What concerns me is what technology may be doing to our brain. Read Gary Small’s book, iBrain, and you will have to agree that our brain is indeed evolving. Two brains that start off the same at birth can be drastically different at two years of age if one has been deprived of play, talk, touch, love, proper food and so on. That’s been known for a long time. What is more surprising is that the adult brain remains malleable – “neuroplasticity” is the term used – as we grow older, and it continues to rewire itself throughout life. That’s good news for old folks like me because it means you can become smarter the older you get. We used to think intelligence was 80% genetic and 20% environmental, but it’s actually the opposite.
The bad news is that chronic Internet users and high-tech users tend to have poorer social skills and less ability to focus, and take on traits normally found in people with ADHD.
Excessive TV, video games and other digital media has been shown to contribute to ADD and ADHD in both children and adults. About 5% of children in the U.S. have ADHD. But with the advent of technology, and our increasing addiction to it, this is changing. Psychiatric investigators in South Korea find that 20% of Internet-addicted children and teens end up with ADHD symptoms. Dr. Edward Hallowell, a psychiatrist in Sudbury, Mass., and author of several books on ADD/ADHD, sees a lot of patients wrapped up in this multitasking mania. Over the past decade he has seen a tenfold increase in the number of patients showing up with symptoms closely resembling ADD, but of the work-induced variety. They were irritable, their productivity was declining, they couldn’t get organized, they were making quick, off the cuff decisions – all because they felt pressured to get things done quickly. He gave the condition a name – Attention Deficit Trait (ADT). Several books on brain research indicate that high-tech gadgets, video games and even TV have been shown to contribute to ADD in both adults and children. Incidentally, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends zero TV for children under two, yet one in five American children under two has a TV in their bedroom.
An example of how our brains can be rewired is described in John Medina’s book, Brain Rules. A year 2000 study of London taxi drivers revealed that they had a much larger posterior hippocampus than men with a similar profile, but who did not drive for a living. That part of the hippocampus is responsible for a person’s navigational skills. As far as our brain is concerned, it seems to hold true that if we don’t use it, we lose it. Another example appeared in the Toronto Star (December 12, 2009) It was an article on handwriting, which seems to have been replaced by the keyboard, at least with the younger generation. It concludes, based on research, that handwriting works the brain differently and builds distinct cognitive skills. It reinforces reading and spelling, develops motor memory as it becomes automatic, teaches students to focus, and may help them remember what they learn. So as keyboards replace handwriting, new neural pathways are created and new cognitive skills replace the old.
The brain is evolving. That may not be all bad. But I do know that managers require social and interpersonal skills, intuition and creativity to be successful. And focus is one of the keys to accomplishment. We should think twice before allowing time with email and the Internet to crowd out time with family and friends.
Top achievers combine high-tech with high touch. They interact socially, participate in face-to-face meetings, and even use paper-based systems such as the day planners or simple note pads as tools to get things done.
I will never apologize for scheduling in a paper day planner or drawing mind maps on a scratch pad or scribbling an idea on an index card. And I’m becoming more convinced that it helps us remain well-rounded individuals. Much of your intelligence – and how well you do in life – seems to depend on what researchers call the “executive function” part of the brain. It is that part of the brain in the cerebral cortex that gives you the ability to control impulses, sustain attention, hold an idea in your head, plan, and prioritize and so on. And it’s those executive functions that appear to be weak in individuals with ADD/ADHD. Too much technology could weaken these executive skills even more.