Is technology addiction messing with your brain?

my brains - let me show you them
Image by Liz Henry via Flickr

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?

Your Brain on Computers – Attached to Technology and Paying a Price – NYTimes.com.

Walking while cellphoning can be hazardous to your health

Having raged and ranted about phoning/texting drivers and pedestrian-oblivious bikers, this space would now like to come to the defense of cellphoning walkers. Not, you understand, multi-tasking/app-studying cellphoning walkers, but talking walkers. Noting the attention that has recently focused on the hazards of distracted drivers, New York Times writer Matt Richtel reports on the new hazard:

But there is another growing problem caused by lower-stakes multitasking — distracted walking — which combines a pedestrian, an electronic device and an unseen crack in the sidewalk, the pole of a stop sign, a toy left on the living room floor or a parked (or sometimes moving) car.

The era of the mobile gadget is making mobility that much more perilous, particularly on crowded streets and in downtown areas where multiple multitaskers veer and swerve and walk to the beat of their own devices.

Most times, the mishaps for a distracted walker are minor, like the lightly dinged head and broken fingernail, a jammed digit or a sprained ankle, and, the befallen say, a nasty case of hurt pride. Of course, the injuries can sometimes be serious — and they are on the rise.

Slightly more than 1,000 pedestrians visited emergency rooms in 2008 because they got distracted and tripped, fell or ran into something while using a cellphone to talk or text. That was twice the number from 2007, which had nearly doubled from 2006, according to a study conducted by Ohio State University, which says it is the first to estimate such accidents.

“It’s the tip of the iceberg,” said Jack L. Nasar, a professor of city and regional planning at Ohio State, noting that the number of mishaps is probably much higher considering that most of the injuries are not severe enough to require a hospital visit. What is more, he said, texting is rising sharply and devices like the iPhone have thousands of new, engaging applications to preoccupy phone users.

There is the problem, it’s the apps. It is a solvable problem. Just as it is possible, without inviting death and destruction, to talk to a (non-distracting) passenger while driving a car, it is entirely possible to talk on a cellphone while walking. Many who have managed to do so without winding up in emergency rooms have the solution: don’t be accessing travel agencies and restaurant menus, just talk. Furthermore, do not give your cellphone number to anybody but your children and a few very good friends. They do not create angst while you are walking/talking, and will also understand that you turn the thing off when you get home. Anybody else can darn well call the land line and leave a message. The fact that addiction to electronic wizardry and perpetually multi-tasking with it is a fairly recent phenomenon probably explains another interesting discovery:

Mr. Nasar supervised the statistical analysis, which was done by Derek Troyer, one of his graduate students. He looked at records of emergency room visits compiled by the Consumer Product Safety Commission.

Examples of such (hospital) visits include a 16-year-old boy who walked into a telephone pole while texting and suffered a concussion; a 28-year-old man who tripped and fractured a finger on the hand gripping his cellphone; and a 68-year-old man who fell off the porch while talking on a cellphone, spraining a thumb and an ankle and causing dizziness.

Young people injured themselves more often. About half the visits Mr. Troyer studied were by people under 30, and a quarter were 16 to 20 years old. But more than a quarter of those injured were 41 to 60 years old.

Over 60? Except for the unfortunate gentleman strolling off his porch, we don’t event merit inclusion in the data. This may add up to one benefit of being too old to deal with the technological wonders of cellphone apps, and tending to use the cellphone as a phone. The Times article, highly recommended reading for all ages, is full of interesting factoids and neurological rationale. But much still boils down to the old can’t-walk-and-chew-gum adage.

“Walking and chewing are repetitive, well-practiced tasks that become automatic,” Dr. Gazzaley (Adam Gazzaley, a neurologist at the University of California, San Francisco) said. “They don’t compete for resources like texting and walking.”

Further, he said, the cellphone gives people a constant opportunity to pursue goals that feel more important than walking down the street.

“An animal would never walk into a pole,” he said, noting survival instincts would trump other priorities.

There could be a message here. Perhaps it is that the goal, or at least the top priority, of walking down the street should be to get to your destination in one piece. If you skip the apps and keep your eyes open for texting drivers at cross streets, it is entirely possible for someone of any age to accomplish this task — while talking on the cellphone.

Driven to Distraction – Pedestrians, Too, Are Distracted by Cellphones – Series – NYTimes.com.

Jail time for texting drivers

The life you save may be your own… or possibly mine. Right now, to be honest about it, I am more interested in mine. And mine is regularly at risk from texting drivers.

Today’s front page story by Matt Richtel in the New York Times, with accompanying photo of large driver of large vehicle, small dog in his lap and intricate computer screen to the right of his steering wheel, raises more fear in me than local jihadidsts and prospective death panels. The latter are abstract &/or untrue, the former is real. And preventable. “We are supposed to pull over,” trucker Kurt Long says blithely, “but nobody does.” Richtel also quotes American Trucking Association spokesman Clayton Boyce as saying that truckers “… are not reading the screen every second.” Why is this somehow not comforting?

I concede that time is critical to drivers of large vehicles. But at some point the public good ought to prevail. Those of us over 60 are admittedly better able to remember when it was possible to live without texting (or even cell-phoning) while driving and thus better able to think it could be possible again, at least on a limited basis. We are also able to remember when it was convenient for some people to drive around very drunk and occasionally kill people, before laws were passed to limit that activity. Driving a big rig while texting may seem more important than driving blotto after a party, but the dead are just as dead. Somebody has got to get the attention of our legislators — somebody not indebted to the very powerful trucking industry lobby — so that new laws are enacted.

Walking, whenever time and public transportation permit, is my mobility of choice. On foot, I regularly notice the drivers who don’t notice me because they are too busy texting or talking on cell phones. Pedestrians learn to do this. But if you’re driving down the highway and a large vehicle is barreling toward you or near you, propelled by a minimally-attentive driver, you don’t stand a chance. And I say, send them to jail.

Beloved members of my immediate circle of family and friends have been known to text while driving. I still say, send them to jail. I’ll come visit.