Your Brain on Computers

I was listening to a podcast today of the fantastic Kojo Nnamdi Show on NPR where he was talking to New York Times reporter Matt Richtel, who has written a fantastic series of articles detailing the effects that our technologically saturated society have had on our brains. If you’re interested the episode can be found here.

In the show, Richtel begins by discussing the idea of multitasking. We (myself included) often try to maximize the amount of tasks that we can carry out at once. If I’m listening to a football game while writing a blog (like I’m doing right now…go Pats!) then it’s a win, right?

Well, some scientists at Stanford University asked the question: How does the performance of people who are heavy multitaskers, people who are used to regularly switching among their different devices (computers, phones, etc) tasks compare to people who tend to focus on one at a time?

Well, as you may have heard or assumed, the people who focus on one task at a time are much more productive, creative, and generally better at filtering relevant information.

After discussing this, they brought up something fascinating. If we know that this is the case, what is the lure of these devices? Well, it turns out that it is more than just mental, it’s physiological.

The researches say that when we receive a message/email/text/etc on our device or computer we get a “dopamine squirt”, essentially a tiny bit of neurochemicals which affect the pleasure center of our brains. So as we become habituated to getting that little rush, even as small as it is, we become addicted to it. We get a rush. And then, when we don’t have it, we get bored. So we check our email. Or our texts. Constantly.

Now, as Richtel says, this addiction isn’t in the same category as say, heroin or other drugs. Rather, it’s more like a food addiction. We need food to survive, and in our current climate, we need technology (email, phones, etc) to operate at work, in society, and in our technological culture in general. But when we begin to do these things at the expense of other things, that is when it becomes a problem.

I see this in my own life. Over the weekend, I miss the constant emails that come in during the work week. So what do I do? I check my email. A lot.

I think the most important thing for us is to be aware of and acknowledge these effects. This technology is not necessarily evil or bad, but it also isn’t neutral or idle. It does affect us. If we are aware of what is happening, we can take steps to prevent the harmful effects. This is important, because we are in a society that often necessitates these things that can harm us. If we are aware of their effects, however, we can make prevent a lot of the damage. This is important, because honestly, for most people cutting off the messages that they get is not an option. I know that I couldn’t.

And I shouldn’t. This technology has accomplished amazing things for us and our society. On a more personal note, it accomplishes great things for the church and for the gospel. However, we must not be ignorant of the effect that it has on us. This allows it to have power over us. Once we recognize it, we can begin to use it without it using us.

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