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Is technology eating up your brain?

  • Published at 07:04 pm July 19th, 2018
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Photo: Bigstock

Smartphones and apps make life so much easier, but at what cost?

There is no doubt that life without technology is inadmissible. From setting up the morning alarm, to ordering an Uber, to scrolling through social media and replying to emails - technology encompasses almost all aspects of our everyday life. However, the cost of relying too much on technology is inadvertently paid by the human psyche. What seems like a trivial addiction may actually be causing immedicable damage to the brain. 'Digital Dementia' refers to the disintegration of cognitive abilities such as short-time memory loss, logic and reasoning and our motor skills. Cognitive abilities are brain-based skills that we require to carry out tasks ranging from the simplest to the most complex. This term was instigated by German neuroscientist Manfred Spitzer, in his 2012 book, “Digitale Demenz”. He proposes several other negative impacts of digital dementia including anxiety, developmental delay, learning disorders, autism spectrum disorders, sleep disorders and increased rates of ADHD.

The neurological consequences of the digital realm was not anticipated by the world as it gradually incorporated into people's’ lives. The human brain is highly vulnerable to manipulation by the tools involved in digital addiction. Hence, certain groups of erudite people have exploited this opportunity to engineer digital addiction for commerce and profit. Astute app developers across the globe have capitalized by using human neurology and psychology strategies to abuse the brain’s inclination towards pleasure-seeking activities. Contrary to what you may be thinking, you’re not a victim of this addiction because you’re weak-willed. You’re only succumbing to this addiction as certain tech experts created systems designed to distract the human brain. These systems are used to get people hooked and profit off of them. For instance, one of the ways Facebook and Instagram function is by providing them with incentives, such as likes and shares. This is how they sustain audience retention, as users keep coming back to check their posts and statuses. Even mobile games these days are designed to have no pre-defined ends, perpetually drawing in the users. 

The brain’s ‘plasticity’ refers to its ability to create pathways of communication. It allows the brain to modify itself and understand beneficial behaviour. The human brain also has the unique ability to recover itself or enhance certain abilities. For example, if an individual loses one of their ability to see, the brain will counteract this by gradually enhancing the sense of smell or hearing. However, the overuse of the digital media gravely restrains this phenomenon. The constant flow of neurological rewards that the Internet offers — notifications from Facebook, Snapchat, Instagram and Twitter — hampers the plasticity of the brain. Thanks to our digital companions, we no longer have to remember anything, including directions, appointments, phone numbers and even grocery shopping lists. Unrestrained use of devices can develop the left side of the brain at a higher rate than the right side, which is linked to memory, concentration and emotion. Hence, overdevelopment of the left side while neglecting the right side can worsen your brain’s health.

A Kaiser Foundation Study found that elementary age children averaged 7.5 hours a day using entertainment technology. In another study, about 50 percent of parents surveyed said their children aged from 0-3 years old had some sort of technology to stay entertained. This means that children, ranging from infants to young teenagers are overexposed to technology such as computers, tablets, phones and gaming consoles. This leads to their daily lives being heavily intertwined with technology and screens, almost to the extent where they are incapable of imagining lives without electronic devices. These children are coaxed into living in the confinements of technology. A study of video gamers and non-video gamers found a link between heavy video game use and a reduction of grey matter in the hippocampus - the part of the brain that helps to form memories and facilitates learning - which induces greater chances of developing conditions like schizophrenia, depression, and PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder). Due to this, effects of digital dementia can be observed at very young ages, eventually leading up to adulthood.

In the contemporary world, convenience subsists on technology. The flood of information and the constant stream of notifications is always at arm’s length. And while technology keeps us connected to the “real” world, its overuse brings about an onslaught of psychological repercussions: degeneration of mental capacity, decline in memory, stunted emotional growth in children, higher risks of Alzheimer’s, along with poor concentration, and shorter attention span. The common symptoms of digital dementia include difficulty in recognizing faces, an impaired sense of direction, and an inability to recall names and numbers. It may also induce postural disorders, especially amongst children, such the forward head posture, where looking down at screens for extended durations produce a fixed curvature of the neck, causing the head to slump forward. In the initial stages these symptoms may go unnoticed, but with time and age, digital dementia can have grave consequences.

The good news is counteracting digital dementia is simple: limit your use of technology. The notion of avoiding technology may seem implausible, as for many of us it is essential to our work. But try unplugging after work, or over the weekends. Give your eyes a rest from the screens. Engage in a real conversation instead of texting. Read a book, instead of a kindle. Use a pen and paper to jot down notes, rather than relying on your phone. Develop new hobbies which don’t involve the use of technology. Mindful use of technology has the ability to obstruct the growth of digital dementia, or possibly even reverse it.