoughts on blogs rather than talking directly to parents and friends – or just feel relieved that they are telling someone? Is there a problem with the fact that, for many teens, it seems ok to break up a romantic relationship over text?

The short answer to these types of questions is: We have no idea. Scientists know next to nothing. Policy makers are shooting in the dark. Pundits and talking heads and techno-sages have a lot to say, but no basis upon which to draw conclusions. Yet these questions are incredibly important given the growing ubiquity of social media.

As a scientist and mother of two, I am particularly interested in the impact of computer-mediated social exchanges on kids’ social and emotional development. I think this is a major public health and social policy issue that has only begun to be addressed – at least in a way that is backed up by scientific evidence. Some may say these questions are alarmist, but others may ask why it’s taken us so long to ask them. Whatever the case, we need answers.

My intuition is that computer-mediated interactions and social media will create a world in which lots of good things can happen – social movements can blossom, people who feel lonely can feel more connected, and people who already have a rich social network can better stay in touch with their loved ones. And things I can’t even imagine will be the norm when my young children are teens. My own 3-year-old is already completely at ease with technology, and I am quite certain that he will find it natural to connect with others in computer-mediated ways.

But my intuition is also that something has fundamentally changed, and that social media represent a way of connecting that is different from how we evolved. We evolved to talk to each other face to face, to share emotions in real time, and to interpret even extremely subtle signs of emotion in the faces, voices, and bodies of our social partners. These experiences are also the basis upon which our “emotional brains” develop normally. That is, without these experiences, we cannot develop the empathy, emotional sensitivity, and ability to control our emotions that are fundamental to being human.

If social media increasingly replace face-to-face interactions, then kids today may have fewer opportunities to build these basic social and emotional skills. Skills like empathy require that we are emotionally sensitive enough to see that someone is upset, that we take the time to put ourselves in their shoes, and that we offer support. If we are busy posting, texting, and tweeting our thoughts and experiences, do we have less time and ability to support others and in turn receive support?

A recent study suggests perhaps so. Published in the January edition of Evolution and Human Behavior, the team of researchers from the University of Wisconsin found that when girls stressed by a test talked with their moms, stress hormones dropped and comfort hormones rose. When they reached out to their moms via IM, however, nothing happened. By the study’s physiological measures, IM’ing with their moms was barely different than not communicating with them at all. The authors concluded, in an interview with Wired – “people still need to interact the way we evolved to interact.”

It’s very important to note that interacting in ways that differ from how we interacted a hundred thousand or even a hundred years ago isn’t a bad thing. We didn’t evolve to drive cars, or have penicillin. And the modern world is unthinkable without a vast array of technological advances that are evolutionarily new.

But some think that social media may indeed be derailing our emotional evolution. A survey study by Konrath and colleagues published in 2010 suggests that college students today (“Generation Me”) have less empathy and are more selfish than students 20 years ago. Researchers conjecture that social media may be the culprit…. but there is little direct evidence to support this.

In my lab, we are trying to unravel such possibilities. For example, in a study we will soon submit for publication, we showed that college students who use more social media are less emotionally sensitive to faces – they don’t interpret emotional facial expressions as accurately as those who use less social media.

In this study, we used a computerized facial morphing task in which neutral faces gradually “morph” into mad, sad, or happy faces. This task is meant to measure emotional sensitivity, because to do the task well you need to be able to correctly identify very subtle signs of emotion in the face. We found that people who are frequent Facebook users (more than 8 hours a week) made more mistakes when they were asked to identify happy faces than infrequent users (less than 4 hours a week).

So, this finding might mean that by using Facebook frequently, we are becoming less sensitive to emotion – happiness in particular. But it could also mean that people who are already a little less sensitive to subtle emotional expressions choose to use more social media. Importantly, these are correlational data, so we can’t draw strong conclusions about cause and effect.

For this reason, it is crucial to conduct research that can actually get at cause and effect. I have just such a project in the works. The plan is to follow teens from the time they are 13 until they are 17. I’ll track what types of social media they use, how often they use them, why they use them, and if they prefer social media to face-to-face interactions for doing certain things (like sharing emotional experiences). Then I’ll test how these patterns of social media use directly influence changes in teens’ emotional strengths and weaknesses over time– their empathy, emotional sensitivity, their brain functioning, and how well they control their emotions.

By scientifically tracking teens over time, we can start to unravel whether social media drive our emotional lives, whether social media just reflect the way we already are, or whether both are the case. Without research that considers all these possibilities, we just can’t know which is true.

Social media are social tools like any other, right, neither good nor bad? – happy people can use them to share ideas and experiences; troubled people can seek out healthy or destructive social connections; bad people can find victims; and the socially awkward can find a safe haven.

Or maybe social media are very special indeed, and will have a profound impact on how we live as social and emotional beings. This is the question I am most interested in. I think we all embrace the idea that social media will change us in some way. And now, we must spend time, energy and resources to figure out exactly how.