We live in a society powered by technology. Constant engagement with our smartphones, tablets, laptops and other internet-based technologies is swiftly becoming the norm. Research indicates that prolonged exposure to these devices is not only changing the way we work and play, it is also dramatically affecting the way we think and, as a result, how we learn.
There is a growing breadth of research that explores how technology is affecting our brains. Studies show that exposure to technology is changing our cognitive processes and our ability to take in information. One of the major findings is that we are becoming a society of ‘cognitive offloaders’, meaning that we no longer memorise important information. Instead, we tend to remember the location where we can retrieve the information when it is next required.
A closely related concern is that our brains are becoming accustomed to a constant overload of visual information, including text, graphics, videos and other digital stimuli. Our brains are learning to scan information and pick out what appears important whilst disregarding the rest. Rather than reading articles deeply, we narrow in on snippets of detail and form key takeaways.
Because of this, many researchers fear that our brains are losing their facility for prolonged concentration, such as is required to read novels and other long-form writing. Some studies indicate that the key skills needed for critical thinking and long-term learning are being replaced by a shallow engagement due to our split attention spans.
However, there is also plenty of research that shows the benefits of technology on our cognitive functions. For example, a Princeton University study found that expert video gamers have a higher ability to process data and to make decisions in comparison to non-gamers.
When used to aid learning, technology can be a significant educational tool. However, it’s important that learners, parents and teachers are aware of how technology is used in and out of the classroom. For example, research shows that we work best when we limit multi-tasking habits, like flicking between a Word document, our social media feed, and a YouTube video. Instead, it’s best to maintain focus on a single task, by concentrating on just one webpage or application at a time. Another way to encourage a healthy use of technology is to break up usage with discussions, reading time or games.
As to how technology will affect our brains in the long-term future, it’s hard to say. While much of the research so far is preliminary, one thing that studies have proven is that the human brain is capable of a large degree of plasticity and malleability. With technology continually evolving, it’s good news that our brains are able to keep up.