Our Brains on the Modern World

By , Contributor

Ars Electronica

There are so many wonderful ways technology has helped us make the world better. As we speak, there are several apps and programs that you can install on tablets and smartphones which help you entertain and educate children on long road trips. Some apps are designed to help students do their research, complete their homework, and communicate with their peers at the same time. Many devices let people work on anything they want, from anywhere and at any time.

The fact that a growing number of workplaces are allowing “bring your own device” and “virtual office” arrangements basically show us how much the world has changed based on our relationship with technology. But there’s this other thing that’s piquing the interest of scientists and other great thinkers: the effects of our modern life on the way our brains work.

On Brain Development

The rapid way in which technology moves is bound to affect the way the brains of the future generations develop. It should be obvious by now that younger people generally have different cognitive strengths in comparison with the cognitive strengths of older people. While people at the age of 40 and older tend to have difficulties in handling many different tasks at once, people below 40 years old tend to take to multi-tasking like a fish would to water. And while focusing is generally considered difficult among this new crop of natural multi-taskers, it’s peanuts to people who didn’t grow up with the Internet.

In other words, there really is something about the way we interact with technology that affects the way we approach things. Neuroscientist Dr. Jay Giedd has an explanation for this: as children, we develop a vast number of neural connections as we take in the world around us. But there comes a point in our brain development where some neural connections are deactivated in favor of what is deemed essential to our daily lives. Now, how does this relate to technology?

Notice how we are now bombarded by media — if we’re not watching television, we’re doing several things at once on our computers or tablets. Now, take into account that this is the kind of world in which our children are growing up. Right now, what their brain is learning is that it needs to be able to take in information from as many fronts as possible at the same time without being overwhelmed. In short, what is being valued in brains right now is the ability to multi-task so neurological connections that have little to do with multi-tasking wither away.

In the future, therefore, the number of people who can naturally focus on one task at a time will probably be significantly lower.

On Intelligence

Ever seen those infomercial “problem” sequences where people find that doing some things are ridiculously difficult? They look hilarious, and they actually are. But here’s the thing - infomercials make use of such exaggerated visuals to convince us that there are products that make everyday life easier for us. And whether we’d like to admit it or not, we really enjoy having our conveniences. Despite the saying that goes “necessity is the mother of invention,” recent technological advancements show that it’s probably not the case.

These days, it actually looks like “handiness” and “entertainment value” are the parents of modern invention. Think about it: consumers didn’t actually need the Internet, but it sure was useful. We only started to need it after we became used to it and realized just how much easier it was to get things done and to communicate with each other using that technology. The same goes for mobile phones, smartphones, and tablets - they proved themselves useful and convenient, thus making themselves “necessities.”

That in itself shouldn’t be a problem, unless you start to realize just how much having things work so easily for you is affecting your overall intelligence. An article on Time’s newsfeed last month declared that our brains are evolving to become dumber. Granted, this “devolution” started long before 21st century; but the fact that it’s attributed to lower-pressure lifestyles makes one wonder if the speed with which new “conveniences” develop can accelerate this “dumbing down” that we’re going through.

Some scientists pointing out that we will someday have technology smart enough to render the natural evolution of smarter brains irrelevant is actually not very comforting. Putting all our intelligence in machines doesn’t seem like a very good idea.

What Does This All Mean?

Technology is wonderful, but our increasing dependence on it may risk the ability of future generations to become truly autonomous beings. Our growing inclination toward distractions may prevent individuals from realizing their full potentials, and the ever more frequent indulgence of our desire for comfort and convenience can weaken what had been the evolutionary trait that put us at the top of the food chain. It might be better for us if we’d just slow down technological developments a little bit, or teach our children how to do things the hard way, just to exercise their brains.

Technology might be helping us become more productive than ever, but that’s only in one context — society. If we rely on it to the point of foregoing the overall ability to solve problems on our own, then we may be in deep trouble. It’s best to find ways to balance out this situation, and we can start doing so by unplugging from time to time.

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Nancy Perkins, a full-time mommy wannabe, has been a freelance online writer for two years now. She loves sharing information on health, business, technology, fashion, women's issues and motherhood. Nancy lives life to its fullest each day and is dreaming of retiring on an island she will someday own.

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