Posted on Jun 27, 2018, 10 p.m.
Today’s society has plugged their brain into extensive cyberspace systems, thanks to cell phones and things such as social media the mind is now part of an ecosystem of information exchange that has no precedent in history. Studies show that it can change behavior, but have you ever stopped to wonder how this exchange may be transforming your brain?
Interconnections and complexities of grey matter are vast, scientists estimate that the cerebral cortex contains 100 billion nerve cells, with each neuron having on average 7,000 connections. The cortex is constantly rewiring itself based on experiences that form new synaptic connections as they occur and alter the mental landscape. Engaging in repetitive activities causes those habits to become ingrained in neural pathways such as reaching for that cell phone when it chimes. Studies suggest many people have addictive cell phone relationships that are producing corresponding changes in expectation reward feedback loops underlying compulsive and addictive behavior. Smartphone habits have been shown to impact neural circuitry responsible for memory, concentration, addictive behavior, and anxiety.
People are hardwired to seek out experiences that are pleasurable, these can include basic physical rewards and higher order things such as novel information, beauty, tasty treats, mind altering substances, and meaningful relationships. The brain reward system consists of dopaminergic pathways that release natural opiates when the desired goods are acquired. This reward system can become hijacked as any compulsive personality or sweet tooth can confirm.
Neuroscientists studying the phenomenon of addiction have shown that model animals will pull the lever to receive the next fix of cocaine before food even if on the brink of starvation. Technology may not be as dangerous as drugs, but to some it is just as addictive because the habit triggers the same reward feedback circuitry that drugs do; meaning users become habituated to chimes, rings, and tones emitted from their smartphones. Receiving that digital stimuli can produce as almost euphoria, studies show not getting them can result in symptoms associated with withdrawal such as irritability, depression, and anxiety.
Some people turn into alcoholics and are not able to drink in moderation responsibly as others do, it is also possible to have a healthy or unhealthy relationship with a smartphone. There are signs to help determine if you are addicted to the device: Are you compulsively checking the device for updates, calls, texts, and messages; Do you get a rush or euphoria using the device; Are you less interested in real life activities or relationships that don’t require the device; Do you become depressed or anxious when you can’t access the device; Do you spend more time on the device than with real life friends and family?
Researchers have brought attention the fact users are frequently offloading many cognitive functions to devices and the internet, meaning technology is making memorization processes less important. Studying this development has shown that technology can augment cognition and undermine it, growing perception is that habitual involvement with these devices can have negative and lasting impacts on user ability to remember, think, regulate emotion, and pay attention. Critical thinking skills, memory, and arithmetic ability are biologically based and these mental muscles need to be exercised, bringing to mind the term use it or lose it.
Information is not the same as wisdom or knowledge, technology presents people with a flood of data points and factoids with little in way of context. Many people are drowning in seas of information, what they need is perspective to allow them to recognize what is important, what is not, what is real and what is made up. Digital overload is suggested by studies to interfere with process of long term memory formation, multitasking appears to have the same effect. When everything is delivered and encoded as urgent the brain can not determine what is important, which has been shown to cause weakly formed long term memories.
Today’s society is full of narcissism as people gazing into their device become more self absorbed, the selfie is a prime example of that, like it or not that self absorbed attention seeking era appears to be here to stay. Studies have actually linked cell phone use to selfishness, users are less likely to volunteer for community services or initiate connections with others; attention seekers and narcissists will only do such things if they can use their devices to post images of themselves on social media to show how good they are.
Cell phones, smart devices, and technology are meant to expand possibilities, but there is growing clear evidence showing that the reverse is happening and they are shrinking attention spans. As these devices continue to grow in domination of day to day life there is also growing evidence they impair ability to concentrate on other activities, and add to depression.
Devices can indeed provide many important functions and benefits to day to day life, and to some it can be hard to imagine life without one, it is important to be aware of some of the downsides to using them. Avoid the pitfalls by unplugging your brain to unwind daily and get some downtime from technology, try not to let the device get the best of you. Schedule digital downtime; enjoy more activities that don’t involve cell phone use; take time to enjoy those flowers or skylines in real life off screen; join an in person real life social network and hobbies like a book club, cooking, volunteer work, or photography; turn off notifications; try to take up mindful activities such as yoga or meditation to counterbalance technology time and your mind will thank you for it.
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