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Tech is Good, Tech is Great, But Will Your Brain Deteriorate?

I don’t want to poop on anyone’s parade. I’m not the anti-Techrist or the diginazi- but I do have concerns about how much humankind depends on technology. From making friends, finding love to parallel parking the tech boom we’ve blasted through over the last decade has moved much faster than we’ve had time to get used to. This has undoubtedly affected our brains. We are exposing our grey matter to a highly-evolved environment and asking it to do things for which it hasn’t had the chance to adapt.

tech overload
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Yes, technology has brought about many improvements to society and even shown us that the brain can continue to grow and learn as we get older. But here are some of the most widely used technologies and the possible damages they can do to your biological supercomputer.

Facebook Killed the Face-to-Face Star

anti-social networking

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Have you ever noticed  the most ardent social networkers aren’t quite the social butterflies when it comes to off-screen interactions? Coincidence, it is not. Oxford University neuroscientist Susan Greenfield, perhaps the most prominent researcher in the field of social networking and the physiology of the brain, claims that “social networking could lead to short attention spans, sensationalism, inability to empathize, and a shaky sense of identity.”

Especially in the case of adolescents, she worries that sites like Facebook, Twitter and MySpace present a filter/alternative to real exchanges and this can be harmful to an adolescent’s social development. It’s already difficult enough for most adolescents to comfortably interact with one another, but Greenfield worries they’ll use the filter of online chats as a crutch and never develop proper social and communication skills.

She says,

“I often wonder whether real conversation in real time may eventually give way to these sanitized and easier screen dialogues, in much the same way as killing, skinning and butchering an animal to eat has been replaced by the convenience of packages of meat on the supermarket shelf… Perhaps future generations will recoil with similar horror at the messiness, unpredictability and immediate personal involvement of a three-dimensional, real-time interaction.”

But it Feels So Damn Good

Other research into social networking’s effects on the brain, conducted by neuroeconomist Paul Zak shows that social networking can also trigger the release of the feel-good hormone oxytocin. Oxytocin releases feelings of affection and love, generosity and empathy.

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Fast Company contributing writer Adam Penenberg volunteered to be a test subject in Zak’s study which consisted of three experiments designed to determine the relationship between social media and oxytocin. In the third experiment, Penenberg’s blood levels were monitored while he was tweeting via TweetDeck on his laptop.  Penenberg stated, “In those 10 minutes between blood batches one and two, my oxytocin levels spiked 13.2%.” That was equivalent to the hormonal spike experienced by the groom at a wedding Zak attended. Moreover, while his oxytocin levels spiked, his stress hormones significantly declined.

Conclusion: Social media makes us feel good, but it seems to have many of the same effects as a drug.

Where Am I? Who Am I? Avid GPS Use Can Wipe Out Your Memory Banks

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UPDATE: Neurological researcher Veronique Bohbot and her colleagues at Montreal’s McGill University, released three studies on the effect GPS has on the human brain. Their results suggest that avid GPS use may reduce hippocampus function as we age. conducted a series of studies to see if making better use of our hippocampus could reduce the risk of dementia.The hippocampus is the part of the brain involved in memory and navigation processes and is also one of the first areas of the brain to be affected by Alzheimer’s disease.

There are two major ways of navigating: spatial navigation (using visual landmarks to tell us where we are) or by stimulus-response methods (turning at certain places because of repetition, as though on auto-pilot). The latter is most familiar to those using GPS. Bohbot said she does have fears that reducing the use of spatial navigation strategies may lead to earlier onset of Alzheimer’s or dementia.

Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scans were taken of older adults who were GPS and non-GPS users. In her lab, Bohbot and her team used virtual navigation to conduct a series of studies. It was shown that in healthy older adults those who used spatial navigation strategies had increased activity and a greater volume of grey matter in the hippocampus. The study indicated that who used GPS-like stimulus-response could be at risk for showing atrophy of the hippocampus over time.

“These results are in agreement with the literature showing that the first symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease involve problems with spatial orientation as well as the literature that shows that decreased volume in the hippocampus is a risk factor for conversion from mild cognitive impairment to Alzheimer’s disease.” says Bohbot.

Notably, an earlier study conducted by researchers at the University of London showed that London taxi drivers who spent three years learning their way around London by spatial methods rather than GPS had a region of the hippocampus that was significantly larger compared to the general population and even bus drivers.

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During the study, the hippocampus was only active when the taxi drivers initially planned their route, or if they had to completely change their destination during the course of the journey. Another part of the brain helped taxi drivers to track how close they were to the endpoint of their journey.

Conclusion: Restrict GPS use to finding your way to a new destination and focus on building mental maps for places you already know. It may improve your memory in the long run and even extend your life!

Cell Phone Radiation May Cause Brain Cancer (At Least… That’s What They’re Saying Now)

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The debate about cell phones causing brain cancer and damaging DNA has been an ongoing issue and it’s quite difficult to know where to stand. On the one hand, you have a four-country study which took place in Denmark, Finland (home of Nokia), Norway and Sweden (home of Ericsson) which found no increase in brain tumor diagnoses from 1998 to 2003. But then this new research presented by Devra Davis, the founding director of the Toxicology and Environmental Studies board at the U.S. National Academy of Sciences claims the most popular gadget of our time has been shown to damage DNA, break down the brain’s defenses, and reduce sperm count while increasing memory loss, the risk of Alzheimer’s disease, and cancer. Davis’ warns that the growing brains of children make them especially vulnerable.

Way to leave us nonplussed, scientists!

While I’m not sure I am going to completely jump on board with this theory, I do think it’s better to be safe than sorry. Although short-term exposure is almost unanimously agreed to be quite harmless, long-term cell phone use tells a different story. Three studies since 1999 indicate that people who have used cell phones for more than a decade may have as much as three times greater risk of developing brain tumors on the side of the head which they most often hold their phone.
Conclusion: Limit the number and length of calls, restrict childrens’ cell phone use, communicate by text instead of voice, and make sure to switch ears from time to time!

Information Overload & Multitasking: Fitter, Happier, More Productive?

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I work in computers and was unsurprised to find out that computer users at work change windows, check e-mails or other programs nearly 37 times an hour. A study from the University of California claims that we last, on average three minutes at work before something interrupts us. Again, something I can attest to first-hand.

A person who is interrupted takes 50% longer to accomplish a task. Not only that, he or she makes up to 50% more errors.

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Scientists say juggling e-mail, phone calls and other incoming information can change how people think and behave. Will our social lives eventually need to be managed like an online CRM? They say our ability to focus is being undermined by bursts of information. As author Richard Watson of the book Future Minds: How the Digital Age is Changing our Minds, Why this Matters and What We Can Do About It writes:

“We have developed a culture of instant digital gratification in which there is always something to do–although, ironically, we never seem to be entirely satisfied with what we end up choosing.”

Though Internet addiction is not yet a globally recognized medical condition, 5-10% of Internet users say they are “dependent,” according to the Computer Addiction Center at Harvard’s McLean Hospital.

And, while many people say multitasking makes them more productive, research shows that heavy multitaskers actually have more trouble focusing and shutting out irrelevant information, and experience more stress.

Even after the multitasking ends, fractured thinking and lack of focus persist. “Technology rewires our brains” says Nora Volkow, one of the world’s leading brain scientists. She claims however, “that the lure of digital stimulation is less to that of drugs and alcohol than to food and sex, which are essential, but counterproductive in excess”.


Change is inevitable and every generation has had to adapt to it in one way or another. At this point, I would like to quote Robert Roy Britt the Managing Editor at Live Science who expresses his concerns about the effects of technology on modern society quite beautifully:

“Every generation adapts to change, and the brain gets used for different purposes[…]Yet I worry about my children and what skills they’ll develop spending hours a day either on a computer, using a cell phone to talk or text or surf (while driving?!) or watching TV, and whether all that activity will enhance their well being, help them make lifelong friendships, find a mate, get a job. Teens have always hidden out (in the woods, under the grandstands, or in their rooms), but now, thanks to their various electronic social networks, a cell phone and perhaps a laptop tuned to Hulu, they can truly become hermits, harder than ever to coax out. The dinner bell, long ago replaced with a shout down the hallway, has now given way to an evening SMS.”

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