Not too long ago

Not too long ago, the internet was stationary. Most often, we’d browse the Web from a desktop computer in our living room or office. If we were feeling really adventurous, maybe we’d cart our laptop to a coffee shop. Looking back, those days seem quaint.

Today, the internet moves through our lives with us. We hunt Pokémon as we shuffle down the sidewalk. We text at red lights. We tweet from the bathroom. We sleep with a smartphone within arm’s reach, using the device as both lullaby and alarm clock. Sometimes we put our phones down while we eat, but usually faceup, just in case something important happens.

Our iPhones, Androids and other smartphones have led us to effortlessly adjust our behavior. Portable technology has overhauled our driving habits, our dating styles and even our posture. Despite the occasional headlines claiming that digital technology is rotting our brains, not to mention what it’s doing to our children, we’ve welcomed this alluring life partner with open arms and swiping thumbs.

Scientists suspect that these near-constant interactions with digital technology influence our brains. Small studies are turning up hints that our devices may change how we remember, how we navigate and how we create happiness?—?or not.

90
percent
Portion of Americans who reported using a technology device in the hour before bedtime

Source: Michael Gradisar et al/J. Clin. Sleep Med. 2013

49
percent
Portion of U.S. college students who reported checking their phones at least once overnight

Source: L. Rosen et al/Sleep Health 2016

Somewhat limited, occasionally contradictory findings illustrate how science has struggled to pin down this slippery, fast-moving phenomenon. Laboratory studies hint that technology, and its constant interruptions, may change our thinking strategies. Like our husbands and wives, our devices have become “memory partners,” allowing us to dump information there and forget about it?—?an off-loading that comes with benefits and drawbacks. Navigational strategies may be shifting in the GPS era, a change that might be reflected in how the brain maps its place in the world. Constant interactions with technology may even raise anxiety in certain settings.

Yet one large study that asked people about their digital lives suggests that moderate use of digital technology has no ill effects on mental well-being.

The question of how technology helps and hinders our thinking is incredibly hard to answer. Both lab and observational studies have drawbacks. The artificial confines of lab experiments lead to very limited sets of observations, insights that may not apply to real life, says experimental psychologist Andrew Przybylski of the University of Oxford. “This is a lot like drawing conclusions about the effects of baseball on players’ brains after observing three swings in the batting cage.”

Observational studies of behavior in the real world, on the other hand, turn up associations, not causes. It’s hard to pull out real effects from within life’s messiness. The goal, some scientists say, is to design studies that bring the rigors of the lab to the complexities of real life, and then to use the resulting insights to guide our behavior. But that’s a big goal, and one that scientists may never reach.

Evolutionary neurobiologist Leah Krubitzer is comfortable with this scientific ambiguity. She doesn’t put a positive or negative value on today’s digital landscape. Neither good nor bad, it just is what it is: the latest iteration on the continuum of changing environments, says Krubitzer, of the University of California, Davis.

“I can tell you for sure that technology is changing our brains,” she says. It’s just that so far, no one knows what those changes mean.

Of course, nearly everything changes the brain. Musical training reshapes parts of the brain. Learning the convoluted streets of London swells a mapmaking structure in the brains of cabbies. Even getting a good night’s sleep changes the brain. Every aspect of our environment can influence brain and behaviors. In some ways, digital technology is no different. Yet some scientists suspect that there might be something particularly pernicious about digital technology’s grip on the brain.

“We are information-seeking creatures,” says neuroscientist Adam Gazzaley of the University of California, San Francisco. “We are driven to it in very powerful ways.” Today’s digital tools give us unprecedented exposure to information that doesn’t wait for you to seek it out; it seeks you out, he says. That pull is nearly irresistible.

Despite the many unanswered questions about whether our digital devices are influencing our brains and behaviors, and whether for good or evil, technology is galloping ahead. “We should have been asking ourselves these sorts of questions in the ’70s or ’80s,” Krubitzer says. “It’s too late now. We’re kind of closing the barn doors after the horses got out.”

Story continues after graphic

Screentime
A team in the United Kingdom designed an Android app to track cell phone use in students and staff at the University of Lincoln for 15 days. The app registered when the phone’s screen turned on and then off, resulting in charts like the one below depicting one moderate cell phone user’s daily activity. Wider bars mean longer time on phone. Alarm clock wake-ups on weekdays are obvious. Saturdays are marked by red dashed line.

S. ANDREWS ET AL/PLOS ONE 2015 (CC BY 4.0)

Attention grabber
One way in which today’s digital technology is distinct from earlier advances (like landline telephones) is the sheer amount of time people spend with it. In just a decade, smartphones have saturated the market, enabling instant internet access to an estimated 2 billion people around the world. In one small study reported in 2015, 23 adults, ages 18 to 33, spent an average of five hours a day on their phones, broken up into 85 distinct daily sessions. When asked how many times they thought they used their phones, participants underestimated by half.

In a different study, Larry Rosen, a psychologist at California State University, Dominguez Hills, used an app to monitor how often college students unlocked their phones. The students checked their phones an average of 60 times a day, each session lasting about three to four minutes for a total of 220 minutes a day. That’s a lot of interruption, Rosen says.

What am I missing?
In one small study of 104 college students, more than half unlocked their phones more than 60 times a day.

T. TIBBITTS
Source: L. Rosen

Smartphones are “literally omnipresent 24-7, and as such, it’s almost like an appendage,” he says. And often, we are compelled to look at this new, alluring rectangular limb instead of what’s around us. “This device is really powerful,” Rosen says. “It’s really influencing our behavior. It’s changed the way we see the world.”

Technology does that. Printing presses, electricity, televisions and telephones?all?shifted people’s habits drastically, Przybylski says. He proposes that the furor over digital technology melting brains and crippling social lives is just the latest incarnation of the age-old fear of change. “You have to ask yourself, ‘Is there something magical about the power of an LCD screen?’?” Przybylski says.

Yet some researchers suspect that there is something particularly compelling about this advance. “It just feels different. Computers and the internet and the cloud are embedded in our lives,” says psychologist Benjamin Storm of the University of California, Santa Cruz. “The scope of the amount of information we have at our fingertips is beyond anything we’ve ever experienced. The temptation to become really reliant on it seems to be greater.”

Memory outsourcing
Our digital reliance may encourage even more reliance, at least for memory, Storm’s work suggests. Sixty college undergraduates were given a mix of trivia questions?—?some easy, some hard. Half of the students had to answer the questions on their own; the other half were told to use the internet. Later, the students were given an easier set of questions, such as “What is the center of a hurricane called?” This time, the students were told they could use the internet if they wanted.

People who had used the internet initially were more likely to rely on internet help for the second, easy set of questions, Storm and colleagues reported online last July in Memory. “People who had gotten used to using the internet continued to do so, even though they knew the answer,” Storm says. This kind of overreliance may signal a change in how people use their memory. “No longer do we just rely on what we know,” he says.

MRI scans of hippocampus and caudate nucleus
A group of people who navigated by building spatial maps of a virtual environment had, on average, more activity in the hippocampus (brain scan, top) than people who found their way using simpler strategies. Those people relied more heavily on the caudate nucleus (bottom).
G. IARIA ET AL/J. NEUROSCI. 2003
That work builds on results published in a 2011 paper in Science. A series of experiments showed that people who expected to have access to the internet later made less effort to remember things. In this way, the internet has taken the place formerly filled by spouses who remember birthdays, grandparents who remember recipes and coworkers who remember the correct paperwork codes?—?officially known as “transactive memory partners.”
“We are becoming symbiotic with our computer tools,” Betsy Sparrow, then at Columbia University, and colleagues wrote in 2011. “The experience of losing our internet connection becomes more and more like losing a friend. We must remain plugged in to know what Google knows.”

That digital crutch isn’t necessarily a bad thing, Storm points out. Human memory is notoriously squishy, susceptible to false memories and outright forgetting. The internet, though imperfect, can be a resource of good information. And it’s not clear, he says, whether our memories are truly worse, or whether we perform at the same level, but just reach the answer in a different way.

“Some people think memory is absolutely declining as a result of us using technology,” he says. “Others disagree. Based on the current data, though, I don’t think we can really make strong conclusions one way or the other.”

The potential downsides of this memory outsourcing are nebulous, Storm says. It’s possible that digital reliance influences?—?and perhaps even weakens?—?other parts of our thinking. “Does it change the way we learn? Does it change the way we start to put information together, to build our own stories, to generate new ideas?” Storm asks. “There could be consequences that we’re not necessarily aware of yet.”

Research by Gazzaley and others has documented effects of interruptions and multitasking, which are hard to avoid with incessant news alerts, status updates and Instagrams waiting in our pockets. Siphoning attention can cause trouble for a long list of thinking skills, including short- and long-term memory, attention, perception and reaction time. Those findings, however, come from experiments in labs that ask a person to toggle between two tasks while undergoing a brain scan, for instance. Similar effects have not been as obvious for people going about their daily lives, Gazzaley says. But he is convinced that constant interruptions?—?the dings and buzzes, our own restless need to check our phones?—?are influencing our ability to think.