Science Friday: What Does Technology Do To Our Brains (And Why Should We Care)?

Can all the hours we spend online rewire the circuitry of our brain?

A UCLA study released this week began to answer that question, showing that searching the Internet helps to keep older brains agile. “Our study shows that when your brain is on Google, your neural circuitry changes extensively,” Gary Small, director of UCLA’s Memory & Aging Research Center, told the San Francisco Chronicle this week.

Basically, the study shows that when the brain spends more time on technology-related tasks and less time exposed to other people, it drifts away from fundamental social skills like reading facial expressions during conversation.  Thus, brain circuits involved in face-to-face contact can become weaker, the study suggests, leading to social awkwardness, an inability to interpret nonverbal messages, isolation and less interest in traditional classroom learning.

The study is part of a growing field of research that looks at effects of technology on the brain.  With only a few studies complete, however, there is little consensus as to whether technology has a positive or negative effect on the brain and ultimately what that means to how humans operate.  The reality, of course, is technology has both positive and negative effects – but I am not a scientist so I can’t back that statement up with any data.  What is already clear is that people believe technology can sharpen the functioning of their brain – and they are playing Nintendo’s Brain Age and similar video games to prove it.

There is also a new area of study emerging that focuses on the psychological impacts of technology on our society.  This area of focus, known as Media Psychology, explores how people understand, use, and respond to our increasingly technology-centric and media-rich world.  Researchers argue that by identifying potential benefits and problems that technology and media create in terms of our social interactions and behaviors, we can focus on how to develop media that has impacts behavior in a positive way, such as around literacy.

Why is this important?  Many believe studies like the one conducted by the UCLA researchers will yield more insight into the causes of Alzheimer’s disease and ways to more effectively treat or prevent it for example.  With little understanding or ability to combat the effects of Alzheimer’s, and cases expected to quadruple by 2050, even minimal progress could have a huge impact on people’s lives.  On the Media Psychology side, with technology now playing an increasingly important role in our society, and little evidence that the influence that technology plays will wane any time soon, how we motivate action and impact behavior must be reconsidered.  Everything from how children learn to what is needed to build social movements will have to be approached differently going forward.

No time to waste.

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