You reach for your Smartphone as you wake, you scroll through Facebook or any social media sends emails, you use Google map to reach your destination without you knowing where it is. Smart phones make these tasks and others nearly effortless. Researchers suggest that this digitally lightened mental workload may be coming at a cost.
The latest research suggests that relying on your phone or the Internet to lighten your mental workload is as depending on a car to get you places, driving is faster and easier than walking. Likewise, media multitasking may be the cognitive equivalent of too much sedentary time.
According to Research from McGill University in Canada, drivers who rely on GPS-style navigation to reach his or her destination, rather than those who depend on their own spatial abilities, had less activity and gray matter volume in the hippocampus region of their brain, which is an area important for memory consolidation. Similarly, a 2011 paper in the journal Science showed that people might have the worse recall when they know a piece of information is stored somewhere online or on a computer. Rather than remembering the piece of information itself, you instead remember how to find that piece of information on your device. That is not a big deal if you are looking for something simple and unambiguous. Nevertheless, when your brain is confronted with a more complex or profound question, it may falter.
“If you’re always getting facts from Google, you can answer a trivia question, but you’re not building up the knowledge base necessary to be a deep and deliberate thinker,” says Nicholas Carr, a technology writer and author of The Shallows, a book about the Internet’s effect on our minds. Like an atrophied muscle, your brain’s ability to perform heavy lifting may be compromised.
Additionally, your mind tends to struggle to differentiate what is important or real from what is counterfeit, Carr says. A recent study from Stanford University backs him up. The Stanford researchers found that students struggled to differentiate real news from promotional stories, even when an article was clearly labeled with a term like “sponsored content.” According to an older Stanford study, media multitaskers, those who juggle online tasks like email, texting, browsing blogs and posting on social media have problems staying on task or sorting important info from background noise. “They’re suckers for irrelevancy,” said that study’s coauthor, Clifford Nass, in a 2009 press release. “Everything distracts them.”
“With these devices, when we’re always jumping from task to task, we have this perception that our constant activity is a sign of efficiency like we’re getting a lot done,” says Dr. Gary Small, a professor of behavioral sciences at UCLA and author of the book IBRAIN. “But actually this process of jumping around is not economical,” he adds.
He says that whenever we switch tasks, our brain needs a moment or two to find its bearings. Moreover, the more we engage in rapid task shuffling, the harder it becomes for us to ignore distractions and stay focused. That could be because media multitasking may weaken your brain’s anterior cingulate cortex, a region involved in high-level information and emotion processing, according to research from University College London.
Your brain may also suffer from a lack of downtime, like waiting in line at the grocery store, when we all used to daydream instead of staring at our phones.
Research from Mary Helen IMMORDINO-YANG, a neuroscientist at the University of Southern California discovered that when the brain has the opportunities to wander, it fires up a group of overlapping networks known as its “default mode”. Yang clarifies that when the brain has space to roam freely its default mode is engaged in reliving recent experiences, connecting emotionally relevant information, and constructing narratives that make sense out of life. “This is why people often have big insights in the shower or doing the dishes,” Yong adds.
However, when our increasingly portable and powerful devices insert themselves into more and more of our lives’ empty spaces, our brains may have fewer opportunities to make those connections and conjure those “a-ha!” insights. IMMORDINO-YANG says that we are probably sort of reshaping our brains’ networks so that they are more inclined to researching stuff in our environment to entertain us, rather than thinking about the longer-term, broader, ethical, and deeper considerations we would otherwise be having.
“What we don’t realize when we choose the convenience or ease technology offers is that we’re rejecting ourselves the ability to create rich talents,” Carr adds. “Without practice, our brains begin to lose these talents for deep thinking or maintained focus.”