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Is Technology Changing Our Minds?

What therapists need to know in the Digital Age

By Ryan Howes

Right now, we’re all subjects of what’s arguably the most widespread, fastest-paced, unplanned experiment on human psychology ever conducted in history. The research question is: what happens to the human brain when, within a few short decades, it’s introduced—in fact, saturated in—a radically new, instantaneous communications technology that links up billions of people and expands access to untold quantities of information over the entire globe? Does this revolution in technology genuinely enhance human connection or just the opposite? Does it make us smarter in some ways, dumber in others?

Gary Small, a UCLA psychiatrist, neuroscientist, expert on memory and aging, and author, with his wife Gigi Vorgan, of iBrain: Surviving the Technological Alteration of the Modern Mind, is on the cutting edge of research about how our digital world is transforming the human brain. In this interview, he discusses how technology is changing our minds and suggests when therapists should respond to clients whose relationship with technology has become unbalanced.

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RH: How did you get started looking at how technology influences the brain?

SMALL: My field is geriatric psychiatry, and I’ve done a lot of research over many years on brain function, brain structure, brain aging, and mood and memory. As a tech geek myself, I was drawn to the question of how all these new technologies are affecting the brain. At some point, the question that most interested me changed from “How can we use technology to measure the brain as it ages” to “Let’s find out what this other technology is doing to the brain at every age.”

RH: Speaking of all ages, you were recently quoted in a New York Times article about the impact of easy-to-use tablet computers on toddlers. What’s your take: good or bad?

SMALL: Basically, we don’t know, but there’s a growing concern because a lot of parents are increasingly using tablets and other digital technology as pacifiers. Is that going to inhibit children’s development of language skills? Some studies suggest that too much screen time could contribute to AD/HD symptoms and lower performance in school, but there’s also a lot of individual variation: some children are more sensitive than others to large amounts of screen time.

RH: Speaking of the impact of technology, how about adults? Is it true that my cell phone is destroying my capacity to remember phone numbers?

SMALL: It’s not destroying it, but basically what you’re describing is a nonissue. The reality is that you don’t need your brain to remember phone numbers in today’s world. For that and many other things, you can use your digital devices to augment your biological memory—for remembering names and faces, and for focusing your attention when you’re having a conversation. In fact, your brain power is better spent learning the apps to use so you can take advantage of the computer as an extension of your biological brain.

RH: So don’t go overboard in seeing computers as having a damaging effect on our cognitive capacities?

SMALL: Exactly. [Phone rings in background.] Please excuse me for a moment [On hold. Four minutes of Muzak.] Hi. I’m sorry about that. I’m afraid I’ve got a fundraiser right now that needs a little bit of my attention. I don’t usually take calls like this, but this underlines part of the whole problem with technology.

What I was just doing in taking that call is called continuous partial attention—scanning the environment for something that’s more imminent than what’s going on. It’s actually a stressful thing that’s not good for our brains or for our relationships. In fact, right now I feel a little guilty that I wasn’t paying full attention to you.

RH: No harm done! Actually, I’m so used to being interrupted by technology that I hardly even notice it.

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