Are electronic media leading to jumpy brains?

by Jun 9, 2013Technology1 comment

This week two good friends and an academic colleague, all of whose intellectual prowess I admire, all admitted to me with varying degrees of shamefacedness that they are reading less, they just cannot read long books, they are more easily distracted and struggle to concentrate. They and others hint at being more jumpy and restless generally, with lower boredom thresholds and not able to assiduously follow through on either tasks or trains of thought as they once could. I too find it increasingly hard to get through the books that I have been continuing to purchase at previous levels. Two though that I have read in recent weeks have confirmed much of what I and other people have been thinking about the impact of the internet and electronic media on our lives, and indeed on our very brains. These books are The shallows: What the Internet is doing to our brains by Nicholas Carr [1] and the equally aptly named Alone together: Why we expect more from technology and less from each other by Sherry Turkle [2].

We have of course known for a while that our brains are plastic and change in response to our habitual actions and for example London black cab drivers develop different shaped and sized hippocampi, the brain area so central to memory [3], the brains of people who play the violin are different to those who do not [4], and Carr musters a lot of research to suggest that internet use, like the use of any tool, is changing our brains [1]. One paradox he suggests is despite the plasticity of the brain, a change will lead to habitual behaviour patterns that are reinforced by more of the same and are hard to shift. Using the internet and other digital media will develop such new habits. Carr suggests that the skimming, scanning more superficial form of consciousness used with electronic media is leading to a change of behaviour which is also increasingly taken into relationships.

Multitasking leads to extreme alertness to any incoming stimuli, which is a great skill, but one which can also lead to an inability to concentrate on a task, or a person [5]. Turkle shocked me by finding that it was by no means only teenagers and children who fall victim to this. She reports many tales from schoolchildren feeling rejected and upset by parents picking them up from the school gates while looking at their blackberries, and other parents emailing during dinner.

Our smartphones and ipads and PC’s are designed in part to be addictive. As Carr shows, flicking around and skimming and waiting to find the next new thing are just the skills designers from google and elsewhere actively aim to increase. This encourages speedy, superficial scanning, aiming for users to click as many links as possible, all leading to increased advertising revenue. Carr suggests plausibly that companies like google aim to constantly tempt us with exciting information, with the new, with what is immediately of interest, enhancing our speedy, jumping-around mental skills. Such overload of information inhibits not only working memory but also the kind of frontal lobe activity necessary for concentrating, for relating in depth to others, and indeed for empathy. Carr, building on research by Damasio and others [6], argues that speedy, skimming mentalities will impede empathy and the brain areas needed for intimate, empathic relationships.

As Turkle [2], Carr  [1] and others have found, such technology promotes more cursory reading, less concentration and increased distractedness. Turkle found in her research that students often sit in lectures skipping around multiple websites, some relevant to a lecture, but also doing email, shopping, and watching videos. Research shows that such multi-tasking lowers performance in studies compared to those who do not have access to the internet during lectures. [7].

Not only young people do this. Turkle found that senior academics did the same too. Electronic media use has increased, and indeed even TV viewing has not suffered much in recent years, but reading print is certainly on the decline [1, p. 87]. Unlike reading printed books, internet use is more strenuous in many ways, depleting working-memory but also leading to an increased propensity for distraction.

Much of the web is designed to provide instant rewards. As stated, Google earns more money the more sites that are looked at, for example. Regular internet users develop specific behaviour patterns. For example web pages are rarely read from left to right, but are skimmed and flicked through [8]. These behaviours become habitual. Flicking around multiple web-pages is very different to immersing oneself in a book which requires screening out distractions and focussing carefully. The tethered ‘always on’ world, with constant promptings from email, facebook, twitter, RSS feeds and the rest is having a profound effect.

The research in this area is contested and controversial. Some evidence at least shows  that both watching TV and playing video games are linked to children having shorter attention spans [9], that the more TV pre-schoolers watch the less capable they are of concentrating by school age [10], also having more behavioural and cognitive deficits [11].  Another study of over 1000 young people in New Zealand found that, even when controlling for a host of other factors, those watching more TV were significantly  more likely to have criminal convictions,  diagnoses of antisocial personality disorder  and aggressive personality traits [12]. Chicken and egg are hard to unpick here, as self-regulation and emotional ease come with good  relationships and attuned parenting and presumably children left alone in front of the TV or other screens get less of this. By definition much screen use is either solitary or at best a more distal form of communication, without the usual relationship signals of eye-contact, smell, touch and body language.

Even using mobile phones, supposedley there to aid communication, apparently can diminish prosocial behaviours. In one study, after just a short period of cell phone use, compared to a control group, those using the phones were less likely to volunteer for community or charitable activities. They were also less persistent at problem solving when success would have triggered donations to charity, and generally they showed less interest in other people [13]. Another study found links between addictive mobile phone use and other compulsive behaviours such as shopping and credit card over-use [14]. They found that materialism and impulsiveness drive a dependence on both cell phones and instant messaging. Email use also increases distractedness, and raises heart-rate and blood-pressure, all of which improve when we have an email holiday, even while remaining at work [15]. Social networking sites such as Facebook also leads to lessen self-control; for example users are more likely to snack afterwards or use credit cards [16].

Research is suggesting warnings about electronic media, but the jury is certainly still out on this, and will be for some years. For now though many of us find that we are becoming a bit different to how we used to be, darting around more, not concentrating so well, unable not to turn off our phones, less able to screen out distractions or be in the present moment and more likely to be pulled to the next exciting thing.

[1]           N. Carr, The shallows: What the Internet is doing to our brains. New York: Norton, 2011.

[2]           S. Turkle, Alone together: Why we expect more from technology and less from each other. New York: Basic Books, 2012.

[3]           E. A. Maguire, D. G. Gadian, I. S. Johnsrude, C. D. Good, J. Ashburner, R. S. J. Frackowiak, and C. D. Frith, ‘Navigation-related structural change in the hippocampi of taxi drivers’, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, vol. 97, no. 8, pp. 4398–4403, Apr. 2000.

[4]           T. Elbert, A. Sterr, C. Candia, B. Rockstroh, and E. Taub, ‘Representational cortical plasticity as revealed by magnetic source imaging: how the brain learns to play the violin’, in First Berlin Workshop On Cortical Plasticity, Berlin, November, 1996.

[5]           E. Ophir, C. Nass, and A. D. Wagner, ‘Cognitive control in media multitaskers’, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, vol. 106, no. 37, pp. 15583–15587, 2009.

[6]           M. H. Immordino-Yang, A. McColl, H. Damasio, and A. R. Damasio, ‘Neural correlates of admiration and compassion’, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, vol. 106, no. 19, pp. 8021–8026, 2009.

[7]           H. Hembrooke and G. Gay, ‘The laptop and the lecture: The effects of multitasking in learning environments’, Journal of Computing in Higher Education, vol. 15, no. 1, pp. 46–64, 2003.

[8]           D. Tapscott, Grown up digital. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2009.

[9]           E. L. Swing, D. A. Gentile, C. A. Anderson, and D. A. Walsh, ‘Television and video game exposure and the development of attention problems’, Pediatrics, vol. 126, no. 2, pp. 214–221, 2010.

[10]         D. A. Christakis, ‘The effects of infant media usage: what do we know and what should we learn?’, Acta Paediatrica, vol. 98, no. 1, pp. 8–16, Jan. 2009.

[11]         R. Cox, H. Skouteris, D. Dell’Aquila, L. L. Hardy, and L. Rutherford, ‘Television viewing behaviour among pre‐schoolers: Implications for public health recommendations’, Journal of Paediatrics and Child Health, vol. 49, no. 2, pp. E108–E111, 2013.

[12]         L. A. Robertson, H. M. McAnally, and R. J. Hancox, ‘Childhood and Adolescent Television Viewing and Antisocial Behavior in Early Adulthood’, Pediatrics, vol. 131, no. 3, pp. 439–446, Feb. 2013.

[13]         A. Abraham, A. Pocheptsova, and R. Ferraro, ‘The effect of mobile phone use on prosocial behavior’, Manuscript in preparation, 2012.

[14]         J. A. Roberts and S. F. Pirog, ‘A preliminary investigation of materialism and impulsiveness as predictors of technological addictions among young adults’, Journal of Behavioral Addictions, vol. 2, no. 1, pp. 56–62, 2013.

[15]         G. J. Mark, S. Voida, and A. V. Cardello, ‘“A Pace Not Dictated by Electrons”: An Empirical Study of Work Without Email’, Proceedings of the SIGCHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems, pp. 555–564, 2012.

[16]         K. Wilcox and A. Stephen, ‘Are Close Friends the Enemy? Online Social Networks, Self-Esteem, and Self-Control’, Journal of Consumer Research, Forthcoming, pp. 12–57, 2012.

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