January 8, 2015
The Economist
Thomas Upchurch

Digital technologies are having a profound impact on our neurological systems. They have the potential to empower or enfeeble our brains – the choice is ours.

As its scope, scale and influence extends, the Internet is being classified by some as an “intellectual technology”, in the same category as the printed page, the number, the clock, the abacus and the typewriter. These are all tools designed to magnify our mental powers. But in magnifying our powers, they also shape how we think.

It is already accepted by neuroscientists that the Internet and digital technology will leave some physical impression on our neurological systems. All interaction causes changes in the brain. Whilst these changes are particularly pronounced in childhood, the brain continues to adapt throughout adulthood, forming new neural connections and pathways and destroying old unused ones, through a process known as neuroplasticity. “Our brains change as a function of what we do, what we’re good at, what we master, and what we don’t do,” says Michael Merzenich, professor emeritus and neuroscientist at the University of California, San Francisco.

Optimists believe digital technology could help improve cognitive health and tackle neurological disease. In the near future, all individuals will be able to conduct self- assessments of their cognitive health, predicts Alvaro Fernandez, chief executive officer of Sharpbrains.com, a market research firm that tracks the health and wellness applications of brain science. Mr Fernandez believes such assessments, as well as brain-training exercises using online tools, will provide researchers with an unprecedented amount of data that can help identify commonalities in brain and cognitive disorders. Professor Merzenich believes that if it is leveraged to achieve the right ends, such digital technology, “will lead to a new awakening” in the diagnosis and treatment of behavioural and neurological disorders. As age-related neurological diseases grow in step with the ageing population globally, technologies which help monitor and re-shape brains will become useful tools.

Online exercises are already available to improve brain functions including memory, attention span and people skills. A 2011 report in the UK by Nominet, a social technology funder, argued that brain-training can improve our ability to convert short-term impressions and thoughts into long-term knowledge. The findings support a 2009 study which argued that working memories can be trained and improved through online exercises. For just 30 minutes a day, over a period of 19 days, young adults completed a series of computer-based brain-training exercises . These included puzzle-solving, memorizing to-do lists and comparing and contrasting symbols and shapes. In this particular study, improvements in working memory and fluid intelligence (the ability to solve problems in new situations) were recorded.

Even computer games, criticised by many for their impact on children, can improve spatial attention, mental rotation, motor responses and visual processing skills. This could have beneficial applications in the real world. A study conducted in 2007 found that surgeons who played video games before performing laparoscopic surgery (key-hole surgery) made 37% fewer errors than those that had not played. The potential for video games to influence our cognitive functions, both negatively and positively, will only increase as technology becomes more immersive, realistic and interactive.

Brain-training tasks can be also intensified to deal with more significant neurological dysfunctions. According to Professor Merzenich, brain-training can re-establish the social and learning abilities of children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). His company even has a trial, currently underway in the US, of a training programme that aims to correct chronic schizophrenia.. Beginning with simple questionnaires, brain-training can initially help identify neurological distortions in individuals. Tailored exercises are then designed to improve different functions, to drive the brain in corrective ways. Continual exercises are also supposed to be able to help repair degraded parts of the brain and correct hormonal imbalances.

If this technology is used on young children at high -risk of developing chronic schizophrenia, Professor Merzenich believes an “illness that has plagued people from the beginning of time can probably be corrected by device-controlled exercises.” An expansive library of ‘apps’ is already on the market, designed to help individuals cope with a range of cognitive, neurological and behavioural disorders, including mood-tracking apps designed to help people with anxiety and depression by allowing them to monitor, track and reference their emotional experiences. “Technology empowers you to do things that are unimaginable and scale them. It’s like inventing neuropharmacology without having to come up with the drug stores,” says Professor Mezernich.

Digital backlash

The story is not all rosy, however. Some neuroscientists are worried that digital technology and the internet, while doubtless having positive neurological impacts, can also undermine critical mental functions when used to excess. China has already declared internet addiction a clinical disorder and has built more than 400 rehabilitation camps for treating young people. “Internet use disorder” has, since May 2013, even been included in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders – the official US document for classifying mental disorders – as a condition “recommended for further study.”

Leading neuroscientists fear that the time people spend engaged with digital and web-based technologies, is time not spent rehearsing physical and social skills. As the brain is plastic, it operates under a “use it or lose it” principle. Susan Greenfield, a British scientist and author of Mind Change, is particularly concerned by the “quantitative” shift in the amount of time we spend on screens. Young Americans spend on average more than 53 hours per week consuming entertainment media. When the use of other devices, such as mobile phones, is taken into account, young people spend on average nearly 11 hours per day engaged with a screen.

Unlike television, the internet’s presence is truly ubiquitous and immersive. Professor Greenfield argues the mind can be constantly engaged by a variety of sources from mobile phones to laptops and iPads, all vying for our attention. An environment in which people are intensively staring at screens and only using their hands and fingers is unnatural, preventing the brain from making an accurate model of the real world and of the body. This degree of physical inertia marks a, “radical change in the way the brain is engaging with the body … and there will be substantial neurological and medical consequences in future years,” says Professor Merzernich. The consequences could be more severe for younger people, particularly those growing up using digital technologies from an early age (a group referred to as ‘digital natives’ or the ‘millennials’). Young brains are more susceptible to their external environment and this generation is spending the longest amounts of time plugged in to screens.

Concerned neuroscientists point to studies that show outdoor activity is essential to healthy brain development. In a seminal experiment in the 1940s, the psychologist, Donald Hebb, compared the problem-solving capabilities of rats confined to the laboratory with rats that had been freed. Within a matter of weeks the “free-range” rats outperformed their counterparts in captivity across all problem-solving exercises . This concept, known as “environmental enrichment” asserts that exposure to new, challenging environments can lead to positive differences in the composition of the brain including; increased brain weight, increased neuron cell size and the increased thickness of the brain’s cortex.

A further area of concern is the impact on concentration. The internet and digital sphere is full of applications that compete for our attention. These distractions, Nicholas Carr believes, make the internet an “interruption system”. Human brains are unable to process the vast quantities and various sources of information, degrading the way that we learn and think. The brain has three different types of memory; short term, long-term and ‘working memory’, with the latter converting new information into long-term memories. This process is slow and requires the careful gestation of incoming information. As Carr describes, “imagine filling a bathtub with a thimble; that’s the challenge involved in transferring information from working memory into long-term memory.”

Unlike a book, which provides one continuous stream of information, the internet offers the mind many streams which can overfill the small thimble , causing what is known as “cognitive overload”. The internet also delivers a particularly rich form of media, known as “hypermedia”, which is full of audio and visual signals, including hypertext links, images, sounds and moving pictures. With these factors combined, minds struggle to convert information into long term memories.

Everything in moderation

Both the negative and positive arguments are hard to prove empirically. Brain-scanning technology is not yet developed enough to provide scientists with a detailed enough picture of neural activity. As Susan Greenfield notes, “brain scans are like old Victorian photographs that show static buildings but exclude any people or animals, which would have been moving too fast for the exposure time.”

Current experiments also lack the sophistication to separate out cause and effect. Many studies lump together internet use with watching TV and playing games, for instance. “They fail to control for social and educational factors that correlate with media use, and they provide only a single snapshot of evidence … they are purely correlational,” says Christian Jarrett, a neuroscientist and author of the book “Great Myths of the Brain”.

There is no single experiment that can be conducted which will lay the matter to rest. And given the brain’s sensitivity to external conditions it becomes nearly impossible to prove a causal relationship. As Christian Jarrett quips, “yes, the internet will change your brain but so will deciding on whether or not to have a cup of tea.”

Don Tapscott, adjunct professor of management at the Joseph L. Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto and a leading authority on innovation, believes the headlines concerning the young generation and digital technology stem from ignorance and fear. This is a unique time in history, in which children are more advanced than their parents in the operation and design of digital technologies, he argued, dismissing claims that the Internet is breeding an increasingly narcissistic youth culture.

Neuroscientists can recognise the great potential that digital technology offers in the diagnosis and treatment of brain disorders and strengthening of cognitive functions like spatial awareness and memory. But at the same time, they see the damage that excessive use of screen-based digital technologies can inflict. These technologies will have a very uneven impact across the human race, as Professor Merzenich predicts: “In some ways we’re driving the mind to new heights, and in other ways we’re carrying it into the dumpster.”