Using Your Phone Is Changing Your Brain

We look at one another, nod and smile in agreement. Smirking confidently, we pile our smartphones, tablets and wearable tech in the centre of the cocktail-bar table. The rule is simple: the first to lunge for their pocket partner settles the tab. Yay, I think, free drinks; until, one glass down, I can’t remember Salma Hayek’s husband’s name. Google beckons, and I reach. Why? Was my reach a reflex? Has my phone changed my brain? In short, the answer to this question looks pretty clear-cut: everything we encounter in our daily lives (from driving a car to eating tofu for the first time) changes our brains, for better or for worse (tofu). So yes, most neuroscientists will tell you, tech inevitably changes your brain. The real question is one of degree, and what the changes imply. W H O ’ S G O I N G T O P A Y F O R THE NEXT ROUND? ELLE_Buzz iBrain.indd 69 2015/02/01 2:44 PM @ELLEmagazineSA 70 BUZZ The question of brain change is an area of study growing in popularity, but it’s still fairly new.

‘Neuroplasticity’, the sub-discipline dedicated to find out how, why, when and in whom brain change occurs, arose only 120 years ago. But what I wonder is, on the surface, a simpler question: is technology changing me from the inside out? Is my iDependency the result of some sinister inner shift, my FOMO (fear of missing out) being programmed into my neurons, and my urge to Google an inevitable result of its being at my fingertips 24/7? In short, is my phone making me stupid? For Susan Greenfield, a British neuroscientist, the answer is simple. For years, she has been warning about what she sees as the dangers of our techdependent lives, echoing the alarm familiar to many parents about the danger of video games for ‘rotting brains’, but also touching on the more insidious effects of our smartphones’ move from office to pocket to personal life.

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Her main concern? That smartphones and social networks force us to live a digital facsimile of reality, an avatar of the meaningful days of old, frying our memories, impairing our functioning, and generally making us dense (and possibly dangerous – think the post-Columbine rebellion against violent video games, the insinuations that the murderous teens were merely mimicking their actions in first-person shooter games). After reading her latest book, Mind Change, I was alarmed, and rushed to consult three leading neuroscientists. ‘Help,’ I said. ‘I reached, I didn’t mean to, but I did, so I read a book and now I’m scared I’m stupid and it is all my tablet’s fault.’ Credit to them, none of them laughed, but instead invited me into a conversation about the pros and cons of the age of the internet.

And what they had to say was fascinating. But first let’s look at how the age of the smartphone has changed our behaviour. We experience FOMO: like never before, we experience sometimes ridiculous degrees of ‘grass is greener’ syndrome, and – because we’re all far too vain to post the nasty bits of life online – we simply feed each other’s envy with our perfect online lives. Was the party as good as the Mayfair -filtered avant garde snaps suggest? No? Didn’t think so. Our tech-dependency aects our experience of intimacy, both positively and negatively: connecting couples separated by continents on Skype, but driving a beeping, vibrating wedge between a two people on a romantic date. iDisorders are a thing: from ‘phantom vibration syndrome’ (that sense we all too often get where we think we feel our phone ringing in our bag/pocket/ purse when really, it isn’t), to the undeniable rise of narcissism in our online social lives (selfies, statuses, the desire to accumulate ‘likes’). For many of us, a veritable trove of problematic psychological side eects come as part and parcel of the demands of our modern life. But do these psychological quirks have physiological roots?

Those of us who belong to the iGeneration, now in our 20s, will have spent more than 30 000 hours online, all of those in a period when our brains were developing. Tech has changed our mental reflexes and habits and how we learn and absorb information: but it hasn’t slowed us down. ‘The brain is the most complex object in the universe, the most powerful supercomputer ever to exist,’ says Dr Richard Roche, a researcher in the psychology department at Ireland’s Maynooth University, ‘and now we have a means to access pretty much any piece of information we desire, for minimal cost, from almost anywhere. Those two things – our brains and our devices – have the potential to create a formidable team, to allow us to push the boundaries of human creativity and inquisitiveness.’ A far cry from the brain-rot prediction and condemnation I had expected. In fact, when I confronted my ad hoc panel, I was overwhelmed by the benefits of tech for our beautiful minds.

For instance, it turns out that the hours Beloved spends twiddling his thumbs on Fifa help him ‘THOSE TWO THINGS – OUR BRAINS AND OUR DEVICES – HAVE THE POTENTIAL TO CREATE A FORMIDABLE TEAM’ ELLE_Buzz iBrain.indd 70 2015/01/31 11:50 AM @ELLEmagazineSA 71 BUZZ Use your phone as a tool, not a toy. Set aside tech-free zones: the diningroom table, the bedroom … allocate some space in your home to be a haven for uninterrupted, face-to-face (real) interaction. Establish a transition zone between screen and sleep: make sure you allow at least 10 minutes between when you last check Twitter/Gmail/Facebook and when you put head to pillow. This is important to give your brain a chance to ‘cool’ down after a whole day of constant stimulation. Don’t Just Reduce or Remove. Replace: when you use your phone less, you’re sure to feel a void. So, to avoid succumbing to your urge to trawl Twitter, make a cup of tea, read a book or water the garden – diversion is key. Less is more. Unfollow people who aren’t your real friends, unsubscribe from unwanted email lists, and delete apps you don’t use.

Also, turn off push notifications – fewer notifications equal fewer excuses to look at your phone. Charge your phone in a room where you’re not! So, if you’re in the bedroom, charge it in the kitchen, and if you are in your living room, plug it in somewhere in your spare room. This creates a perfect hour or so of time out from your cell. TIPS TO MANAGE YOUR TECH WE SIMPLY FEED EACH OTHER’S ENVY WITH OUR PERFECT ONLINE LIVES to process visual information more quickly and eciently. We’re also far more sensitive to visual icons than previous generations, and we’re better scanners of information and more visually literate. Now, the neuroscientists had their individual concerns. Professor Ron Frostig of the University of California in Los Angeles wondered: ‘If people can get addicted to jogging, porn and poker, why not technology that enables them to satisfy a compulsive need to disconnect from their environment for what they perceive as a better environment? Or just to feel connected to others?’ Dr Jim Taylor of the University of California at Berkeley believed it useful to see the changes in our brain caused by tech use as inevitable rather than alarming. But a common thread ran through our conversations: potential. Humans and technology together have tons of wonderful potential to make progress. No brain rot involved. But for this to happen, we have to be aware of how we use tech.

We need to work harder to let our brains cool down – to impose a period between using devices and nodding o. In the ‘olden days’ (before television, even), there was almost always a transition period between our awake and alert, stimulated daytime state and our quieter, pre-sleep state. This is no longer the case. And as any of us who regularly nod o with the OLED iPhone glow still reflecting o our drowsy eyelids will know, we are now stimulated right until we sleep. What to do? As the symmetry of trends and counter-trends would have it, we seem, as a techsaturated society, to be feeling the need to put the brakes on all by ourselves.

And so, as the world becomes more intrinsically intertwined with tech, the mindfulness movement is growing too. Mindfulness has quietly and concertedly asserted itself as the 21st-century ‘treatment’ for techobsessiveness and ‘Twitter ADD’: the flurry of research into, and growing public enthusiasm for, this brand of meditation is testimony to the fact that we’re already combating the bad side-eects of life online. On a personal level, it’s about learning to set your own boundaries with tech and online. Whether it’s she who types swipes, or a phone bucket at the family dinner table, we’re already – unwittingly – creating tech-free zones to keep the iDisorders in check and minimise the fallout from possible internet and social media overload. All that’s left, once the limits are imposed, is to capitalise on the opportunities: come on ladies, time to Fifa.

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