The Impact Of Technology On Our Brains

A friend of mine sent me a video of a 1 year old baby trying to “interact” with a magazine (published on geekosystem.com in October). The baby shown in the video had been previously exposed to an iPad and had been trained by its user interface to repeatedly try and use a glossy magazine in the same way. The article accompanying the video goes on to talk about how technology will affect the next generation of human beings.

As my job is to explore and understand consumers and recognize behaviours and attitudes that can have a bearing on how we communicate with them, the impact of technology on our very resourceful and adaptable brains is of great interest to me. Ironically, it is this very technology that is allowing us to get a greater understanding of exactly how our brains work, but while there is a growing body of research that shows us that technology is affecting our brains, we still have a lot more to learn.

The challenge is in understanding if technology is going to step change the behaviour of a whole new generation of people or will our brains and consequent behaviours just keep adjusting to new technology, as has been the case throughout the ages.

I remember reading an article in the Atlantic magazine by Nicholas Carr titled “Is Google making us stupid?”a few years ago, where Carr told the story of Friedrich Nietzsche losing his eye sight as a demonstration of how technology can change the way we think, not just the way we do things. With Nietzsche’s eye sight beginning to fail, he purchased a Malling-Hanson Writing Ball (an early typewriter) which allowed him to write with his eyes closed. One of Nietzsche’s friends, a composer, noticed a change in the style of his writing. His already terse prose had become even tighter, more telegraphic.

“You are right,” Nietzsche replied, “Our writing equipment takes part in the forming of our thoughts”. Under the sway of the machine, writes the German media scholar Friedrich A. Kittler, Nietzsche’s prose “changed from arguments to aphorisms, from thoughts to puns, from rhetoric to telegram style.”

If the humble typewriter could have such a great affect, one can only imagine the impact of the Internet. The exciting thing is that more and more scientists are researching this impact and, as far as I can tell, the conversation is moving past the negative based assumptions that were leading the conversation for some time. Increasingly, research is showing that not just young brains are being impacted, but everyone who has access to the Internet too.

Neuroscientist, Gary Small monitored the brains of 24 adults as they performed a simulated Web search, and again as they read a page of text. During the Web search, those who reported using the Internet regularly in their everyday lives showed twice as much signaling in brain regions responsible for decision-making and complex reasoning, compared with those who had limited Internet exposure. The findings, to be published in the American Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry, suggest that Internet use enhances the brain’s capacity to be stimulated, and that Internet reading activates more brain regions than printed words. The research adds to previous studies that have shown that the tech-savvy among us possess greater working memory (meaning they can store and retrieve more bits of information in the short term), are more adept at perceptual learning (that is, adjusting their perception of the world in response to changing information), and have better motor skills.

Another study of online research habits, conducted by scholars from University College London, suggests that we may well be in the midst of a sea change in the way we read and think. As part of the five-year research program, the scholars examined computer logs documenting the behavior of visitors to two popular research sites, one operated by the British Library and one by a U.K. educational consortium, that provide access to journal articles, e-books, and other sources of written information. They found that people using the sites exhibited “a form of skimming activity,” hopping from one source to another and rarely returning to any source they’d already visited. They typically read no more than one or two pages of an article or book before they would “bounce” out to another site. Sometimes they’d save a long article, but there’s no evidence that they ever went back and actually read it. The authors of the study report:

Thanks to the ubiquity of text on the Internet, not to mention the popularity of text-messaging on mobile phones, we may well be reading more today than we did in the 1970s or 1980s, when television was our medium of choice. But it’s a different kind of reading, and behind it lays a different kind of thinking—perhaps even a new sense of the self. “We are not only what we read,” says Maryanne Wolf, a developmental psychologist at Tufts University and the author of Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain. “We are how we read.” When we read online, she says, we tend to become “mere decoders of information.”

Don Tapscott, author of “Grown Up Digital: How the net generation is changing your world”, feels that this type of reading far from dulls young brains- it can activate them and help them achieve spectacular results.

Whatever your view on the negative or positive impact that technology is having on our brains, as marketers, understanding how people engage and interact online and how their behaviour both changes and remains the same is critically important. We are well beyond the bad old days of treating the Internet as a basic media channel and now embrace it as a fully embedded element of our lives and world. Knowing the way that experience is “computed” is all important for success. We are watching these new learnings all the time and hope to be posting again soon about this fascinating topic.

Dael Wood – Director Insights and Strategy

Image courtesy of user artM at www.sxc.hu

As always, if you have any opinions- supporting or conflicting- on this post or related matters we’d love to hear from you, so please feel free to post replies below

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