13 March 2013

Are we being rewired?
The digital age has already changed the way we shop, work and play. But what effect is it having on us as a species?

It's becoming harder to concentrate: In The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains, Nicholas Carr quotes a research project at Stanford University in which cognitive tests were given to a group of 'heavy media multitaskers' and to a group of 'relatively light' multitaskers.  The heavy multitaskers were much more easily distracted by 'irrelevant environmental stimuli' and less able to maintain their concentration on a particular task.

On the plus side, younger people today have skills their predecessors lacked.  They are adept at finding and filtering information, responding to stimuli and doing fast, incisive analysis.  As 'digital natives' who have grown up with the internet, they are used to technological change while 'digital immigrants', who grew up before the internet, find it hard to keep up.

Thanks to the digitisation of our contact books,  we can no longer remember phone numbers.  According to recent research, one third of Britons under 30 can't event remember their own number.  And it's now so easy to find information via the internet that we're getting worse at remembering any facts at all.  People struggle more than ever before to retain information (thus the popularity of quizzes?!!).

Thanks to the superficial way we consume information, we're becoming less empathetic.  MRI scans have shown that when we read something closely, the areas of the brain that light up are not just those associated with attention, but also those involved in movement and touch.  This suggests that when we immerse ourselves in a piece of writing like a novel, we put ourselves in other people's shoes.  When we read something superficially, we don't.

A survey published earlier this year found that 40% of 18-30 year olds are unable to navigate without the aid of a satnav device.  Other basic practical skills are vanishing too.  Far fewer young people use joined up writing , with more using block capitals, like a child.

Constant communication makes you anxious, especially if you monitor emails, text messages, status updates as closely as the average teenager. It creates  'a terrific anxiety about being out of the loop.  This even has a name FOMO - 'fear of missing out'.

Today, osteopaths do a roaring trade treating 'text neck' and 'iPod shoulder'.  But RSI will soon be thing of the past; these are symptoms of a technology that will quickly be superseded.  Within ten years, thanks to 'wearable' smartphones, we will be operating screens of all kinds far less.  Instead, everything we presently see on computers, games consoles, tablets or smartphones will be projected in front of our eyes and we'll use hand gestures and voice commands instead of keyboards, mouse clicks or iPhone 'swipes'.

An experiment showed how the web can change our brains in a matter of hours.  Twelve experienced web users and 12 novices used Google while their brains were scanned.  In the area called the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, which deals with short-term memory and decision-making, the newcomers showed hardly any activity, whereas the web veterans lit up the screen.  Six days later, after the novices had been told to spend an hour a day online, the two groups' brain scans were virtually identical.
Many studies have shown the internet is addictive, with one demonstration brain changes in heavy web users similar to those hooked on drugs or alcohol.  Other studies have shown changes in the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain responsible for decision making and self-control.  One psychiatrist has even identified a condition he calls Facebook Additional Disorder.  Symptoms include: letting Facebook interfere with your sleep or work, spending more than one hour a day on the site and being filled with fear or panic at the thought of deleting your account.

The internet is in danger of turning us into a national of 'cyberchondriacs'.  Before Google, researchers estimated that up to 13% of patients in doctors' surgeries were hypochondriacs.  Now GPs estimate a day a week is spent dealing with patients who have diagnosed themselves online.  Last year, worldwide sales of mobile health apps reached £85m.

The types of friends we make is changing.  Shartphone apps now send you an alert when they detect people nearby with whom you share interests.  As this phenomenon intensifies, our circle of friends will increase but those friends will come from a narrower cross-section of society.  We'll become more tribal and less exposed to people with interests or beliefs different from our own.

A study found that members of the digital generation are learning to socialise differently.  They discovered students prefer to text a classmate down the hall  rather than talk in person because it's 'less risky' and 'less awkward'.  So they don't learn how to read facial expressions or navigate 'real world' social situations.

The skills required for video games are being harnessed to useful ends in education, health and even geo-politics.  The US Navy has already used their Massive Multiplayer Online War Game Leveraging the Internet (MMOWGU) to crowd-source strategies for comating Somali pirates.  And a recent study of Italian medical students found that an hour of Nintendo Wii a day made them much better surgeons.

The internet encourages procrastination.  According to research collated, The number of people admitting to procrastination has risen from 15% in 1978 to 60% today.  It can't be blamed entirely on the internet but we work in 'motivationally toxic' environments.  At the flip of the wrist, there's YouTube, chat rooms, jokes, humour - whatever's your poison, it's all our there.

Searching and browsing on the internet exercises the brain in a way that is similar to solving a crossword puzzle.  Apparently this stimulating keeps older people's minds sharp.

The way we communicate is making us worse people to be around. We are ruder.  An report found that 51% of adults and 65% of teenagers say they have used their smartphone while socialising.  We may be in danger if we are creating an environment for the next generation where a premium isn't put on eye contact, body language and hugging someone.

Even the way we die is changing 'digital estate handling' is a boom industry.  Companies store clients' passwords to their email, eBay or social media accounts and give these to a designated loved one after the client dies.  Other sites create customised online grave sites.  Loved ones can add 'tribute gifts' such as roses, candles, stuffed animals and other items, while mourners can access photos and videos in a 'Memory Book'.

Taken from an article in the Sunday Telegraph Seven magazine, 10.3.2013.

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