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Technology Influences Your Brain – For Better or Worse?

Texting and Tweeting: How Technology Influences the Brain

By Susan Grotenhuis, Brain Fitness Facilitator at Asbury Methodist Village 

What do Finland and North Carolina have in common? They are both pitching the appeal of silence. Finland’s board of tourism is promoting the phrase Silence Please as one of its ad campaigns, and in North Carolina you can slip into a silent retreat amid the Blue Ridge Mountains and get in touch with the inner self.

The lure of quieting the soul comes at a time when more and more we are tipping our heads to look at a smartphone or tablet. At a ballgame, riding the subway or sitting in a restaurant, small screens abound. We are constantly dividing our attention between reality and cyberspace while multitasking our way through life. How is this evolving lifestyle affecting our brains and what role does technology play?

The younger generation is clearly addicted. In late 2010, a global project took place asking students to ditch their devices for 24 hours. Students from 12 universities in 10 different countries participated in the world UNPLUGGED and reported their responses. One United Kingdom student described his experience this way:

‘I was edgy and irritated for most of the day–I tried to preoccupy myself with written work and a trip into town,€” but all I wanted to do was pick up my phone and become a part of the human race again.’

Multiple studies reveal similar results where anxiety, depression and insecurity are common among young people trying to do without media.  In fact, many accept Internet Addiction Disorder (IAD) as an emerging syndrome and media psychology as a new science, both born out of our obsession with technology.

Not only are kids feeling lost without the electronic extensions of themselves, but their brains are suffering as a consequence. According to a 2009 study by Stanford University, young multitaskers failed at several cognitive assessments. Their focus was poor, their memories less efficient and, believe it or not, their multitasking was terrible.  The constant connection bombards the brain with information and results in the inability to filter out what is important or valuable and what is not.  Everything becomes relevant. It is more than the brain can handle.

For instance, drivers who relied on GPS to get around displayed similar features. Global research shows that GPS dependent people perform poorly in spatial recognition tasks, and one study revealed less gray matter in the hippocampus, the area associated with the formation of memories.

However, findings do show that one group actually benefits from computers. Older adults respond well to the added stimulation technology provides. In retirement, people find they are less challenged mentally than they were when working or raising a family. As we age our worlds tend to shrink and we become less mobile. But through the magic of chat spaces like Skype or Facetime, grandparents can stay in touch with family like never before. Online education is another internet opportunity for lifelong learners who may have lost some independence. Computer brain games offer multi-sensory experiences which revitalize certain regions of the brain by introducing novel experiences and sometimes increasing skill levels.

So what determines whether technology is good or bad? It has more to do with lifestyle than age. Older adults are more likely to recreate with their technology whereas young people depend on it. But an adaptive 70 year old is just as capable of getting hooked to his smartphone as the teenager living next door. The takeaway is to view these advances as opportunities for growth and tools of convenience rather than mindless yielding.

The following is a worthwhile exercise for anyone wanting to take a step back to get a fresh perspective.

Turn Off

Do without media for a predetermined span of time and assess your response.

Record

Keep a journal so you have a written record of your experience.

Tune-In

Connect with yourself and become fully aware of different sensations.

Focus

Don’€™t multi-task.  Do one thing at a time and do it well.

Quiet

Give your brain a break.  Research shows the brain grows best in silence.

Maybe Finland is on to something after all?


About the Author Susan Grotenhuis

Susan Grotenhuis is a Wellness Professional and certified Brain Fitness Facilitator at Asbury Methodist Village, a Gaithersburg, Md.-based continuing care retirement community. Susan’s passion for health and fitness drew her to a second career in the fitness industry and she has been assisting Asbury residents reach their wellness goals for three years. In addition to holding certifications in personal training and senior fitness, Susan developed and teaches an 8-week course on brain fitness and health for residents at the community. Brain Waves helped Asbury Methodist Village earn a 2014 Innovator of the Year award from the International Council on Active Aging.

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