People assume that iPhones, laptops and Netflix are evidence of progress. In some ways, that's true. A moderate amount of Googling, for instance, can be good for your brain, and there are apps that can boost brain function and activity.
Yet tech advancements also come with some unintended consequences. Our brains being "massively rewired" by tech, says neuroscientist Michael Merzenich in The Shallows: What The Internet Is Doing To Our Brains, a Pulitzer-nominated 2011 book by Nicholas Carr. Merzenich warns that the effect of technology on human intelligence could be “deadly.”
That got us thinking. How exactly is technology messing up our brains?
1. Tech is screwing up your sleep.
Studies have shown that blue-enriched light, which is emitted by gadgets like smartphones, tablets and laptops, can suppress the body’s release of melatonin at night. Melatonin is a key hormone that helps regulate your internal clock, telling your body when it is nighttime and when to feel sleepy. Blue light can disrupt that process, making it impossible for you to stick to a proper sleep schedule.
Losing sleep has a number of negative effects on your brain. If you’re not logging seven or more hours of sleep each night, you might suffer from increasingly bad moods, decreased focus at work and problems with memory, not to mention a loss of actual brain tissue -- all of which makes you less than a joy to be around.
2. You’re easily distracted.
You don't really need science to know this, but technology makes it much easier to get distracted, whether that’s stepping away from an important project to check your smartphone or flipping between multiple browser tabs without really focusing on any one. It has been proven that toggling between multiple tasks at once doesn’t actually work -- in fact, you just wind up performing all your duties even worse.
Teens in particular are more distracted than ever. A 2012 Pew Research Center survey of more than 2,400 teachers found that most educators feel students are more distracted than previous generations. Some 87 percent of teachers agreed with the statement, “today’s digital technologies are creating an easily distracted generation with short attention spans,” while 64 percent agreed with the idea that “today’s digital technologies do more to distract students than to help them academically.” Yikes.
3. You can’t remember much...
Technology's tendency to butt into whatever else you're doing makes it more difficult to form new memories. As Nicholas Carr explains in The Shallows, memory comes in two types: transient working memory and long-term memory, which is more permanent. Information needs to pass from working memory into long-term memory in order to be stored. Any break in the processes of working memory -- like, say, stopping to check your email or send a text message in the middle of reading an article -- can erase information from your mind before that transfer occurs.
There’s also a limit to how much information your working memory can take in at once. Taking in too much information -- which happens a lot online -- is like “having water poured into a glass continuously all day long, so whatever was there at the top has to spill out as the new water comes down,” productivity expert Tony Schwartz told The Huffington Post last year.
4. ...so you’re relying on the Internet to remember things for you.
People used to be able to retain really vast quantities of knowledge -- like reciting entire novels, word for word -- but technology has eliminated both the need and the drive to do so. When you know that Google or your smartphone can retain a piece of information for you, you’re less likely to store it in memory, studies have shown. Scientific American last year likened the Internet to an “external hard drive” for our brains, as we outsource an increasing amount of information to the web.
That’s not the worst thing in the world, Scientific American adds. We’ve always outsourced some of that information to external “hard drives” of sorts, relying on friends rather than technology to fill in the gaps in our knowledge. But these day we're "outsourcing" way more.
5. And you're much more forgetful than you used to be.
Millennials are actually more likely to forget what day it is or where they put their keys than people over the age of 55, according to a 2013 Trending Machine survey. In a press release for the survey, family and occupational therapist Patricia Gutentag called out technology as one of the main culprits: “This is a population that has grown up multitasking using technology, often compounded by lack of sleep, all of which results in high levels of forgetfulness,” she said.
6. You can’t concentrate on what you’re reading.
Even if you’ve shunned all distractions, you still won’t absorb information you read online as well as you would if you’d read it in a book. And you can blame hypertext for that. Those colorful little links scattered throughout online articles (including this one) make your brain work harder than it would otherwise, leaving less brain power to process what you’re reading. Even just reading on screens, like a laptop or iPad -- links or no links -- has been shown to diminish comprehension.
Research has shown that reading linked text “entails a lot of mental calisthenics -- evaluating hyperlinks, deciding whether to click, adjusting to different formats -- that are extraneous to the process of reading,” Carr wrote in “The Shallows.” And giving your brain more work to do makes it harder to absorb information. Text that’s peppered with photos, videos and ads is even worse.
7. You can’t find your way around without GPS.
People who rely on GPS to get around have less activity in the hippocampus, an area of the brain involved in both memory and navigation, according to a series of studies presented in 2010. Using spatial memory -- which involves using visual cues to develop "cognitive maps" that remember routes -- instead of operating on GPS-induced autopilot can help avert memory problems later in life, the studies found.
A 2008 study from the University of London even found that taxi drivers had more developed hippocampi than non-taxi drivers -- perhaps because they are so accustomed to navigating cities using spatial memory, rather than relying on GPS (though that may no longer be true of smartphone-equipped taxi drivers).
8. You have the brain of a drug addict.
No, “Internet addiction” isn’t just some BS term parents throw around to terrify youngsters who spend too much time playing Candy Crush. Spending too much time on the Internet can actually cause changes in the brain that mimic those caused by drug and alcohol dependence, according to a 2012 study.
Internet addicts -- most notably gamers who shun food, school and sleep to play for days on end -- have abnormal white and grey matter in their brains, which disrupts and cripples the regions involved in processing emotion and regulating attention and decision-making. Alcoholics and drug addicts have strikingly similar brain abnormalities, the study found.
“I have seen people who stopped attending university lectures, failed their degrees or their marriages broke down” because of Internet gaming addiction, Dr. Henriette Bowden Jones, who runs a British clinic for Internet addicts, told The Independent.
Now that you're properly terrified of the effects of technology on the old noggin, let us remind you that you do have the power to prevent brain drain and time-suck. Just log off every once in a while!