E-mails, text messages, voicemail, smart phones, cell phones, computers, TVs . . .for many of us, those are what our days—and sometimes nights—are made of. Technology certainly has its merits, but we handle at least three times the information that we did in 1960. For example, studies show that the average computer user at work changes windows, checks e-mails or other programs nearly 37 times an hour. On the home front, people consume an average of 12 hours of media a day compared with five hours a day in 1960. Likewise, computer users visit an average of 40 websites a day. Being continually hard-wired to technology, however, can hurt our brains, say scientists.
Research indicates that the constant juggling of e-mails, phone calls and other information can change the way people think, their ability to focus and how they behave. In short, the “pop” of constant incoming information releases dopamine, a neurotransmitter or chemical responsible for transmitting signals between the nerve cells of the brain. Dopamine neurons are activated when something, usually good, happens unexpectedly—like the sudden availability of food, especially at times in the history of humanity when food was scarce.
As a chemical messenger, dopamine acts in a similar way as adrenaline does. Dopamine affects brain processes that control movement, emotional response and the ability to experience pleasure or pain. The flip side of dopamine is that it can be addictive—as most addictive drugs trigger the release of dopamine. Since the constant stimulation of technology can also release dopamine, this can lead to addictive behavior to the “pop” of technology as well as subsequent “popcorn brain.” In the absence of technology, people start to feel bored and crave the constant interaction technology provides.
Those addicted to technology typically rationalize their habit by insisting that multi-tasking makes them more productive, but research disagrees. Most heavy multi-taskers have more difficulty focusing and shutting out irrelevant information, while experiencing more stress. What’s more is that even after the multi-tasking stops, fractured thinking and lack of focus remain. The truth is that most people can process only one stream of information at a time. Some people can barely process two streams of information at once, but can’t simultaneously make decisions about them. Few people can moderately juggle multiple information streams, but that’s only about three percent of the population who really can do so. Most just think they can and continue with technologic—and brain—overload.
Nora Volkow, director of the National Institute of Drug Abuse and one of the world’s leading brain scientists, says, “The technology is rewiring our brains.” Volkow and other researchers compare the effects of craving technological interaction less to that of drugs and alcohol and more to food, which is essential, but can be destructive in excess.
Adam Gazzaley, a neuroscientist at the University of California, San Francisco, says that the nonstop interactivity is one of the most significant shifts ever in the human environment. “We are exposing our brains to an environment and asking them to do things we weren’t necessarily equipped to do. We know already that there are consequences.”
One of those consequences is “popcorn brain.” That’s what David Levy, a researcher and professor at the Information School at the University of Washington, calls this increasing urge to engage with technology rather than to be offline. It results from the constant stimulation that electronic multitasking provides, making anything outside of the digital realm not as appealing, since it “pops” at a slower rate. It can change the brain, though. For example, MRIs conducted on the brains of 18 college students who spent about 10 hours a day using the computer had less gray matter—the thinking portion of the brain—than a control group who spent less than two hours a day online.
Let’s face it. Technology is here to stay, so we can’t realistically be technology free, so how can you help prevent popcorn brain? Keep track of how long you’re online with technology and make intentional adjustments to limit that—and stick to it. Technology doesn’t ever stop, so you’re going to have to manage it and not allow it to manage you. Build technology-free times into your schedule to give your brain a break and to reconnect—in person, not online—with those who are important in your life.
Don’t let the “pop” of technology rob you . . . or your brain.