This is your life? Beginning at breakfast — or perhaps earlier, in the bathroom — one sizable screen with multiple streams of news, stock reports and data updates across the bottom; tweets in a box on the left; the iPhone nearby holding stacked up e-mails, IMs and calls that went into the mailbox? If so, you are not alone. As a matter of fact, it seems almost no one is alone, or disconnected from technological communications, any more. In the words of New York Times writer Matt Richtel, “This is your brain on computers.”
Scientists say juggling e-mail, phone calls and other incoming information can change how people think and behave. They say our ability to focus is being undermined by bursts of information.
These play to a primitive impulse to respond to immediate opportunities and threats. The stimulation provokes excitement — a dopamine squirt — that researchers say can be addictive. In its absence, people feel bored.
The resulting distractions can have deadly consequences, as when cellphone-wielding drivers and train engineers cause wrecks. And for millions of people … these urges can inflict nicks and cuts on creativity and deep thought, interrupting work and family life.
While many people say multitasking makes them more productive, research shows otherwise. Heavy multitaskers actually have more trouble focusing and shutting out irrelevant information, scientists say, and they experience more stress.
Richtel follows a family of four through their technology-addicted lives: they go on an oceanside vacation, but soon are all on their electronic devices; one day at the beach is mercifully unplugged. But on routine days, few moments are unplugged.
“And scientists are discovering,” Richtel reports, that even after the multitasking ends, fractured thinking and lack of focus persist. In other words, this is also your brain off computers.”
“The technology is rewiring our brains,” said Nora Volkow, director of the National Institute of Drug Abuse and one of the world’s leading brain scientists. She and other researchers compare the lure of digital stimulation less to that of drugs and alcohol than to food and sex, which are essential but counterproductive in excess.
Technology use can benefit the brain in some ways, researchers say. Imaging studies show the brains of Internet users become more efficient at finding information. And players of some video games develop better visual acuity.
More broadly, cellphones and computers have transformed life. They let people escape their cubicles and work anywhere. They shrink distances and handle countless mundane tasks, freeing up time for more exciting pursuits.
For better or worse, the consumption of media, as varied as e-mail and TV, has exploded. In 2008, people consumed three times as much information each day as they did in 1960. And they are constantly shifting their attention. Computer users at work change windows or check e-mail or other programs nearly 37 times an hour, new research shows.
The nonstop interactivity is one of the most significant shifts ever in the human environment, said Adam Gazzaley, a neuroscientist at the University of California, San Francisco.
“We are exposing our brains to an environment and asking them to do things we weren’t necessarily evolved to do,” he said. “We know already there are consequences.”
We just don’t fully understand what those consequences might be. This space worries. Couldn’t we get our adrenaline the old-fashioned way?