Technology can be good for your brain
We live in a world where we have given the right to all sorts of electronically savvy service providers to surround us with constant solicitations. To exist as 21st century social animals, we are supposed to “tweet”, “blog”, “facebook”, “link in”, “skype”, phone, listen to radio, watch TV, text messages and jiggle our tablets and smartphones as part of our daily lives. This multitasking behavior has been nicknamed “continuous partial attention” by Linda Stone. Its high cost on some of our cognitive capacities has been emphasized in various studies. In 2009, a team of Stanford University 1 showed that heavy media multitaskers (HMMs) were more prone to be disturbed by irrelevant stimuli compared to light media multitaskers and as a consequence had more difficulty to switch from one kind of cognitive task to another. Still, as the authors mentioned in the discussion section of their paper, “it remains possible that future tests of higher-order cognition will uncover benefits, other than cognitive control, of heavy media multitasking, or will uncover skills specifically exhibited by HMMs not involving cognitive control”. Well, they were probably right: another study 2 of a very large sample (more than 4,000 subjects) did show that high frequency use of computers enhances cognitive performance and executive function on a task-switching test. This finding was valid, by the way, for all age groups, from younger to older adults. Studies of the impact of video games show the same kind of duality: in a first study 3 , the usage of video games was found to have a positive effect on task-switching (better reaction times without sacrificing accuracy) while in a second paper 4, scientists found that those same games may alter social behavior and create addiction. Does this mean that all of this technology is good for us or bad for us? There is no contradiction between those studies. Our brain is plastic and exposing it to repeated tasks can logically have both positive and negative influences. The “just right” rule whereby there is an optimal exposure to a phenomenon below or above which exposure has drawbacks probably applies to technology usage, both in depth and breadth: too little is not enough, too much is detrimental. The trap we might fall into – especially with trying to regulate our children’s use of technology – would be to swing from one extreme (heavy media consumption and continuous partial attention) to another (banning video games altogether because they are supposedly bad for the health). Let’s not throw out the baby with the bath water.