At the beach recently I noticed a group of teenagers all sitting together. Every one of them was hunched over a mobile phone. I found it sad that they were not actually enjoying a beautiful day at the beach or interacting with their friends. It made me wonder why they were even there? But then I looked around one of Sydney’s most beautiful beaches. Over half of the people I could see were looking at their phones!
it is actually not that surprising that so many people are now addicted to their smart phones – they are designed to achieve exactly that. That is what the tech companies want. In fact, it’s their business model: return to service. The mobile phones, tablets, laptops and all the apps you run on them are designed to be user-friendly and addictive. How many times have you heard someone say “I can’t live without it”? Of course, you can live without your device, but it is designed to make you feel like you can’t.
You are probably now thinking “Sure, but this new tech is making our lives better so it doesn’t really matter does it?” But it does. Are those people sitting at the beach looking at their devices really better off than the ones watching their kids play or chatting to their friends? I don’t think so. In truth, simply being ‘on’ a device increases our stress levels. Research shows that even having a device close to us subconsciously attracts our attention. Is increased stress and reduced ability to attune to the real world really better?
Even more concerning, these smart phones are making us less intelligent! Our brains constantly change and adapt. Your brain today is ever so slightly different to the brain you had yesterday. Some connections have been made stronger and unused connections have been weakened. This happens constantly - based on what we are doing both mentally and physically. It is how we learn.
On the flip side, it is also how we forget. Ever heard the phrase “use it or lose it”? It works for the brain as well. The problem is smart phones are now doing a lot of things we used to do for ourselves, which means we are losing those abilities.
Here is an example. London Taxi drivers are required to memorise the road map of London and the best way to get from A to B. It’s called ‘doing the knowledge’. In 2000, tests showed that the area of the brain involved in memory of places and locations (the parahippocampus) is larger in London Taxi Drivers. This study showed that using this particular skill changed their brains. Fast forward to today and there’s a problem. We no longer have to navigate anywhere. We use map apps on our smart phones. These tell us when to turn right or left and when we have arrived. This area of our brains is being used much less and is therefore diminishing.
Other areas of concern are the social areas of our brain. We are social animals. We have evolved to seek out and be supported by our friends and relatives. In the days when the world was much more dangerous, this was important. We had to worry about warring tribes and hungry animals. Being part of a large group was essential for survival. Our brains still require that contact and connection. But our addiction to devices means we are sitting in groups but no longer interacting. Social media means we have thousands of virtual ‘friends’ and hardly any real ones! We are no longer using many of these important social areas of our brains. As with all other under-used areas, neuroplasticity means these faculties are steadily diminished.
Now consider the many other things that your smartphone is doing for you. Where will this end? A small brain that is able to search Google and respond to pings from a ‘smart’ device but not able to think, to remember, to show empathy or socialise with friends.
Until now, we have seized upon the undoubted benefits of technological advances with unquestioning enthusiasm. We can now see that a sad and lonely future awaits many. Working out better ways to integrate our organic brains with technology (and its vested commercial interests) will be a future battleground for hearts and minds.