Change of Mind: How Technology is Wiring Our Brains

“Mind change is a phenomenon whose enormity and impact is comparable to climate change.” – Susan Greenfield, Mind Change

Have you ever thought about how your phone might be impacting your memory or sense of direction?

Our phones have become in essence another part of our brains. Amazingly we’re able to outsource mental tasks to our devices, creating a seamless extension of our encephalon. “A study has shown that if people know information is available on the Internet, they begin forgetting it - including their address and phone number.”[1] Personally, I’ve found myself hopelessly disoriented without Google Maps, turning to my phone calculator for basic arithmetic, and writing down everything in the notes app in order to remember it.

But our brains didn’t always have these tools to rely on. The Odyssey, for example, is a 123,581-word epic poem that was passed down verbally for thousands of years by aoidos (epic poets) before ever being written down. In Homers day, long-term memory was necessary for encoding and transferring information. Our brains actually started outsourcing memory as soon as we developed writing. 

Some humans today, those who have specifically trained their memory, are capable of similar feats - such as huffaz, who memorize the entire Quran, or modern memory competitors. But we no longer use this capacity for memory on a regular basis, and so our brains are happy to outsource to our tools. 

The old saying, “If you don’t use it, you lose it,directly applies to our brains, which outsource tasks to our smartphones, freeing up space and using less energy. The jelly-like mesh of neurons already uses 20% of our energy as is, and our brains try to minimize this as much as possible. When we have tools to do something (like remember phone numbers), we get worse at it because we offload the task to our tools. 

This is just one example of the ways in which technology is changing our minds. We interact so heavily with it on a day-to-day basis that it’s easy to forget that this is all new to our species. The iPhone app “Moment” tells me that I’ve spent 15% of my waking hours on my phone this past week. Most people spend even more time plugged into their palms. A Kiser Foundation study found that on average children are exposed to 7.5 hours of digital and video sensory stimulation per day.[2] Compare this to our ancestors, who had much much fewer stimuli – an occasional sing-along around the campfire for entertainment. Our brains were designed to pay attention to interesting content, and now it’s everywhere.

The cost of sitting in front of screens isn’t immediately clear. There are no violent outbursts or anything of the sort. In fact, I’ve observed parents giving their kids an iPad to placate them at a restaurant. But the resulting brain change from all this technology use should be reason for concern.

The technologies that we use on a daily basis, from our smartphones to our computers are wiring our brains to constantly need stimulation, giving us shorter attention spans and lessening our ability to communicate in person with each other as humans. We have become so depend on our “tools” that you might think that they are using us, and not the other way around.

Children are especially vulnerable since their minds are most pliable and suggestible (neural pruning and myelination are especially prevalent at this stage in life). Ideally we want our minds to serve us – in other words, be capable of creative problem solving, relationships and positive thought. But if we wire them to constantly need instant gratification via technology, then we begin to feel helplessly addicted. 

One solution is to unplug from devices as much as possible, limiting them to use as tools instead of entertainment. For example, I have a rule whereby I avoid using electronics between the hours of 8pm and 10am if possible. When I do use my devices, I “batch” emails and other mandatory tasks so that they are performed all at once, rather than filling every gap of free time in my life. Although you may choose a less extreme route, you’ll notice that less time spent needlessly flitting between apps can make a huge difference in the way your brain perceives the surrounding world.

PS - Claim a free trial of the FitMind meditation app here.