Generally we use our computers as tools to get things done and particularly to offload difficult mental tasks so that we can finish more work, more quickly while not taxing ourselves too much in the process. But in case you’re feeling like some kind of overlord who can command your computer to do your bidding whenever you please, it’s worth bearing in mind that it’s not always actually that clear who is in charge in this relationship…
You see, although you might be the one who decides when you use your computer and how, your computer may be changing your brain and the way you think all the while. You tell your computer what to do… but does your computer tell you how to think?
Your Brain on Computers
These days most of us will use computers for several hours of the day. If you work in an office and own a tablet/games console/home PC, then chances are that your usage is much higher than that at 8-10 hours a day. That’s a lot of time using your brain in a very specific way, and of course this will result in some interesting changes.
Some of these we’re still discovering, while others have already been observed. Some are beneficial, while some may be cause for concern. Read on and let’s take a look at some of the things that may be going on and taking their effect on you right now…
Coordination and Multitasking
Before you presume that all these changes must be negative (new things are always bad for us after all right?), it may please you to note that using computers has actually made us generally better at multitasking and coordinating our movements. That’s because we’re constantly typing and controlling a little pointing device, while looking at more than one thing at once. Computer games in particular have been found to be highly useful in training
We can now juggle tasks better then thanks to our increasing computer use, and we’re less likely to fall over.
At the same time though, this may be having some adverse effects on other aspects of our brain power. In particular, our new tendency to ‘flick’ quickly from one information source to another now means that we’re more quickly and easily distracted. Our brain has been trained to switch focus rapidly and that means that it’s more likely to switch focus away from the thing you’re trying to concentrate on. This is true when we’re using the web, but also when we’re doing other things.
Furthermore, it may be that we now engage less with the information that we’re looking at. Because we’re used to scanning multiple articles for the information we want, we now tend to read faster but without absorbing the inbound information to the same degree. Good if you want to quickly research an article you’re writing, bad if you want to really enjoy a story, or read a list of tasks and actually do them all.
The internet may also be affecting our memories and in one sense making them worse. The reason for this is that we have begun to rely on technology in order to store information and allow us to retrieve it later. Even if we make a conscious effort to retain that information, studies have shown that we are unconsciously less likely to recall information later if we think that we’ll be able to look it up in future. In one study participants were asked to remember a number before that was saved in a document on a computer. The subjects could remember where the document was saved, but not the number they were meant to be concentrating on! And you know what happens when you use part of your brain less?
Then again though, all this multitasking and ‘juggling’ of information means that our brains are constantly being asked to remember details for short periods of time. Our short term memory acts like RAM, storing information that we are currently using. Because you are going to be continuously swapping the information in that RAM when you continuously switch between tasks, this then means that computer use may actually improve short term memory while at the same time reducing long term.
Technology has also taught us to be more impatient. The reason is once again that we are now better able to bring up the entertainment, information and communication we want immediately. That then makes it harder for us to be patient when we need to wait for information and in general makes us more ‘wired’ for immediate results.
Computer use then means our brains are constantly scanning for new information and notifications, constantly juggling lots of data in short term memory and quickly flitting between different tasks and distractions. As you can imagine this places quite a strain on our ‘hardware’ and it’s very likely this can lead to fatigue and general tiredness. This is a particularly big problem when using devices like smartphones which are always on and which can at any point alert us to someone trying to get in touch, or a ‘reminder’ that we set ourselves earlier.
Likewise these mobile devices are a constant source of entertainment and distraction – we tend to surf the web while waiting in queues, while sitting on the bus/tube, while walking to the tube etc. This means our brains will rarely get any downtime or any time to just rest – and that may cost us in our ability to cement information and even come up with new ideas.
Another problem is that computers keep us a wake. Specifically, looking at a monitor in the evening basks the brain with light waves that closely mimic that of natural sunlight, thereby fooling our brains into thinking that it’s light outside and that it isn’t yet time for bed. This can then prevent the well-timed production of melatonin that gets you sleepy and ready for a good-night’s sleep. It doesn’t help that you then go to bed often with your phone right next to your bed ready to interrupt your sleep at literally any moment…
While there are some clear benefits to using computers a lot then, it’s also clear that there are going to be some downsides if we don’t get enough of a break from time to time.
There are a few things we can do to counteract these issues however. One is to try using ‘redshift’ software which slightly alters the ‘temperature’ of your monitor in response to the relative position of the sun in the sky. This way you can stop that constant barrage of bright white light and instead watch the screen gradually dim in time with the sky outside.
An alternative trick is to use a simple ‘no computers’ rule an hour before bed. Reading for a bit before heading to sleep will not only help you to get ready for sleep, but it will also help train your concentration and your ability to absorb and remember information at a slower pace for the longer term.
Finally, taking up the habit of meditation is a great way to get a break from your brain’s constant ‘chatter’ and to gain a little more control over what you’re focussing on and when. Combine your new multitasking ability with longer concentration and better long-term memory, and your brain will be truly unstoppable!