Is Google making us stupid?
Or maybe the search engine and other technology are making us smarter, causing us to use memory and decision-making skills.
“You have a device and search tools that allow you to get any information at any moment in time,” said Gary Small, a professor of psychiatry and biobehavioral sciences at UCLA’s David Geffen School of Medicine. “It’s a superficial way of thinking, jumping from thought to thought just like from Web site to Web site.”
The question then, Small said, is whether we are being thoughtful and solving problems.
According to Small, young people spend approximately nine hours a day using technology, texting on iPhones, using BlackBerry Messenger, Tweeting during classes and using Facebook while studying. Technology provides an ever-present temptation of distraction.
What isn’t clear, however, is exactly how all that technological stimulation affects the brain.
Small has spent his career developing technology to study the brain. He found that technology ““ whether in good ways or bad ““ is having some sort of influence on the brain.
The ability of young people to maintain eye contact and to notice non-verbal cues in a conversation may not be as good as older people, Small said.
“The problem is they’re not spending enough time face to face,” Small said. “So instead of a generation gap, we have a brain gap between digital natives and digital immigrants.”
Like with any activity, if you spend a lot of time exposing the brain to a mental task or experience, the neural circuits that control them will be strained. If you avoid other experiences, the mental circuits will weaken.
Thus, Small said digital natives ““ those accustomed to technology use ““ may have circuits in their brain strengthened to those types of activities. On the other hand, digital immigrants ““ those less familiar with technology ““ may be more apt at in-person social interaction.
Researcher Teena Moody has conducted studies looking at the possible enhancement of working memory as a result of video game and technology use.
“Technology could perhaps enhance cognition, but “˜perhaps’ is an important word,” she said.
Moody, a senior research associate at the UCLA Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior, is currently analyzing results from a study looking at the brain the first time it searches Google.
Researchers are also currently working on studies that could show whether or not circuits in the brain could be strengthened by technology use, though no direct link has been discovered.
“Studies are being designed now … and I think in the next few years we’ll have a lot more information about the pros and cons,” she said.
“We may see improvements in working memory and enhancing attention … but I haven’t seen any studies that have been published and address that directly yet,” she said.
Studies have also been completed suggesting that technology use may be positive. Surgeons who play video games, for instance, often make fewer errors in the surgery room, Small said.
But users beware, addiction may also be a problem for those who overuse technology.
“There’s some controversy about that,” Small said. “The American Psychiatric Association hasn’t decided if you can get addicted, but in Asia there are rehab centers of people addicted to technology.”
Many students are addicted to video games, for instance, Small said. Attention deficit problems can result and there can be problems in communication skills.
A rehabilitation center recently opened up in Fall City, Wash., dedicated to video game or Internet addiction, Small said. As with any type of addiction there are indications that suggest when technology usage has become a problem, including low grades, affected work and affected relationships.
“When I go to schools and colleges, the professors don’t know how to get their students to stop texting,” Small said. “We’ve become a big ant colony, constantly communicating.”
As with the use of any luxury, moderation is key.
“It depends on how you use it, as long as you don’t overuse it,” he said. “I have an iPhone, and I have a lot of fun with it. It’s quite remarkable that we’re all walking together with little computers in our pockets.”
He added, “Technology has so quickly overtaken our lives and we don’t have any perspective about it.”