How technology is changing our brains
Studies show that the way we work and interact with technology is changing the way we think.
We are all familiar with the emoticon, whatever little symbol we use to strengthen whatever it is we really mean in a text, chat or email. But researchers have now learned that our brains no longer treat it as a form of punctuation, but have started to respond to it as if it were a real face. A study published in the journal Social Neuroscience has found that the part of the brain that is activated when we look at real faces is now triggered by smileys. It’s yet another example of how our brains are adapting to the changing demands placed on them by technology, a subject that not only has profound implications for the way we relate to technology but also the way we work and the ways we design and manage our surroundings.
The emoticon study proves one other important point: the way we relate to new technology is not innate, but learned. It found that babies do not have the same neural response to emoticons as adults. Our brains are pretty much what they have always been, and any significant changes in behaviour are predominantly cultural.
That is not to say that our brains are static. They can change throughout our lives at both an anatomical and organisational level in response to the things we learn, behaviours and cultural associations.
The problem is that the way our brains are changing in response to the changing work and technological environment does not always match the things we demand of it. So while the members of Generation Y, and other people immersed in technology, may have heightened skills for multi-tasking, complex reasoning and decision-making, they may lose out in an ability to focus and empathise with others.
When we are working on a specific task, the information we need is held in our short term memory. Researchers estimate that this can hold on to only four to seven pieces of information at any one time. By combining those pieces of information with the resources and knowledge we have in our long term memory, we have what we know as focus. Focus allows us to transfer valuable information from our short term memory to long term memory - and to think about it and process it properly.
This key skill is often at odds with our working environment. There have always been distractions in our surroundings but never as profoundly as right now. Not only are we disturbed by colleagues and their associated visual and acoustic distractions but also by the technological environment and a common belief that we should be able to multitask. In fact, researchers such as Clifford Nass at Stanford University have discovered that people who multitask become less able to do it the more they try.
Multitasking and distractions are detrimental to sophisticated thought processes such as learning. The brain doesn’t really multitask, it switches from one thing to another making us less able to process either. This is OK for some activities but for others, which benefit from our undivided attention, it can be fatal.
This is an innate feature of our neural makeup. It’s not something that can be unlearned so that we are able to perform multiple tasks or process information simultaneously to the same standard we would do if we were paying full attention. Just because Generation Y consists of ‘digital natives’ doesn’t make them superhuman and nor is it true for previous generations who are similarly immersed in a technological environment replete with distractions.
How we process information, understand it and use it to generate new ideas is consistent across the generations. It is predominantly the environment that has changed, not the person within it. But the environment is getting us into bad habits and changing the way we act and think. For example, research shows that we remember things far better when we repeatedly recall information from our own memories rather than relying on Google, a hard drive, The Cloud or an Intranet to act as a surrogate memory, which is what we increasingly do.
There is no doubt that the things that distract us most – our colleagues and our devices – can be invaluable in helping us to be more productive and do things in new ways. But they can also be counter-productive. The challenge is to remember the person at the centre of it all, with all of their limitations, motivations and abilities and design spaces that allow them to make the best of the times they need distractions and the times they need to remain focussed on just one thing at a time.