Is Digital Technology Warping Your Brain?

Is digital technology warping your brain? Maybe so. Or at least it is changing your brain.

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In a recent article in the New York Times, “Your Brain on E-Books and Smartphone Apps,” Nick Bilton confesses that his brain is being shaped by his frequent use of electronic media for reading. Here’s how his confession begins:

Last week, my brain played a cruel trick on me. While waiting for my flight to take off, I was reading The New Yorker, the paper version, of course — I know the rules. I became engrossed in an article and swiped my finger down the glossy page to read more.

To my surprise, nothing happened. I swiped it again. Nothing.

My brain was trying to turn the page the same way I do on my iPad, with the swipe of a finger. (I quickly realized that I had to physically turn the page.)

I don’t think I’ve tried to swipe a magazine yet, but I can imagine doing so before too long.

Why is this? Bilton explains:

I called the closest thing to a technology doctor I know: Clifford Nass, a professor of cognitive science and communications at Stanford University, and the author of “The Man Who Lied to His Laptop: What Machines Teach Us About Human Relationships.”

“Brains love habits; brains are built for efficiency,” Mr. Nass said, noting that I wasn’t sick, maybe just a little too technological for my own good. “Our brains are built to put two things together in space and time and then say, ‘Great, I can remember that these go together.’ Then we execute on that, like you trying to scroll down a piece of paper with your finger.”

When I read this, I started to remember similar instances in my life, ones that had nothing to do with technology. I remember a time in high school, for example, when I had recently broken up with a girlfriend. On a Saturday evening, I had a date with another girl, but I drove to my old girlfriend’s house and walked up to the door. Yikes! (I caught myself just before knocking and ran away. I never asked if I had been spotted.)

More recently, my wife and I decided to swap two drawers in our kitchen. It would be more convenient for the knife drawer to be where the silverware drawer had been, and vice versa. So we made the change. Then, for about three weeks, I consistently opened the wrong drawer. My mind had been conditioned to think in a certain way, and it took a while for me to get used to the new normal.

Bilton doesn’t actually argue that digital technology is warping your brain. But he does point out that it is shaping the way we think in fundamental ways. I certainly have to wonder how all of this will impact that thinking of children who grow up in a “swipe-ful” world, not to mention those of us who grew up thinking that “to swipe” meant to steal something.

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