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Living online is changing our brains

A British neuroscientist lays out the risks of spending too much time in a digital world

Jun 6, 2014 @ 12:52 pm

By Joyce Hanson

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All the technological advances being reported at Pershing's INSITE conference this week are exciting. Interconnectivity, rapid communication, intuitive computers that talk to each other, mobile devices everywhere and other digital wonders — it's hard not to be impressed.

But as I roamed around the conference's session rooms and exhibition spaces, I couldn't deny my sneaking suspicion that all this technological change is happening so fast that my brain just can't keep up.

As it turns out, there's science to back up my suspicion.

In one of the final INSITE presentations on Friday, neuroscientist Baroness Susan Greenfield (yes, that's right, she's a British baroness and a member of the House of Lords), told a room packed full of financial advisers that living online is changing our brains — and it's not all for the better.

The fact is, technology is changing the world so quickly that it can be difficult to slow down enough to contemplate the opportunities and threats of spending so much time in a digital world. And make no mistake, Lady Greenfield said, the 21st century's online environment has had an unprecedented impact on the human brain.

“People think it's a good thing to be connected all the time. But what's the point of being connected all the time? Do you want people to know all of your thoughts? We need private lives,” Lady Greenfield said.

Every moment of thought changes the connections in an adult brain, but the brains of younger people who spend their lives in front of a screen playing video games show under-functioning in the prefrontal cortex, Lady Greenfield said. This can lead to higher risk taking, a reduced sense of self, a short attention span and a heightened attraction to a fast-paced environment stripped of context.

Digitally addicted children, she said, have a blurred distinction between reality and video games. They often manifest autistic behavior, including withdrawal, lack of interest in activities beyond the screen, loss of control and irritability.

And consider, advisers, that in 20 years these digital addicts will be your clients and employees. If technology can't be harnessed to improve cognition, the result will be sensation-seeking risk takers with low empathy, a need for constant feedback, a weak sense of identity and low-grade aggression.

One quick antidote to this madness may simply be to turn off the digital world every now and then and read a book, Lady Greenfield said.

She then quoted Google Chief Executive Eric Schmidt: “I worry that the level of interrupt, the sort of overwhelming rapidity of information — and especially of stressful information — is in fact affecting cognition. It is in fact affecting deeper thinking. I still believe that sitting down and reading a book is the best way to really learn something.”

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