Our Mind’s on Tech: How Technology Affects the Human Brain
“We live in really extraordinary times. We’re witnessing an explosion in the diversity and the accessibility of these amazing computers that we carry in our pockets and have on our desks,” said Lisa Krieger of the San Jose Mercury News. The CHM Live event, “Our Brain’s Development in a Technological World,” held at the Computer History Museum (CHM) on February 15, consisted of a panel discussion about how technology affects our brains and learning, with a focus on its impact on youth. The panel was moderated by Krieger, and members of the panel included: Adam Gazzaley, neuroscientist and founder and executive director of Neuroscape; Mary Helen Immordino-Yang, professor of Education, Psychology, and Neuroscience at the University of Southern California; and Larry Rosen, research psychologist and professor emeritus at California State University at Dominguez Hills.
Gazzaley began by introducing basic information about the brain, focusing on the two major roles our brains have: to “sense things” and then to “respond.” According to Gazzaley, these functions are important because of how they relate to cognitive control. Cognitive control allows us to create meaning around us. It allows us to focus, controls our working memory, and manages our goal setting abilities. These three roles play a major part in how our brains work and, in turn, how we function.
Larry Rosen discussed how technology can impact our anxiety by highlighting our natural need for, and the pressure around, constant connectivity. According to consumer research, technology is reaching consumers faster and faster. As consumers engage with more technology, they also claim that their ability to multitask is growing—however that may not be true. While people think they can successfully multitask, the reality is we are incapable of successfully focusing on multiple things at once; however, the desire to use technology for multiple purposes increases the more time we spend on our devices. This need to be using technology constantly has led to discussion about technology addiction. But Rosen believes that people’s connection to technology is not the same as addiction, stating, “Addiction should give us some sort of a good feeling, a pleasurable feeling. ” He believes technology is more like an obsession or compulsion, which gives us an anxious feeling when we haven’t “checked in.” Rosen went on to say, “What we are feeling is a lot of pressure that we have to connect, that we feel a responsibility to connect, and that’s the anxiety-provoking part.”
Mary Helen Immordino-Yang talked about how using technology affects the brain, especially the adolescent brain. She suggested that the constant use of technology is hijacking one’s ability to form high-level meaning within their environment. Immordino-Yang goes on to clarify that technology isn’t necessarily the problem, but the way in which we use technology to set expectations and receive validation is where issues can arise. Facetiming with a family member across the world is not the issue, however the need for “likes” on social media could be more problematic. For youth, this need for immediate attention can impact one’s identity by potentially creating a superficial view of self.
The panel continued to evaluate how the pervasiveness of technology impacts our brains and society’s overall well-being. Issues such as distraction and the digital divide were suggested as examples of how technology has impacted the brain’s ability to develop. Multitasking continued to be brought up as one of the largest negative effects of technology. Our need to look at multiple screens for a variety of purposes and tasks has affected our ability to learn, reason, and remember because of our inability to truly focus on numerous things at once. Another major concern with technology, the panel asserted, is that people are not using technology to create but to consume.
The evening ended with a discussion about how technology can be used in educational settings. Rather than calling for a complete ban of technology in classrooms, the panel advocated for educators to consider ways that technology could be integrated and used in positive ways. Strategies were as simple as moving personal or unnecessary technology devices into another room, or taking breaks to practice mindfulness exercises. Gazzaley even discussed a game his company is working on that could be a non-drug alternative for youth with ADHD.
Technology is not going anywhere. In fact the opposite is happening. But as technology continues to become further embedded in our everyday lives so does a better understanding of its effects on our brains and, with that, a better ability to integrate and use technology in positive, meaningful ways.