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Technology Vs Brain: the evolution of memory

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Are our brains turning to mush, thanks to our utter reliance on technology? Stylist investigates

Photos: Getty Images

Our dependence on smartphones, tablets and the internet is growing by the day. Google has become the laziest of research tools, texts predict the end of our words (wrongly), GPS has rendered the humble A-Z obsolete, and if we can’t muster the energy to manually tell our machines what to do, an obliging voice-activated program will do it for us. It’s even affecting our outward behaviours: we walk along with our phones attached to our heads and alleviate boredom by checking feeds and messages, while achieving, well, not much at all.

The first signs of a backlash are emerging – friends threatening to quit Facebook (over 100,000 UK users logged off in May); colleagues swearing off emails between certain hours (companies such as Volkswagon have implemented a ban on out-of-hours emails), partners weary that we’re spending the duration of dinner refreshing our Instagram feeds and the overwhelming feeling that we’ve become slaves to the very devices that were supposed to make our lives easier. It’s the slavish nature of our relationship with our devices that spawned the idea for our Simple Life issue in the first place with nearly every member of the Stylist team admitting that the first thing they do in the morning is check their emails.

Brain changers

But it’s a hard habit to shake – and our reliance on technology is already affecting our brains. As long ago as 400BC, Plato was warning ancient Greece of the written word’s power to wipe out our memories and stifle our brain power. Now scientists tell us that mobile phones, iPads and laptops are starting to change our brain’s physical structure, affecting empathy levels, attention spans and mental agility.

So, when was the last time you were able to think really clearly? Can you remember what you had for your lunch the day before yesterday? We can recall minute details from our childhoods but struggle to remember a conversation we had 10 minutes ago, due to the barrage of emails, texts and alerts we compute minute by minute. And although our interaction with technology can have a beneficial effect – our reaction times are faster and our logical thinking is sharper – overall it’s making us less intelligent, less engaged and is battering our memories.

“The human brain is under threat from the modern world,” explains leading neuroscientist Baroness Susan Greenfield, professor of pharmacology at Oxford University. “Electronic devices have an impact on the microcellular structure and biochemistry of our brains. And that, in turn, affects our personality, our behaviour and our characteristics.”

Due to our constant flitting between Twitter, Instagram and the Daily Mail app, scientists have identified a growing neurological phenomenon described as ‘popcorn brain’: the need to switch quickly between tasks and digest small bites of ‘surface-level’ information to keep our minds constantly stimulated.

When we do sit down to work, the constant interruptions means our productivity levels are zapped. Studies have found that the average office worker gets only 11 minutes between each interruption, and it takes an average of 25 minutes to return to the task in hand. Even the possibility that an email is about to arrive can temporarily lower your IQ by 10 points – the equivalent of staying up for 36 hours or double the impact of smoking marijuana.

“Heavy technology users are also likely to develop the left side of their brains, leaving the right side untapped,” says Dr Byun Gi-Won of the Balance Brain Centre in Seoul. The right side of the brain is linked with concentration, so our attention and memory span are therefore reduced. The left side does have its uses, though. It is in charge of language and carrying out logic and mathematical computations – which is why people who play more video games are often good at solving problems, and why we, as heavy tech users, might experience an increase in our brain’s reaction time – so we think quicker, but not as clearly.

Think again

According to Greenfield, the volume of technology we consume – on average, we spend eight and a half hours a day exposed to digital technology – is enough to change the physical structure of our brains. “The brain is not the unchanging organ that we might imagine,” she explains. “It is shaped by what we do to it and by the experience of daily life.”

This rewiring of our brains as a result of everyday experiences – is called neuroplasticity. In the worst cases, our intricate neural pathways are being destroyed because certain synaptic connections (such as those that occur when we carry out deep thinking) become neglected and weaken if we favour quicker ways of receiving information (such as short news items). The knock-on effect is that we’re less able to process and remember information.

Constant stimulation, so easily gained from browsing YouTube, Facebook and Tumblr can also over-activate dopamine cells in the nucleus accumbens, a main pleasure centre of the brain. In a study published in 2011, researchers in China carried out MRI scans on the brains of 18 students who spent about 10 hours a day online, which showed that they had decreased grey matter volume in the bilateral dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (the thinking part of the brain), which could, in extreme cases, lead to lower cognitive function. This part of the brain is also responsible for motor skills, working memory and our general intellect which, if compromised, can result in lower IQ function. So yes, your iPad could be the reason you forgot your best friend’s birthday.

Missing out?

Ironically, the time we devote to connecting with others online has the potential to make us more inwardly focused and less likely to take part in real-life conversations, not surprising to those of us who spent our last four nights out uploading photos on our phone instead of socialising.

In particular, social media is being held responsible for diminishing our ‘people’ skills. Through a series of personality tests, Sara Konrath from the University of Michigan Institute for Social Research was able to ascertain that today’s students test about 40% lower in empathy than their counterparts of 20 years ago, possibly explaining the rise of rudeness online. The fact that most of our posts are ‘me-focused’ also fosters a growing emphasis on the self. This increasing narcissism can actually be detected in brain scans, as pathological narcissists have been found to have less grey matter in a part of the cerebral cortex called the left anterior insula, responsible for the expression of compassion. In other words, it might be time to delete that folder of ‘selfies’.

In a culture with more creature comforts than ever, paradoxically we are experiencing more impatience, discomfort, anxiety and depression. If you are rarely parted from your mobile phone, it’s likely you’ll feel restless and unable to relax if you’re separated from it for more than five minutes. We are so highly tuned in to what everyone else is doing, thinking and saying, that if we don’t have direct access to this information through our phones, it has a physically stressful effect on us.

As such, scientists are identifying new 21st century phenomena, such as FoMo (fear of missing out) and phantom vibration syndrome (when you falsely believe your phone is vibrating/ringing) which can lead to stress, depression, insomnia and a host of other health concerns. Something which all seven members of The Simple Life team can attest to. In the first 24 hours without our phones we were anxious and restless, however by the end of the experiment we all found the lack of constant updates refreshing.

Face time

We don’t really need to remember that much anymore, as it’s all immediately accessible to us at the touch of a button (do you know your partner’s mobile number?). But, if challenged, the sorry state of our memories becomes painfully clear.

Studies have revealed that the average brain can hold seven or eight objects in its short-term memory for about 20 seconds, but a brain under stress (ie one which is trying to process a colleague’s Facebook holiday photos, an article they’ve just read on Jezebel and 30 unopened emails) struggles with half that. This is because stress has been proven to break down the neurological ‘loops’ that hold short-term memory together. Like a chalkboard, the neurons in our prefrontal cortex (our short-term memory centre) can be written with information, erased when that information is no longer needed, and rewritten with something new. But if you start to apply stress to those neurons, they become ‘distracted’ from accessing new information, and continue to buzz around the brain as an empty slate.

Also, because our brains are constantly being stimulated with information, we are not giving them enough ‘downtime’ to formulate new memories. Scientists at the University of California discovered that when rats have a new experience, such as exploring an unfamiliar area, their brains show new patterns of activity. But it’s only when the rats take a break from their exploration that they process those patterns in a way that seems to create a lasting memory of those experiences. So it turns out that spending a night in front of that Breaking Bad box set really is beneficial, after all.

The evidence is overwhelming. Our reliance on technology is actually making our minds fuzzier, lazier and more fragmented. Just consider; the reason why you feel you get so little done at the end of the week, despite being run ragged, could simply be because you waste hours moving between technological devices and jumping from emails to tweets to text messages. It’s making us more self-absorbed, less able to empathise, and damaging our powers of concentration. And while there’s no getting away from the fact that our phones and tablets are here to stay, we can all choose to spend more time offline. Just taking time out to meet a friend face-to-face or pursuing a hobby that demands real concentration such as learning an instrument, painting or playing chess, will make all the difference.

Don't settle for simple minds

Try these easy exercises from positscience.com to combat the effects of technology overdose and keep your brain ticking

1. Develop your listening skills

What to do: Memorise a song. Listen to a song you like, write down the lyrics and keep singing until you’ve learned it.

How it works: This requires close attention, focus and an active memory. When you focus, you release acetylcholine, a chemical that enables plasticity (the ability of the brain to change).

2. Promote your visual judgment

What to do: Complete a 1,000-piece jigsaw puzzle.

How it works: Sorting a variety of small parts to make a picture requires fine visual judgments as we try to work out where each piece goes. Manipulating your mind from the tiny pieces to the bigger picture really forces your brain into action.

3. Improve your focus and memory

What to do: Use your peripheral vision – sit somewhere outside, stare straight ahead and concentrate on everything you can see without moving your eyes. Write a list of things you saw, then repeat the exercise and try to remember more objects each time.

How it works: This helps you reinvigorate the controlled release of acetylcholine, which is important for focus and memory.

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