Is technology reshaping our future and our brains?

effects of smartphones

Never before have we kept any piece of technology so close to us as our smartphones. They accompany us more than any friend, pet or romantic partner. They entertain us, teach us, and connect us. Since the World Health Organisation believes that there are over 6.9 billion phone subscriptions worldwide, these devices could be seen as a major step towards a utopian future of infinite communication. But what are the effects of smartphones?

Just as Aristotle believed that the introduction of writing to the western world would make people lose memory power, there are those of us today who fear digital technology. We frequently see articles with titles such as ‘Is the digital age rewiring us?’ or ‘8 Ways Technology Makes You Stupid’ – ironically alongside articles demonstrating the life-changing benefits of the upcoming iPhone or revealing that school exam pass-rates are getting higher year upon year.

This conflict suggests that we haven’t yet reached consensus on the effects of smartphones and Internet use. Nor are we likely to any time soon. How can you research the lasting damage of technologies that have only been around for a few years? In the short-term, at least, research is suggesting that modern technology is indeed changing our brains – but maybe not in the horror-movie ‘rewiring’ we may expect.

Effects of smartphones on behaviour

Scientists at University of Zurich, ETH Zurich, and University of Fribourg found that smartphone users have an “enhanced” sensory link between their thumbs and somatosensory cortical activity compared to non-users. But it seems that exercising these parts of our brains will neither render us stupid nor make us superheroes: the researchers also note the same effect in the brains of string instrument players. So maybe we’re not being any more ‘rewired’ by using smartphones than by using any new tool.

Despite inconclusive scientific research, we can see for ourselves that things have changed – smartphones allow us to multitask at almost any time. Activate’s Michael J. Wolf’s research suggests this gives us an extra 7.5 hours in our day. And in our busy world, that extra time is precious.

However, research by Glenn Wilson, former visiting Psychology professor at Gresham College, suggests that seeing that little ‘(1)’ notification when we receive a new message while doing other tasks can effectively reduce our IQ by 10 points. ‘Should I check that message?’ we think. ‘What does it say? Am I available if someone is asking me if I’m free tonight?’ Responding to the message will then provide you with a hit of dopamine (that’s why we’re so addicted to messaging). So technology could be said to give us little doses of happiness – even if they do distract us as a result. Maybe we do still need to learn how to multitask effectively, but then nobody’s perfect… (yet).

Effects of smartphones on memory

Even our long-term memory is changing thanks to the ‘Google effect’. Harvard, Columbia and Wisconsin studies show that our recall is significantly worse when we know we can look up the answer later. But it is also suggested that knowing how to get exactly what answers we want from our tech is a new kind of super-power. Anthropologist Dr Genevieve Bell says that “being able to create a well-formed question is an act of intelligence, as you quickly work out what information you want to extract and identify the app to help achieve this.” In other words, tech-savvy generations know what they want and how to get it.

On top of this, Betsy Sparrow, assistant professor in Psychology at Columbia University, believes that if educators don’t move with the times and still force people to memorise facts the old fashioned way, they do it at the “expense of [students] understanding the concepts.” The fact that most students are no longer forced to learn entire Latin poems or American Presidents by rote is a good thing. Since we now use the Internet as a transactive memory-bank for these kinds of facts, our brains – and our time – can be freed up for greater comprehension and creativity. So while some modern Aristotles believe that treating the Internet as ‘external memory’ will harm our mental powers, others like Sparrow view this phenomenon positively.

Scientists may come to prove these technophobias right or wrong and show the real effects of smartphones. Many of these concerns may dissipate as digital generations achieve success in jobs their older relatives could have never imagined existing: did your parents imagine you would be a Social Media Manager – or a Youtuber? As we offload more and more of life’s burdens onto devices, who knows what potential will be unlocked in us by new technologies.

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Read more from Sophie: mCRM: Wooing your users with push notifications and The Future is Now, So What About Tomorrow?

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