Studies suggest our use of technology isn’t just affecting our memory but could be altering our neural pathways too. Should we be worried? Science journalist Angela Saini investigates…
Last week I dropped a glass of juice on my kitchen floor. As the glass splintered and pools of orange liquid seeped onto my kitchen tiles, my first thought wasn’t that I needed to clean it up, but “Press CTRL + Z.” It was just for a flicker of a second, but in that moment my technology-addled brain seriously believed that I could magically reverse my actions in the same way I can undo a bad photo edit on my computer.
It made me realise that technology has become so deeply woven into my life that the more time I spend online, the blurrier the boundary between ‘real’ and ‘virtual’ life has become. It’s not just my juice-dropping incident, technology has changed how I live – from doing all my shopping digitally through to how I communicate. I’ve had the same conversations with friends and colleagues in my industry who also feel like the constant use of technology could be changing the way we behave.
Working in the scientific field, I do worry that our reliance on the internet and smartphones might be hardening our soft, fleshy grey matter into cold hard motherboards by altering the way we think. While The Terminator might seem like a ridiculous eighties throwback, are we really genuinely just a few clicks away from becoming modern cyborgs?
The influence of technology
We already know that doing some repetitive tasks can mould our brains in certain directions, through a process known as brain plasticity. A landmark study in 2000 by neuroscientist Dr Eleanor Maguire at University College London showed that the brains of black cab drivers were being physically changed by their work. Having to memorise London’s enormous maze of streets and landmarks strengthened the areas of their minds associated with memory.
Her work reinforced the theory that connections in our brains aren’t entirely fixed at birth, but modify and re-wire throughout life as we learn. This raises an obvious question for all us tech-junkies. If our brains are that malleable, could we be altering our grey matter – changing how we think – as we obsessively click on our Facebook News Feed or scroll through Instagram every five minutes?
“When we spend a lot of time on a particular mental task, the neural circuits will strengthen. If not, they will weaken,” says Dr Gary Small, a professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, who co-wrote the 2008 book iBrain: Surviving The Technological Alteration Of The Modern Mind.
So the answer to that particular question would seem to be yes. But is it a good or bad thing? It’s a controversial area within the scientific community and one that divides expert opinion because we’re at the early stages of research and much of the rhetoric flying around cyberspace is anecdotal (like my orange juice fiasco). The truth is, we don’t yet know. But scientists are trying to understand how technology might be affecting two areas in particular: our memory and our ability to concentrate.
It’s time to try the test above: set a timer for 10 seconds, and say the animals that you see rather than the words you read. How difficult did you truly find it? If it was easy – congrats – it sounds like your attention span is sharp, and you’re not easily distracted. But if it’s tricky for you, or takes longer than 10 seconds, it could be that your attention span has begun to wane.
Being able to concentrate for hours on end is at odds with the fast-paced, tech-driven world we’re living in, and one study by Microsoft from 2015 showed that the average attention span had shrunk from 12 seconds in 2000 to a measly eight seconds by 2015. It suggested that in the space of 15 years, our attentiveness had dropped by a third.
While that sounds terrifying, it’s important to put it in context – the report didn’t make it clear what the people in the study were being asked to pay attention to and the results don’t necessarily mean that we can’t pay attention when we need to or choose to. After all, we can happily watch Love Island (and Love Island Aftersun) for hours without switching off – we just might not have the same mental stickiness when it comes to something we find less interesting.
But could our fraying attention spans relate to the watchword of modern times which says that we now live in an ‘attention economy’?
Media and tech companies constantly compete for our attention via our devices. In fact, television producers refer to ‘jolts’ – which are the changes in action that keep us watching a show – with film companies and advertisers now moving from measuring the number of ‘jolts per minute’ to ‘jolts per second’ in order to keep up with our demands for new information. If our attention spans have dropped to eight seconds, it’s because we’re so bombarded with new information that if anything takes longer than a few seconds, our brains start searching for the next excitement hit.
Another way tech is affecting our attention spans is our constant attachment to it. We now incessantly multitask; scrolling through Twitter as we make dinner, our eyes straying to Instagram while we’re at work, we spend evenings with friends checking our WhatsApp messages to other friends (guilty!).
We overestimate our ability to focus
But according to Professor Earl Miller, a neuroscientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, unlike our computer screens with 28 windows open, this is not something our brains are naturally equipped to handle – and it’s affecting our efficiency. “We can’t multitask well, no-one can.
“We usually only think about one task at a time even if we appear to be multitasking,” he explains. “What we’re actually doing when we think we’re multitasking is just switching back and forth between tasks.”
He says this wastes both time and productivity because we end up missing so much. Miller has some sage advice for getting things done: “We overestimate our ability to focus – so when you’re concentrating do one thing and close down multiple screens and windows to avoid distractions.
“It also symbolically signals to your brain you need to focus,” he adds.
Is technology ruining your memory?
Is your memory better, or worse than you thought? (Straw poll at Stylist HQ: “Definitely worse.”) If it’s worse, it’s because we’ve outsourced a lot of the work our memory used to do: Facebook remembers key events for us and everything has an ‘add to calendar’ button meaning our lives are planned and organised to perfection.
But in 2011, Dr Betsy Sparrow from Columbia University and her colleagues explored the way we use our memories now that we have the internet to plug the gaps, in a seminal study that gave scientists across the globe serious food for thought.
The internet has become a primary form of external or transactive memory
“The internet has become a primary form of external or transactive memory,” she wrote, meaning that we use it like spare storage for our brains, filing away facts like birthdays, things we’ve done or places we’ve been. We choose not to remember them because we don’t have to. This method of remembering is called the Google effect, and it’s a fundamental shift in how we remember.
“We don’t need to memorise things the way we used to,” says psychologist Dr Benjamin Storm of the University of California, Santa Cruz, who has studied how using the internet to ‘search’ is effectively making our brains less able to hold onto details. “So it’s possible that we aren’t developing the same expertise that we would otherwise, or that when we do encode information we tend to do so more superficially.”
So there is growing evidence – from some experts at least – that the way we use our memories is affected by our tech-obsession, and we’re using the internet to outsource our memory storage like an external hard drive. It even affects our most basic functions – like our navigational ability too.
That was certainly the finding of researchers at University College London in March this year after they took a small team of volunteers on a simulated trip around London’s Soho while hooked up to a brain scanner.
They discovered that those who had a satnav to guide them “switched off” parts of their brains that would otherwise have been used to figure out their routes - and not using those parts of our brain could mean we lose the ability to do instinctive things like working out our own way home. The “Google effect” wasn’t making them less intelligent; but their minds were just less engaged. When volunteers navigated the streets on their own, the relevant bits of their brains experienced spikes of activity once they entered a new street. So it’s vital we exercise these parts of our brains so that we’re keeping ourselves mentally agile.
The ability to offload memory onto technology liberates us to focus on other matters
The next time you’re lost somewhere – remind yourself it’s good for you. Storm does think a lasting effect of tech on our brains is likely: “Before it was quite cumbersome to have to go to the library, find an expert, open up the encyclopaedia, so we’d be more inclined to try to commit something to memory. Now we know we’ll be able to access it again if or when we need it. All we have to do is ask Siri or look it up on our smartphones,” he explains.
“My guess is thatusing the internet consistently for a long period of time, especially when starting at a young age, could affect our attention span, ability to think deeply, and other cognitive processes. The brain is amazingly adaptive and responds to the needs of the environment. Thus if we develop in a world that has the internet then it would make sense that memory and cognition would develop accordingly.”
This could, technically, leave our brain space free to be used in other, possibly more creative, ways.
“The ability to offload memory onto technology liberates us to focus on other matters,” says Storm. “It might allow us to think and attend to information that we wouldn’t have been able to otherwise.” But if you do want to remember something in particular, Storm has a tip: “The best way to improve your ability to recall something is to practise recalling it regularly.”
A telephone number will stick in your head if you don’t always resort to looking it up on your phone. The same goes for all memories, including visual ones.
Are we headed for the robot world?
So if tech is making us more robotic, should we be so alarmed/worried/terrified that we try to ditch it entirely?
“The potential upside of having technology is likely to overwhelm the potential downside so there’s no need to stop using it – just keep a limit on it,” says Storm. But it does seem to be making us lose our human touch – as we look, heads down, at tiny screens in our hands like robots, without using our brain function to process what’s happening around us. And a report by Deloitte revealed that one in three adults can’t help checking for messages – even in the middle of the night – because we’re so wired towards those dopamine hits we get from messages and ‘likes’.
“If you don’t answer an email within 24 hours, people think that you’re rude,” says Small. It’s almost as if we’ve become automated response machines. Small also warns that young digital natives – who have grown up using the internet – can sometimes have poorer human contact skills because of their dependance on tech too – which suggests that we aren’t developing our social skills in a way that we should be, making us more mechanic and decidedly less human. So as we become more like computers in so many ways, it’s also possible that they become more like us too.
If you don’t answer an email within 24 hours, people think that you’re rude
In 2016, a computer program called AlphaGo actually beat one of the top professional players of the Chinese board game Go, which is thought to be the most difficult in the world. While neuroscientists at the Wyss Center in Switzerland are already working on devices to connect the surface of our brains directly to computers with bionic implants designed to help paralysed patients regain control of their limbs, sight and hearing, which sounds robotic but in the best possible way.
The future could be decidedly borg-like if we let it. And while we might get annoyed that we miss details and forget things, our human brains also let us create amazing works of art and literature – and for that we should be thankful indeed.
Let’s stay being humans – with a little bit of Snapchat – for as long as we possibly can.
Angela Saini is a science journalist and broadcaster. Her latest book, Inferior: How Science Got Women Wrong – And The New Research That’s Rewriting The Story (£12.99, 4th Estate), is out now.
Photography: Vincent Fournier