Future Minds Part II: The good and the bad of our evolving brains

Last post, we talked about the ever-evolving human mind. We found the evolution is so pronounced it has created two different types of brains—Digital Immigrant and Digital Native—each with their own unique strengths and weaknesses.

Today we’ll analyze the emerging iBrain of the Digital Natives for the good and the bad.

Brain evolution: THE GOOD

human brain evolution
These regions of the brain are being strengthened by technology.

Due to constant digital stimulation from ipads, TVs, websites etc., the minds of Digital Natives have been formed certain strengths:

1)      Multi-tasking:

“One third of young people use other media—particularly the Internet—while watching television.” (p. 25) “Their young developing brains,” explain Small & Vorgan, “are much more sensitive to environmental input.” 32

What it means: Digital Natives can do a lot of things at once, and they like it that way. But the downside is they are not completing these tasks efficiently—they are just doing them.

2)      Information-seeking:

Constant email and Internet searching sessions have developed their ability to “sift through large amounts of information rapidly.” (p. 39)

What it means: Digital Natives can find information faster.

3)      Seeing and visualizing:

Video-gaming and other media are just quickly changing pictures. As the Digital Native brains follow these pictures, the visual cortex is strengthened. (p. 39)

What it means: Digital Natives grasp the meanings of pictures quicker. They notice visual changes and react faster.

Brain evolution: THE BAD

The brains of Digital Natives have certain weaknesses:

human brain evolution weakened regions
These regions of the brain are weakened by excessive digital stimulation.

1)       Decreased attention span:  

“Digtial Natives,” say Small and Vorgan, “have shorter attention spans.” (p. 25) According to them, “When a child’s brain is exposed to excessive levels of television, computer, video, and other digital stimulation, it can lead to hyperactivity, irritability, and attention deficit disorders (ADD).” (p. 27) Their multi-tasking strength is therefore a great weakness, for “studies show too much multitasking can only lead to increased stress and attention deficits.” (p. 32)

Consider the evidence: Drs. Philp Chan and Terry Rabinowitz of Brown University studied the amount of time ninth- and tenth- graders spent browsing the Internet, watching television, and playing video games. The found that those who played Internet or console games for more than one hour a day had greater symptoms of ADHD and inattention than those who didn’t. (p. 66)

What it means: Digital Natives have difficulty concentrating on one thing. They start one project then mentally switch to another. They struggle to get things done, or to finish them well.

2)       Weakened social skills:

As Digital Natives tangle themselves in the wires of their digital gadgets; they strangle their social side, for “Without enough face-to-face interpersonal stimulation, a child’s neural circuits can atrophy, and the brain may not develop normal interactive social skills. “(p. 27) [emphasis mine]

Digital Natives after extended digital immersion, especially in the Internet, “display poor eye contact and reluctance to interact socially.” (p. 73). They find it more difficult to read facial expressions and pick up on subtle social cues. “With the digital age evolving our brains, some experts argue that our society in general is becoming more autistic in the sense that people are spending less time interacting directly with others and more solitary time in front of their computers.” (p. 73) Some experts even claim extended TV watching can induce autism in young children.

What it means: Digital Natives have a harder time talking with people and picking up on social cues.  Increasingly, they are more comfortable interacting with gadgets.

3)      Less thinking & planning ability:

The chronic and intense multi-tasking habits of Digital Natives, resulting from their immersion in digital media,  may prevent the adequate development of the frontal cortex, the part of the brain concerned with seeing the big picture, delaying gratification, reasoning abstractly, and planning ahead. (p. 32)

Consider the evidence: Professor Akio Mori of Tokyo’s Nihon University found evidence that video games suppress frontal lobe activity.  His research group found adolescent test subjects who spent more time playing video games used less of the frontal region of their brains. Indeed, “chronic players—those who play two to seven hours each day—sometimes develop video game-brain, a syndrome that essentially turns off the frontal lobes, even when kids are not playing video games. “ (p. 36) [emphasis mine]

What it means: “Are we rearing a new generation with underdeveloped frontal lobes—a group unable to learn, remember, feel, or control their impulses?” (p. 39)

internet addiction dopamine tracks
Internet addictions activate the dopamine tracks and subverts the anterior cingulate– the part responsible for decision-making and judgment. [iBrain, p. 49]
4)      Addictions:

Digital Natives are at risk for developing addictions to gadgets. Constant digital stimulation “has caused young brains to evolve in such a way that each technological invention has an almost irresistible draw.” (p. 39).

Furthermore, video games and other digital entertainment “are often emotionally and intellectually seductive.” They can “ easily become addictive, driving the brain’s dopamine circuitry so that the player craves more and more play.” (p. 38)

Yes, Internet or video game addiction is no different from shopping or gambling obsessions. “Internet addicts report feeling a pleasurable mood boost or ‘rush’ from simply booting up their computer,” say Small &Vorgan.

Consider the evidence: More than 18% of college students are pathological Internet users, and 58% report that their involvement with the Internet has disrupted their studying, lowered their attendance and GPA. (p. 51)

What it means: Digital Natives crave the latest gadget; their brains are hard-wired to. They can be at risk of addiction to Internet or video games, especially if depressed.

5)      Mood disorders:

The most common mental disorders among Digital Natives are likely anxiety and depression.

The root of these emotional problems is the high-tech revolution plunge into a perpetual state of multi-tasking, also known as continuous partial attention.  In this state, we scan the environment for something to connect with (e.g. instant messaging, texting, email, etc.). When paying partial continuous attention, people’s brains are under stresss—our brains “were not built to maintain such monitoring for extended periods.” (p. 19)

brain technology internet addiction
Digital stimulation puts us in a stressed state of continuous partial attention. [iBrain, p. 33]
This new form of stress, or “techno-brain burnout” has been found to cause our brains to secrete cortisol and adrenaline.  “In the short run, these stress hormones boost energy levels and help memory, but over time they actually impair cognition, lead to depression, and alter the neural circuitry in the hippocampus, amygdala, and prefrontal cortex—the brain regions that control mood and thought.” (p. 19) With enough techno-burnout, we “can even reshape the underlying brain structure” and permanently alter our mood. (p. 19)

Depression is counter-intuitively amplified in Digital Natives by social networks. “Despite the availability of social networks, email, and instant messaging, “ explain Small & Vorgan, “these electronic communication modes lack the emotional warmth of direct human contact and often worsen a person’s feelings of isolation.” (p. 77)

What it means:  Digital Natives may be more irritable and prone to depression.

6)       Health problemsDigital Natives are less fit.

Consider the evidence: In 2006, Naoko Koezuka and associates at the University of Toronto studied nearly 8,000 teenagers and found those volunteers who spend more time playing video games or on the computer were less likely to exercise.

More shockingly, “A recent study of children 5-11 years old found that those who watched more than an hour of television each day [were heavier] compared to children who watched less.” (p. 30)

What it means: Digital Natives aren’t physically active enough.

I didn’t plan to write such a long post, but as you can see, iBrain as relevant as it is shocking.

Next post I’ll write about the ugly side of iBrain—the most disturbing alteration of the evolving human mind.

Until then, rest content that it’s not as bad as it seems: Small & Vorgan never say the technological alteration of the human mind is unstoppable, nor do they claim we can do nothing to alter the mind ourselves.

In later posts, we’ll look at how teachers and parents can help their Digitial Natives navigate evolution of the modern mind.

This is Part II of a series of posts based on the research of Gary Small, MD & Gigi Vorgan published in their book, iBrain: Surviving the Technological Alteration of the Modern Mind.

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