Space, Physics, and Math

A mindless future

How will smart technologies affect our cognitive ability?

March 19, 2012

The first thing I do when I wake up in the morning — before I even get out of bed, before I even really consider myself awake — is check my iPhone. Typically I hit the weather app first, despite the fact that my bedroom window is less than three feet away. Then I load emails and scroll aimlessly through my Twitter feed, still in some sort of dazed stupor, my glossy eyes barely able to decipher the words on the screen.

I’m fairly certain my brain isn’t processing any of this information, but I feel unsettled without my morning smartphone digestion. And I don’t think I’m alone in this phenomenon either — this habitual need to be constantly using, checking, updating, dare I say even clinging to a piece of technology that seems to control my life more than I do.

Smartphones are only just the beginning. At the annual International Consumer Electronics Show in January, electronics companies unveiled the latest in so-called “smart” technologies — those designed with some form of advanced computing ability — not limited to refrigerators capable of generating recipes based on what’s inside and washers and dryers controlled via text message. In Switzerland, researchers purportedly designed a smart paint capable of detecting tiny cracks or faults in engineered structures such as wind turbines or bridges. And in California, Google’s self-driving cars are racking up more miles per year on freeways than the average driver.

Electronics companies say the smart technology revolution is rapidly approaching, but my morning routine leads me to believe it’s already here. Neuroscientists (and smartphone dependents like myself) wonder what a future dominated by smart technologies means for cognitive ability. In a Jetsons-like world, will we lose some of our most basic cognitive functions? Or, instead, will delegating mindless tasks to smart technologies leave time for deeper, more complex thoughts?

With all the new technology, we’re living in this world where the machines do everything for us,” says Gary Small, a neuroscientist from the University of California at Los Angeles who studies how the Internet affects our brain. “And I think it’s a fantasy that we’re going to sit back and be more creative.”

In one study, Small used a technique known as functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI), which measures blood flow in the brain, to compare activity in older adults that were either familiar with web browsing or had no exposure to the internet. While performing basic internet searches, Small found about twice as much brain activity in the group familiar with the web as compared to those that were not.

While the savvy web-browsers may have demonstrated more brain activity, Small says these findings are not a reflection of increased intelligence. Internet users have simply rewired their brains for new skills such as multi-tasking and complex reasoning, says Small, but often at the cost of diminishing emotional aptitudes like empathy.

“Supposedly the Internet was developed to give us more time to be thoughtful, but we don’t use it for that, lets face it,” he argues.

While not a smart technology in the sense that it can clean our living room, the Internet can be considered the ultimate “smart machine” — or the ultimate memory musher, according to research by Colombia University psychologist Betsy Sparrow.

Mush might be a bit of an exaggeration, but Sparrow’s research shows that using search engines like Google are changing the way we remember things — instead of remembering what it is, we are now remembering where it is. Thus, anything that we can search for on the Internet we are more likely to forget, because we know exactly where to find the answer.

On the flip side, the smartphone might be the best thing to ever happen to the memory-impaired.

In cases of people with moderate-to-severe memory loss from non-neurodegenerative causes such as a stroke, some basic smartphone training actually increased their memory function. In a small clinical trial, neuropsychologist Eva Svoboda from the University of Toronto’s brain research center, Baycrest, demonstrated that teaching participants basic smartphone functions such as how to set alarms and make appointment reminders with auditory and vibratory alerts engaged both motor and visual skills that can help improve memory.

“Just using the calendar function on a smartphone requires you to think about it, type it out, set a reminder and check it all over,” she says. “You are engaging in a lot of processes to help you remember.”

As a whole, Svoboda says she doesn’t see a trend in smart technology making us dumber — “it’s just changing us.”

I sometimes wonder if my mornings will change me even more — my smart refrigerator cranking out breakfast, my smart shower getting the water temperature just how I like it and my smart closet deciding the day’s outfit based on the weather. I’ll get into my autonomous car and be at my desk at work before I’ve realized I haven’t had to think at all.

“The time saved by smart technologies could be re-invested in improving our own understanding of the world, or it could be squandered sling-shooting simulated birds at digital pigs,” said Carson Reynolds in an email, an assistant professor of creative informatics – a combination of philosophy and computer science — at the University of Tokyo.

Reynolds reminds me that Socrates once worried books would diminish our ability to recall or recite words.

But I haven’t held a book in my hands since I bought a Kindle last year.

About the Author

Allison T. McCann

Allison T. McCann has a B.S. in science, technology and society from Stanford University, an interdisciplinary major that sparked an interest in all things that swipe, zoom, beep, fly or otherwise involve cool technology. How does that work? is the eternal question that lingers in her thoughts during long runs along the Hudson. A born and raised California girl, she’s a bit nervous about the New York winters, but is very excited to continue writing about science and technology at SHERP. Follow her on Twitter.



Ramon Thomas says:

Smartphones change behaviour much more than cellphones who came before. This change is underpinned by an increase in the data processing required by the human using the phone. What I mean is that brain power which may be used for other tasks, are now being used to interact with smartphones. It’s clearly a much bigger distraction. Even if this technology becomes smaller, becomes automated with voice recognition software, we’ll still struggle more with coping mechanisms compared to living free from this constant barrage of smartphone technology.

You obviously haven’t been being attentive to what Facebook has been doing with enterprise pages.

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