Technology may be changing the way your brain works. But then, so is everything else.
Not long ago, a delayed train meant sitting on the platform, watching the crowd, browsing stalls, or pulling out that novel you were in the middle of reading. Today, the first thing we do is get out our phones. Maybe we’ll look up train timings, with instant updates on where everything is, but, equally possibly, we’ll be replying to messages, watching videos, or learning something new in a fleeting fashion. As for the novel? People still read, but it’s not uncommon to find someone who hasn’t read a single book in a year.
So, does that mean we can’t read properly anymore, and that our memories are fading? Are we forgetting the stuff that we used to know, and stopped talking to each other any more? What is technology doing to us?
Are smartphones, computers and the internet making us dumber?
Well, maybe. But perhaps there's an alternative, and less alarming, way of looking at things.
We all change and grow. Our bodies and our brains change over time. And, mostly, this is for the better because we are adapting to new circumstances.
Your brain is the most complex thing we know of. Billions of neurons each with myriad connections to others — it’s an amazingly complex organ. And everything you do — everything — affects its structure and those connections. Learn a new skill and that learning process is your brain adapting. If you repeatedly do something, it eventually becomes automatic - another adaptation. So if you are using technology a lot - your phone, the internet - of course, your brain is going to adapt to that behaviour, too.
Good examples of how your brain adapts are London taxi drivers and musicians.
When I lived in London, some years ago, it was common to see people on small motorbikes roaming the city. They all had clipboards attached to the handlebars and to those clipboards were pinned detailed maps of the UK’s capital. These were trainee cab drivers doing ‘The Knowledge’.
In order to get a license to drive in London cabbies must pass the most difficult taxi-driver test in the world. It's been around since 1865 and they call it The Knowledge.
The drivers have to commit to memory routes through the maze of thousands of streets around London. They may spend years travelling around the city memorizing these routes and preparing for the exam to get their license.
This massive feat of memory has a significant impact on a cabby’s brain.
The hippocampus is the part of the brain that deals with the formation of new memories and also the formation of cognitive maps that enable us to navigate in physical spaces. London cabbies have a larger hippocampus than most people. They weren’t born with it, it developed as they acquired The Knowledge. The formation of that encyclopedic memory of hundreds of routes in and around the city of London actually enlarges the brain.
So brains can, and do, change.
Musicians’ brains also adapt and grow as they learn the new skills required to read music and play an instrument.
When you start learning to play the piano or guitar, you are acutely aware of where your fingers are on the keyboard, or the neck of the guitar. But, in time, you learn exactly where to place your fingers without looking and without thinking about it - it becomes automatic. The wiring in your brain has changed.
And it has been shown that professional musicians’ brains have more grey matter in areas that are concerned with the motor control that is required to play an instrument well.
From studying cab drivers and musicians, we can see that it’s not just the connections in the brain that change, it’s the actual structure, too. Your brain learns and adapts to deal with everything you do. So why wouldn’t it be changed by our - now - extensive use of computers, smartphones and the internet?
Is this a problem, or is it simply a natural adaptation to the environment?
A while ago researchers apparently found that skim-reading is the new normal. Reading from screens is making us incapable of reading in depth. An experiment that is supposed to demonstrate this had two sets of students reading the same text — a story.
One set of students read from a book, the other from a screen. When tested, the ones that read from the book could answer more in-depth questions than the screen readers.
We are asked to believe that this demonstrates that the use of screens has reduced our ability to read in-depth. But you could equally conclude that screens allow us to skim-read more easily. Skim-reading is a good skill to have, and it is entirely possible that scrolling down a screen allows you to skim read much more easily than flicking through paper pages. In fact, the experiment shows that people certainly can read in depth, as the book readers demonstrated.
Our brains have not lost an ability, rather, they have gained one — the ability to skim-read from a screen.
Do you know your partner’s phone number? Why?
A few years ago, a company that sells anti-virus software came to the conclusion that, in the digital age, people don’t remember things that they don’t need to remember. Who would have guessed?
They gave this phenomenon a name; they called it “Digital Amnesia”.
A survey was commissioned, covering 6000 people in various European countries. Researchers asked them about their use of digital technology and, from the results, they concluded that the use of mobile phones is affecting the way we remember things.
It seems that people of a certain age cannot remember the phone numbers of their nearest and dearest but they can remember the phone number that they had when they were much younger.
Well, that’s true enough. I certainly don’t know the phone numbers of my family or friends. No idea. And to be perfectly honest, I don’t know anyone else’s either (including my own) but I do remember, very clearly, the telephone number of a house that I lived in 20 years ago.
It’s not really surprising.
If you have a smartphone, you don’t need to know phone numbers. You find the name of the person you want and your phone calls the number for you.
However, in the pre-digital age you had to know the number you wanted to ring, because you had to physically dial it. And the more you dialled it, the more it was embedded in your memory. And maybe, like the musicians and the cab drivers, a small part of your brain got just a little bigger as those numbers were committed to memory. So numbers you often dialled on an old-fashioned landline are lodged in your memory because of the number of times that you dialled them, whereas numbers you only have to know once (to put them in your phone) are hardly remembered at all.
If the question had been about street addresses, I’m sure most adults would have remembered where they lived now as well as where they lived as a child — even if they did have their current address in their phone.
Also, while I have no memory for telephone numbers that I never use, I can remember all the digits that I need to log onto internet banking and the PIN numbers of my credit cards and I’m sure most other people can, too. Why? Because, unlike telephone numbers, I use these codes all the time!
So, it’s not that we are incapable of memorizing numbers, it’s simply that we don’t need to remember phone numbers any more, so we don’t.
Another result of the survey was that people don’t mind forgetting something that they have looked up on the Internet, if they know that they can easily find it again. Rather than remember a fact respondents were more inclined to remember where they found it.
This so-called “Google Effect” was described in research done by Dr. Betsy Sparrow back in 2011. She explained that, for some information, people prefer to remember where to find it rather than remember the information itself.
This was, she explained, a type of “transactive” or external, memory. It’s pretty similar to going to an expert who you know will have some information you need rather than remembering it yourself. Or, indeed, looking up things in a book. This is, of course, something that people have always done.
We have all witnessed groups of people in the street, in restaurants, in bars, even at home, totally engrossed in their smartphones. They might be messaging friends, reading the latest gossip from social media or playing games. What they don’t appear to be doing is interacting with each other. They are hanging out with friends but they don’t seem to talk to them.
The psychologist, Genavee Brown, has done research in this area and concludes that people interact better and have a more enjoyable time when they restrict the use of their phones in a one-to-one situation.
No surprise there you might think but in a different article Brown also finds that the use of smartphones can actually improve the interaction between young people and their parents. Giving a son or daughter a smartphone or tablet for Christmas may mean that they hide away in their rooms talking to their friends for some of the time, but not only does it facilitate communication with friends, it also tends to increase their face-to-face interaction with their parents. So using phones increases communication both online and offline.
Is any of this really a problem?
It’s not as if people are forgetting their friends’ names or how to tie their shoelaces. They simply do not find it useful to remember a string of numbers that are only meaningful to a telephone system. Why would you want to remember a telephone number if you didn’t have to?
We change. All the time. Our bodies change, so do our brains. There is nothing strange about it.
We can read in depth, if we need to, but we can also skim read by scrolling a screen and, maybe, for most of the text we find online, skim-reading is the most appropriate way of reading. After all, Facebook posts, or Tweets, are not generally the most complex communications. Though, perhaps we ought to practice reading in depth more often than we do.
We can remember the things that we need to remember but forget the things that we rarely use. That is not a problem, it is an entirely sensible strategy.
But we do need to be aware of what over-reliance of technology might do to us. Put that phone away when you are with friends and by all means skim read your social network feeds but don’t forget to read a book now and again.
So, is the internet changing your brain? Yes, of course it is —but not necessarily for the worse.
Curious for more? Sources and references for this article can be found here. An earlier version of this article appeared in The Startup on Medium.com