With the advent of workout planners, heart rate monitors, calorie counters and myriad other apps, smart phones have somehow found their way into most people’s gym bags. But our dependence on digital devices goes well outside of the fitness realm. How often do you use the internet to find a recipe? Or immediately answer some nagging question that comes up in conversation? And then there’s the issue of social networks, compelling us to constantly be on the watch for comments, likes, pins and all sorts of other notifications. It turns out, though, that these helpful little devices could really be doing a number on your brain.
Up until recently, dementia was a condition that only afflicted the elderly. To the frustration of the scientific community, though, the current generation of teens and people in their early 20s, are also starting to suffer from a form of memory loss and cognitive impairment, cleverly dubbed as “digital dementia.”
In 2011, researchers from Columbia University, University of Wisconsin and Harvard collaborated on a paper entitled “Google Effects on Memory: Cognitive Consequences of Having Information at Our Fingertips” in which they explored the phenomenon. Although some were skeptical at the time, the paper asserted that having instant access to information was ruining our brains’ ability to store and access memories.
Frighteningly, though maybe not surprisingly, many new studies have supported these early findings. A 2013 South Korean study showed that people who rely on technology to for everyday tasks suffer a deterioration in cognitive abilities, especially short term memory loss.
According to experts, these effects are likely due to a sort of retraining of your brain. When you expect to have future access to information, even if that expectation is subconscious, you are less likely to remember it. The research has also shown that, for most people, the immediate response when faced with a difficult question is to turn to a computer for help. This habit, though, doesn’t give your brain time to access the information even if you do have the answer buried away somewhere.
Sometimes, though, our dependence on those devices is more emotional than intellectual. This is especially evident when it comes to social networks. A 2012 poll published in Time magazine stated that one in four people check their cell phones every 30 minutes and one in five checks every 10 minutes. Some people even reported feelings of anxiety if they were without their phones for just a little while.
The roots of this urge to check our phones and be constantly connected, however, may be strongly intrenched, rather than just simple habits. And, according to The Atlantic magazine, companies are well aware of the compulsive power of their products and openly exploit the neurological processes at work.
The scary fact that they understand and that keeps us hooked is that almost everything we do online releases dopamine in our brains. This chemical messenger is a essentially a signal from your brain that you did something right and that you should keep doing it. This same dopamine spike is also associated with most form of addiction including drugs and gambling.
Getting someone to like your post or unlocking some new achievement, while meaningless in the real world, seems incredibly important so that you can experience that dopamine release again and again.
Detox and Retraining
Fortunately, it seems like these negative effects are both preventable and reversible. The cure simply rests in removing yourself from the situation and reintroducing healthy social and neurological habits.
Instead of constantly checking your phone, stay connected to and involved with the current environment. Talk to the people you’re with, instead of texting someone else.
When a question comes up that you can’t remember the answer to, don’t google it immediately. Chances are, you know the answer but have to give your brain a chance to dig it up. Eventually, you’ll become faster and more adept at remembering stored information.
In some cases, you may even need to go an extended period of time with no screens to completely break the habit. Since we’re constantly bombarded with these devices, it could even be worth it to regularly take time away from your digital life.