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How Digital Media Affects The Brain

How Digital Media Impacts the Brain

1. Attention

Digital media encourages us to multi-task, if only because it’s so easy to switch between tasks when you can open multiple windows in your browser or turn on multiple devices. But is this a good thing?

Stanford neuroscientist Russ Poldrack has found that learning new information while multi-tasking can cause that information to go to the wrong part of the brain. Normally, new information goes into the hippocampus, which is responsible for the long-term storage of knowledge. If a student is studying while watching TV, Poldrack warns, that same information might instead go to the striatum, which is responsible for storing new procedures and skills, not facts and ideas. This means it will be stored in a shallower way, preventing quick retrieval in the future.

“Multi-tasking adversely affects how you learn,” Poldrack says. “Even if you learn while multi-tasking, that learning is less flexible and more specialised, so you cannot retrieve the information as easily.”

Nicholas Carr, author of The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brainagrees:

“What psychologists and brain scientists tell us about interruptions is that they have a fairly profound effect on the way we think. It becomes much harder to sustain attention, to think about one thing for a long period of time, and to think deeply when new stimuli are pouring at you all day long. I argue that the price we pay for being constantly inundated with information is a loss of our ability to be contemplative and to engage in the kind of deep thinking that requires you to concentrate on one thing.”

If you can filter the important from the unimportant, though, shouldn’t instant access to loads of data facilitate the opposite—that is, allow you to devote more brain space to thinking deeply about the things that matter most?

2. Memory

Researchers at the University of California, Santa Cruz and University of Illinois, Urbana Champaign have found that “cognitive offloading,” or the tendency to rely on the Internet as an aide-mémoire, increases after each use.

Examining how likely people are to reach for a computer or smartphone to answer trivia questions, Storm et. al divided study participants into two groups: those who were allowed to use only their memory to answer questions and those who were allowed to use Google. Participants were then given the option of answering subsequent easier questions by the method of their choice.

Participants who had previously used the Internet to gain information were “significantly more likely to revert to Google for subsequent questions than those who relied on memory.” In fact, thirty per cent of participants who previously consulted the Internet “failed to even attempt to answer a single simple question from memory.” They also reached for the phones more quickly each time.

“Memory is changing,” Storm says. “Our research shows that as we use the Internet to support and extend our memory, we become more reliant on it. Whereas before we might have tried to recall something on our own, now we don’t bother. As more information becomes available via smartphones and other devices, we become progressively more reliant on it in our daily lives.”

Storm acknowledges that more research needs to be conducted to determine whether these findings spell trouble for the brain: “It remains to be seen whether this increased reliance on the Internet is in any way different from the type of increased reliance one might experience on other information sources, such as books or people.”

The question is, does it matter if the information fails to stick? One study out of Columbia University showed that when people know that they’ll be able to find information online easily, they’re less likely to form a memory of it.

While Storm argues that “the need to remember trivial facts, figures, and numbers is inevitably becoming less necessary to function in everyday life,” others might point out that conversation becomes far less enjoyable when we can’t recall facts or must always pause to look something up.

And what about memory for other types of knowledge, such as social and emotional cues or the kind of scaffolded understanding that defines expertise? Storm concedes that tech is best used as a supplement, not a substitute, for memory in these cases:

“Although the Internet may be effective in helping people access certain types of information, it may be much less effective in helping people access other types of information. In such cases, using the Internet to access information could prove detrimental. Furthermore, there are forms of expertise that require the possession of vast amounts of knowledge and the ability to rapidly and flexibly use that information is unlikely to be attained when it is stored externally.”

3. Thought

According to a new study published in the proceedings of the ACM Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems, reading on digital platforms might make you “more inclined to focus on concrete details rather than interpreting information more abstractly.”

The research focused on a person’s “construal levels,” defined as “the fundamental level of concreteness versus abstractness that people use in perceiving and interpreting behaviors, events, and other informational stimuli.” Over 300 participants, ages 20 to 24 years old, took part in the studies. Participants were asked to read a short story by author David Sedaris on either a physical printout (non-digital) or in a PDF on a PC laptop (digital), and were then asked to take a pop-quiz, paper-and-pencil comprehension test.

For the abstract questions, on average, participants using the non-digital platform scored higher on inference questions with 66 percent correct, as compared to those using the digital platform, who had 48 percent correct. On the concrete questions, participants using the digital platform scored better with 73 percent correct, as compared to those using the non-digital platform, who had 58 percent correct.

Participants were also asked to read a pamphlet of information about four, fictitious Japanese car models on either a PC laptop screen or paper print-out, and were then asked to select which car model is superior. Sixty-six percent of the participants using the non-digital platform (printed materials) reported the correct answer, as compared to 43 percent of those using the digital platform.

Assistant professor Geoff Kaufman, who led the study, said: “Given that psychologists have shown that construal levels can vastly impact outcomes such as self-esteem and goal pursuit, it’s crucial to recognise the role that digitisation of information might be having on this important aspect of cognition.”

His colleague Mary Flanagan added: “Compared to the widespread acceptance of digital devices, as evidenced by millions of apps, ubiquitous smartphones, and the distribution of iPads in schools, surprisingly few studies exist about how digital tools affect our understanding—our cognition. Sometimes it is beneficial to foster abstract thinking, and as we know more, we can design to overcome the tendencies—or deficits—inherent in digital devices.”

The study was inspired by earlier research on the public health strategy game “POX: Save the People®” which found that players of the digital version of the game were more inclined to respond with localised solutions and players of the non-digital version more often looked at the big picture.

Jordan Grafman, chief of cognitive neuroscience at the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, explains it this way: “The opportunity for deeper thinking, for deliberation, or for abstract thinking is much more limited. You have to rely more on surface-level information, and that is not a good recipe for creativity or invention.”

4. Empathy

In The Shallows, Carr includes a study showing that the more distracted you are, the less able you are to experience empathy. “Distractions could make it more difficult for us to experience deep emotions,” he explains. “This kind of culture of constant distraction and interruption undermines not only the attentiveness that leads to deep thoughts, but also the attentiveness that leads to deep connections with other people.”

One method of connecting that’s quickly becoming obsolete is handwriting, especially in the context of written correspondence. Melbourne handwriting analyst Ingrid Seger-Woznicki believes the discipline of writing legibly was once “a mark of respect between author and reader.”

“The lack of writing is reflective of our lack of clarity of communication,” she says. “We don’t see communication as an art as we used to. Writing by hand forces you to stop and think a bit, and it makes you more aware of how you affect others. Poor handwriting used to be seen as a lack of consideration.”

“When you write cursive you are wanting to connect with people’s minds at a deeper level, and as a society we don’t want to do that anymore.”

Some researchers even believe there is an “essential link between the movement of the hand and the creation of thoughts and memories that typing simply cannot replicate.”

Good penmanship takes deliberation, consideration, and concentration—qualities we’re starting to see less and less of as digital media pulls our attention in multiple directions.

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Digital Digital Media Poldrack Russ Poldrack Stanford


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