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Multi-tasking and constant use of internet, video games and "always-on" technologies may be rewiring our brains in unintended ways. By clicking and skimming our way through the internet we could be losing our ability to concentrate and contemplate–in a sense, training our minds to be more like a computer. Is the use of technology changing the way you think?


Author and speaker Nicholas Carr recently wrote in the Atlantic Monthly how the use of technology has altered the way he absorbs and processes information. In the article, "Is Google Making Us Stupid?" Carr makes the case that by consuming most of his information via a computer screen vs. the printed medium he's "not thinking the way (he) used to think," and perhaps even "remapping (his) neural circuitry."

For a writer like Carr, "the Web has been a godsend." He can now easily research topics with the click of a mouse, and spend minutes instead of hours in the library. He no longer needs to read tomes of information to find the "telltale fact or pithy quote" needed to support an argument. In a sense, the efficiency of internet search technologies brings many benefits including more productivity (due to better and faster access to information), however there are downsides as well.

By "tripping from link to link," capturing bits of information here and there, and constantly scanning internet news and information, Carr finds that he's losing the ability to concentrate and stay focused on longer pieces of writing. In the article, Carr interviews friends and other professionals who constantly use the computer. These associates report that they're also having difficulty reading articles of more than 2-3 paragraphs and often find they're skimming more than deeply reading.

Dr. Gary Small is a Professor of Psychiatry & Bio-behavioral Sciences, and Director of the UCLA Center on Aging. He is also the author of "iBrain: Surviving the Technological Alteration of the Modern Mind." Via letter to the editor of Atlantic Monthly, Dr. Small agreed with Nicholas Carr's observations.

He writes, "The average young person spends more than eight hours each day using technology (computers, PDAs, TV, videos), and much less time engaging in direct social contact. Our UCLA brain-scanning studies are showing that such repeated exposure to technology alters brain circuitry, and young developing brains (which usually have the greatest exposure) are the most vulnerable. Instead of the traditional generation gap, we are witnessing the beginning of a brain gap that separates digital natives, born into 24/7 technology, and digital immigrants, who came to computers and other digital technology as adults."

In the letter to the editor, Dr. Small continues, "Today, video-game brain, Internet addiction, and other technology side effects appear to be suppressing frontal-lobe executive skills and our ability to communicate face-to-face. Instead, our brains are developing circuitry for online social networking and are adapting to a new multitasking technology culture."

So, our brains are "re-wiring" and adapting to how we're using technologies, but this begs the question; "Is this rewiring of our brains a positive change?"

I found Dr. Small's letter to the editor very intriguing and thus I contacted him for a few follow up questions.

When asked about the effects of too much technology on the brain, Dr. Small said, "Tech users may increase their hand-eye coordination, peripheral vision and reaction time. Research has found that surgeons who regularly play video games make fewer errors in the operating room. Potential negative effects include increased frequency of errors from multi-tasking, worsening of attention, the risk of technology addiction, and a decline in face-to-face human contact abilities."
Many of us are well down the path of too much technology usage. We're addicted to our Blackberries, inboxes, PSPs, and YouTube. What if we deem the costs outweigh the benefits? What if we want to stop? Is the rewiring of our brains reversible?

"The brain is malleable at any age so we can continue to rewire our brains in ways that improve our lives," Dr. Small says. "The best approach is to make sure that we are spending enough time off-line, both with other people and on our own. The lure of technology can present a daily challenge for many people so scheduling regular breaks and learning ways to reduce stress and increase focus are helpful too."

Questions:
* Do you find that constant use of technology is changing the way you think? Positively or negatively?
* Have you noticed a dramatic shift in your online vs. offline reading?
* Technology is surely making us more efficient, but with too much technology are we also training our minds to be more "robotic"?
* In the Atlantic Monthly article, the founders of Google have suggested that humanity would be better off if we had "all the world's information directly attached to (the) brain" via interface or implant and of course, supplied by Google. How much technology is too much? When will we know when we've crossed "the line" between benefit and harm?
Related post: Are Web 2.0 Tools Dumbing Us Down?

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Paul Barsch directs services marketing programs for Teradata, the world's largest data warehousing and analytics company. Previously, Paul was marketing director for HP Enterprise Services $1.3 billion healthcare industry and a senior marketing manager at global consultancy, BearingPoint. Paul is a senior contributor to MarketingProfs, a frequent columnist for MarketingProfs DailyFix, and has published over fifteen articles in marketing, management, technology and healthcare publications. Paul earned his Bachelors of Science in Business Administration from California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo. He and his family reside in San Diego, CA.