TechPsyche: are our brains in bits?

Most of us now spend almost every waking moment online, surfing and texting, messaging and updating. But what toll is this taking on our health, our attention spans and our facility for learning? Vision reports

As a couple sit down at a restaurant, their phones are placed carefully on the table like a glowing side plate. They are happy to interrupt conversation to answer texts, emails, tweets or Facebook comments. Somewhere else in the world, people are waking up. But they are not gently easing themselves into the day. They are immediately reaching for their iPads and smartphones, voraciously checking their social networking streams.

All very 21st-century images, and easily brushed aside as unimportant by-products of the way we live our hyperconnected lives. But a new book by Dr Larry Rosen, Professor Of Psychology at California State University, suggests that such obsession with technology is actually affecting our behaviour and personalities. He leaves the reader in no doubt as to his fears. The book is called iDisorder, and the first chapter is titled “Why Are We All Acting Crazy?”.

“And I include myself in that,” he laughs. “Right now, I have nine tabs on my screen. There’s Twitter, Facebook, Google+, my blog, three different email accounts. And I’m pretty selective. And through our research we found that people using these technologies were displaying obsessive, addictive or narcissistic behaviours.”

Tied to technology

These psychological problems, Rosen thinks, began when mobile phones ceased being used for their primary purpose – making calls or sending texts – and became smartphones. The problem is they are now so useful it has become almost impossible to envisage life without them. And yet all that most of these technologies are really doing is, as science fiction writer Cory Doctorow once memorably wrote, creating an “ecosystem of interruption technologies”.

“Right,” agrees Rosen. “We call it ‘continuous partial attention’. We are being distracted all the time, but for what purpose? And we’re starting to see in research that the people who know the right time to be distracted are doing better. We did a test where we brought a bunch of people into a classroom and showed them a movie. We kept texting them during it, and those who didn’t respond did much better when we tested them on the movie. Two grade levels higher, in fact.”

Rosen compares his test to the famous Stanford marshmallow experiment of 1972, where young children were given a marshmallow, but promised two on the condition that they wait 20 minutes before eating the first one. It became a stand-out behavioural experiment in the study of deferred gratification, and fascinatingly when the children grew up the ones who were able to delay eating the marshmallows did better in life.

“And that is really what we’re talking about with technology’s hold over us, too,” says Rosen. “If you can train yourself to know when there is a good time to answer a text or an email, or to check your timelines, then you will learn and function better as a human being. It’s really not good for our psychological or physical health to live under this cloud of intensity based on constant partial attention. The constant anxiety we might feel when we’re not connected doesn’t help either.”

The sense that we should be concerned about the digital, tech-heavy future we are creating for ourselves was also tapped into by the blogger, journalist and author Nicholas Carr in his Pulitzer prize-nominated book The Shallows. After realising that immersing himself in a book was becoming increasingly more difficult, his concentration drifting as he found himself jumping back to a computer screen to check emails, Carr began to understand “with some concern that perhaps all the time I had spent online had in effect trained my brain to be distracted, to want to have its attention divided”. What if, Carr asked, how we read and consume media online is actually changing the very way we think?

Brain training

“By constantly skimming the net for information,” explains Carr, “the brain slowly loses the capacity to process material deeply, which is crucial if we want to acquire or maintain knowledge.”

What is interesting about Rosen and Carr is that they are not Luddites who wish to turn the clock back on technological progress. They both admit to being big users of new technologies for decades.

And while Rosen and Carr are writing from an American standpoint, Nicole El Marj, from the Human Relations Institute based at Dubai Knowledge Village, notes that the fundamental problems are essentially the same the world over: people have increasingly become more dependent on technology, which can easily lead to health issues.

“For instance, with increased use of social networking websites such as Facebook and Twitter and BBM [BlackBerry Messenger] as a means of communication and interaction, face-to-face encounters are no longer prioritised,” she says. “In the long term, people who become obsessed with staying connected online may begin to seclude themselves from the real world and prefer to communicate behind a screen. Consequently, this may cause problems: human contact and bonding is essential for personal growth, after all.”

El Marj suggests redirecting focus elsewhere, and making time for yourself rather than your social network. One thing is for sure: logging out from Facebook and Twitter for good just isn’t realistic in 2012.

“Just go and take a break from technology. At least once an hour I go and have a coffee, look at the sky, take a walk. Or you can set a time period where you remove all technology and simply focus on the job in hand. When the period has elapsed, then go check Facebook or your emails or whatever.”

It sounds so simple. But if you got to the bottom of this article without once being distracted by the wonders of 21st-century technology, then, increasingly, you are becoming a rarity. Feels odd, doesn’t it?

‘iDisorder: Understanding Our Obsession with Technology and Overcoming Its Hold On Us’ by Dr Larry D Rosen (Palgrave Macmillan) and ‘The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains’ by Nicholas Carr (Atlantic) are both out now.

Find out more about Dubai’s Human Relations Institute at www.hridubai.com