SHOULD YOU FUTURE PROOF YOUR BRAIN?

I am acutely aware that this is a complex topic that arouses strong emotions and opinions depending on your age, perspective and experience. I myself confess to having insisted that my poor 7-year-old daughter learns the Dewey Decimal System at our local library not too many years ago.  If you don’t know what the Dewey Decimal System is, you are a ‘Digital Native’ (you may not even know what a library is – it contains books!). If you do know, you are a ‘Digital Immigrant’ (or a caveman).

Being a Digital Native or a Digital Immigrant will probably determine your opinion on the matter. Our brain does not like conflict or uncertainty – this is called ‘Cognitive Dissonance’ and when faced with information that doesn’t correspond to our beliefs and perceptions, we become, at best, cognitively biased - gathering evidence for our own dogmas. At worst, we become cognitively blind – incapable and even righteous that our beliefs (read facts) are correct – and usually that technology is “bad” or “good”. I have attempted to temper my “Mother Grundy’ and present a balanced neuroscience view.

Lets begin with the delightful concept of neuroplasticity.  Technology is not only shaping the science by means of fMRI’s PET, EEG, TMS, CT etc; but is shaping the actual density and structure of the brain itself. I am exhilarated with the technology that we have to provide new hope for the detection and treatment of diseased damaged brains; to create robotic limbs for amputees that move merely by thinking; to elicit the thrill of human-to-human telepathy through the internet; to suggest the capacity to read thoughts, reconstruct dreams, tell if a murderer is guilty and to download our memories for posterity.

Putting that intriguing topic aside, brain plasticity is central to a discussion of how the rapid development of the digital revolution is literally sculpting our brain. Plasticity means that the brain is malleable and able to reshape and reform (even regenerate in particular areas) right throughout our lifetime. The way we use our brain determines the structure and function of our neural organ. The more we use any part of our brain, the denser and thicker that part becomes. The principle of “use it or lose it” applies. So how beneficial is the ‘using’ and how harmful is the ‘losing’? Are we strengthening certain functions at the expense of our sense of self and our identity?

The average number of Google searches per day has grown from under 10 000 in 1998 to over 5 trillion today.  Over 50 billion whatsapp messages are sent every minute and  over 200 million facebook posts per hour. The way we engage with the world around us has dramatically changed.  Clearly the brain of the Digital Native image004 playing playstation while typing homework and sending messages from her android, is vastly different to the brain of the cave dweller picking berries and stalking wild boars.  In fact it is also vastly different to the Digital Immigrant who spent the 70’s watching only a couple of hours of tv per day, reading books, sending written letters and calling from a landline – only when absolutely necessary.

image006For Google CEO Eric Schmidt, the explosion of technology is exciting and says that the Internet of Things will only augment the human brain through helping us keep up with things that we just won’t be able to handle as we get information overburdened. An  interesting conundrum - this is being said by the man who is in charge of enabling tech fatigue. I happen to agree with him, however.

The science shows us that while Digital Natives are able to swap between tasks faster, be more strategic and block out distraction; the irony is a corresponding  visible degradation of the ability to store memories into long term. Google now stores our memories.  

Our brains use information stored in long-term memory to facilitate critical thinking, to remember people’s names and our own phone numbers. We need these unique memories to understand and interact with the world around us. Think about how well you used to be able to navigate until the arrival of the ubiquitous GPS – a gift and a curse.

image008We are relying on google to store our long term knowledge.  Ouch! But wait….the good news. Researching online gives you access to more brains, a wider knowledge base and could support your  problem solving capacity. Again it is a dichotomy. We focus on our tech confectionary but we pick from one tidbit and then the next and the next and the next... Studies show that this lowers  retention and recall by up to 40 percent. Perhaps the takeaway (dessert) is direct your attention using tech, but don’t allow tech to scatter your brain! Only open one page at a time. Drive, don’t text!

image010Perhaps you suffer from the condition known as “Phantom Pocket syndrome”. Have you ever obsessively checked your phone even when you know there is no message? Ever ‘heard’ it ring or ‘felt’ it vibrate? Sorry, you have a syndrome! The average mobile phone user checks their phone 150 times a day and 2/3rds  of users express anxiety if not able to check their phone. They also show more symptoms of major depression, dysthymia, mania, antisocial, compulsive and paranoid personality disorders, as well as narcissism           

Tech addiction has much in common with Cocaine addiction. There is abundant literature being written about the seductive and compulsive nature of technological devices, the internet and gaming. Most of us will confess to being addicted to some degree. Some are even proud of it. We have a threat/reward system in our brain that is designed to make us seek out pleasure and avoid danger. I reach out for the chocolate cake and run as fast as I can from the snake.  Some of the neurochemicals released when the threat/reward system is activated are adrenalin, seratonin and dopamine. Dopamine is released into the brain when the light flashes on my android because I feel as though someone is thinking about me. When I sniff cocaine, the Nucleus Accumbens produces dopamine which activates the reward system.

Eventually the dopamine kick starts to fade, but my brain says “something is out of balance, too much dopamine”. Remember that the brain is designed to return to a state of homeostasis. That is why change is so hard for us. What follows is a mutiny by the  nucleus accumbens which holds back the release of dopamine and seratonin. In order to get the same pleasure – I reach for my phone or for facebook. To add to the temptation, the brain is biased to novelty and our attention is easily hijacked by something new. The consequences of researching or studying online is that we are quickly distracted by links – on average it takes an online reader 3 minutes before clicking onto a link or opening a new page and we continue to do this every 19 seconds – this profoundly affects our creativity, problem solving abilities and dramatically increases our arousal.

Gaming has raised concerns for brain development. The teenage years are critical for laying down the foundation for the adult brain. During these years the brain goes through a process called ‘pruning’ where, after the massive proliferation of neural pathways created during childhood, the brain now eliminates unncessary connections to create stronger, more effective processing . Much like the effect of trimming a rose bush.

The last part of the brain to develop the essential pathways is our executive function, the Pre Frontal Cortex. Logic, short term memory, reasoning, self control and  abstract thought only develops fully in your PFC in your 20’s. A concern with gaming and social media addiction is that the parts of the brain that are being exercised or hardwired are 2 dimensional, often violent, hedonistic, repetitive, non-purposeful and perhaps meaningless.  These individuals show increased striatum activity (the risk/reward centre), altered amygdala size (emotional responses) and decreased efficiency of neural connections. Online excess is being directly linked to higher levels of aggression, impulsivity, depression, self harm and sleep disturbances.

The benefits of internet surfing and  gaming are surprising. Screen time actually improves vision – firstly gamers are able to find small detail in clutter (they can read the small print in a contract). Secondly they are able to see more shades of grey – a great benefit when driving in the rain and fog. Another benefit from gaming is improved strategic thinking (they usually play a better game of chess, albeit probably online). Although we know that screen addition increases distractibility, gamers are interestingly enough able to ‘multitask’ better (a better term would be ‘cognitive flexibility’). The Anterior Cingulate Cortex (which decides where attention should be placed), the Parietel lobe (spatial orientation) and parts of the PFC are more active in gamers. Unfortumnately a critical part of the PFC connected to success, wisdom, leadership and happiness is underdeveloped – the Ventro-Lateral PFC – the part of our brain to do with self control.

The Digital Native is able to move between tasks better as well as hold more objects in their visual field simultaneously. They are also more effective in tuning out distractions like tv or music (or parents) while engaged online. Creativity may receive a boost from technology – even non-creative people have a medium to apply their imagination. Interestingly,  the average age of a gamer playing more than 3 hours of video games per day is 33.

image012Dare I take on the world of Social Media. Understanding that a primary drive for human functioning is social interaction (often superceding the need for food and drink), it is no wonder that facebook, instagram, snapchat, twitter, whatsapp and bbm is happening at the speed and impact of a digital tsunami . Neuroscience has shown that the same parts of our brain that respond to the affective mechanisms of social pain are also active when we experience physical pain, in fact perhaps stronger. You would rather break your ankle than have your lover break up with you.

The problem is that it seems that technology is moving at a faster rate than evolution. Research has shown that from a brain-size-evolutionary perspective humans typically cannot maintain more than 150 relationships at any one time. More than that and we become inefficient and overwhelmed. With our evolutionary need for social relationship blended with the easy stimulation of the dopamine receptors in the reward network – it seems that social media had a fertile playground for creating a collective instagram of social self indulgence.  The risk of digital social excess is that we don’t learn the vital skills of social interaction. Paradoxically, we can create the illusion of connecting while sitting all alone, and this risks us neglecting the necessary skills of being truly connected. Reading facial expression, body language and  turntaking in conversation, are a few critical social skills that need to be mastered, particularly through adolescence.

Most importantly the release of oxytocin is efficiently produced when we are in the  physical presence of another human being. Oxytocin connects neural pathways. It facilitates learning, well-being and neural progress. We are not producing oxytocin when we are updating our status on facebook. Neuroscientist Matthew Lieberman says that "having a poor social network is literally as bad for you as smoking two packets of cigarettes a day".  Social media may be a godsend for those who have limited social connections, but becomes a handicap when we see how much better others’ lives are than ours – after all, you don’t post your hang ups, disappointments and bleak existence – but rather your triumphs, assets and benevolence. So do they. Everybody’s life just looks better than yours!

The thrill of having access to instant information is known as “The Google Effect”.
It seems that soon we will have to start a designated DSM - 5 for technological disorders! In fact, addiction to technology has not been allocated as an addiction by the American Psychological Association (I believe it should be). It falls under the category of Obsessive Compulsive disorders.
Here are some of the mental illnesses that may be brought about through digital obsession:

  • Nomophobia – phone separation anxiety
  • Digital Burnout – heart problems, anxiety and depression
  • Internet Addiction – to pornography, gambling, or google itself.
  • Digital dementia – thinning of the  cerebral cortex due to limited brain use
  • Anhedonia – depression, self harming,
  • Cyber sickness – dizziness and nausea resulting from being in a virtual environment.
  • Facebook Depression – caused by social interaction or the lack thereof
  • Cyberchondria - The tendency to believe you have diseases you read about online
  • Dreaming in ‘twitter’, speaking in sms and thinking in instagram.

image014Before we become psychiatric classification besieged, perhaps we should consider that neural meanderings on the subject are not changing the fact of a future avalanche of tech wonder (?) that is promised in the decades ahead. It would be wise to embrace the inevitable, while remaining mindful of how to protect the beautiful potential of  our cerebral cathedral. Balance seems to be the theme for wisdom and success. The brain requires down time – with no technological support. We should exercise – cardiovascular exercise for at least 40 minutes per day, 7 days a week. Meditation is the most powerful way of reducing cortisol levels, enhancing ventro-lateral pre frontal cortex (self control) and strengthening the immune system. Sleep – never underestimate the critical importance of quantity and quality of your daily slumber. Socialize – in person. Eat non-refined carbohydrates and omega rich fish and drink lots of water.

Think healthy and be in control of your mind. Be Mindful, not mindless.

 
                               

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