A recent University College London study suggests that overuse of satellite navigation systems, or GPS, is actually shutting off parts of our brain. Researchers say that the pre-frontal cortex and hippocampus sections of the brain are stimulated when navigating streets and choosing potential routes but are turned off when following GPS prompts. Just as we develop muscles in our body through exercise, mental activity activates parts of our brain. The authors of this study don’t claim that the evidence is conclusive but it leads me to wonder what other brain functions are not being exercised because of our use of technology. This post is dedicated to the idea of a balanced, not blind approach to technology.
Could it be true that our brains are changing due to emerging technologies? If so, what implications does that have? Is it a net loss in intelligence or is it simply that one area of the brain gets stronger while another gets weaker? I wonder if early society worried about changes when we went from primarily a spoken language to a spoken and written language. Would we get lazy because we no longer had to remember the oral traditions of our forefathers to pass on to future generations? How did writing change us as individuals and as a society? In the same vein, how are digital technologies changing us today? Are we becoming net smarter? So many questions.
A 2011 report highlights biological changes in the brain structure of London taxi drivers. The study shows that these drivers, who study London maps for three to four years before their licensing examination, have increased activity and capacity in one section of their brain but decreased capacity in another part. In other words, by studying routings of London’s 25,000 streets their spatial skills increased but other cognitive functional capacity was lost. They are obviously good at their jobs so is the shift in their cognitive abilities a bad thing or is it just different?
Is Google Making Us Stupid?
In a 2008 article in The Atlantic, Harvard Business Review Editor Nicholas Carr asks a similar question when he muses whether Google is making us stupid. To be more precise, he questions whether search engines are changing our reading and study habits and pulling us away from deep reading. He cites his own growing inability to read a long article or an entire book because of his habit of skimming many sources instead of concentrating on one paper or book. He asks the same questions that I pose. Is this change in our cognitive ability good, bad or indifferent? Several studies point to the human brain’s incredible plasticity and ability to adapt to changing stimuli so perhaps the answer is simply that it is different and perhaps evolutionary.
New technologies are changing the way we live our lives and perform everyday tasks. I think it is worth asking whether it is changing our habits and thinking for the better or is it just simply change, neither good nor bad. Let me know your thoughts.
Kelly Brown is an IT professional and assistant professor of practice for the UO Applied Information Management Master’s Degree Program. He writes about IT and business topics that keep him up at night.