Monday, June 14, 2010

Hooked on Gadgets, and Paying a Mental Price

I read this cover story in today's NYT with some trepidation because, simply reading the headline, I was sure it was about people like me – and that it would scare the crap out of me.  Well, it did – though the guy profiled in the article is MUCH worse than I am, so I feel a little better…

Scientists say juggling e-mail, phone calls and other incoming information can change how people think and behave. They say our ability to focus is being undermined by bursts of information.

These play to a primitive impulse to respond to immediate opportunities and threats. The stimulation provokes excitement — a dopamine squirt — that researchers say can be addictive. In its absence, people feel bored.

The resulting distractions can have deadly consequences, as when cellphone-wielding drivers and train engineers cause wrecks. And for millions of people like Mr. Campbell, these urges can inflict nicks and cuts on creativity and deep thought, interrupting work and family life.

While many people say multitasking makes them more productive, research shows otherwise. Heavy multitaskers actually have more trouble focusing and shutting out irrelevant information, scientists say, and they experience more stress.

And scientists are discovering that even after the multitasking ends, fractured thinking and lack of focus persist. In other words, this is also your brain off computers.

"The technology is rewiring our brains," said Nora Volkow, director of the National Institute of Drug Abuse and one of the world's leading brain scientists. She and other researchers compare the lure of digital stimulation less to that of drugs and alcohol than to food and sex, which are essential but counterproductive in excess.

Technology use can benefit the brain in some ways, researchers say. Imaging studies show the brains of Internet users become more efficient at finding information. And players of some video games develop better visual acuity.

More broadly, cellphones and computers have transformed life. They let people escape their cubicles and work anywhere. They shrink distances and handle countless mundane tasks, freeing up time for more exciting pursuits.

For better or worse, the consumption of media, as varied as e-mail and TV, has exploded. In 2008, people consumed three times as much information each day as they did in 1960. And they are constantly shifting their attention. Computer users at work change windows or check e-mail or other programs nearly 37 times an hour, new research shows.

The nonstop interactivity is one of the most significant shifts ever in the human environment, said Adam Gazzaley, a neuroscientist at the University of California, San Francisco.

"We are exposing our brains to an environment and asking them to do things we weren't necessarily evolved to do," he said. "We know already there are consequences."


I find that I have to consciously work to disconnect – my latest tricks involve giving my Blackberry to my wife when we go out to dinner (and other times when I know I shouldn't be checking my email and answering the phone), going into a room with no electronic devices to do reading (at least for the ever smaller fraction of my reading that isn't on the internet or my computer), refusing to use social networking (no Twitter or LinkedIn; while I have a Facebook account, I don't accept friends – my profile says "Forgive me for not accepting friend invitations, but please email me at WTilson at"), and my latest step: hiring a full-time person whose primary responsibility will be to screen and manage my email.  We'll see how that goes…


I took the two tests: I aced the "Test Your Focus/Distraction/Filtering Test" (, but (very much to my surprise) bombed the "How Fast You Juggle Tasks" test (  Even on the second try, I was worse than the "High Multitaskers").


Your Brain on Computers

Hooked on Gadgets, and Paying a Mental Price


Published: June 6, 2010


June 6, 2010

An Ugly Toll of Technology: Impatience and Forgetfulness


Are your Facebook friends more interesting than those you have in real life?

Has high-speed Internet made you impatient with slow-speed children?

Do you sometimes think about reaching for the fast-forward button, only to realize that life does not come with a remote control?


 June 6, 2010

More Americans Sense a Downside to an Always Plugged-In Existence


While most Americans say devices like smartphones, cellphones and personal computers have made their lives better and their jobs easier, some say they have been intrusive, increased their levels of stress and made it difficult to concentrate, according to a New York Times/CBS News poll.

Younger people are particularly affected: almost 30 percent of those under 45 said the use of these devices made it harder to focus, while less than 10 percent of older users agreed.

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