Is Technology Disrupting Brain Development?

By Kathleen Boyse and Cameron Absher

Turns out, it might be.

I’ve often wondered if technology has provided too much of a crutch for my kids. Digital natives raised with a phone in their hand have a different way of looking at the world. No longer do they need to waste time memorizing a bunch of phone numbers — Siri can do that for them. Figuring out the best route home from school or work is also completely unnecessary.

Are we doing our youth a disservice by allowing them to stop memorizing phone numbers? I realize that technology has benefitted us in many ways, but is this harming us?

Take navigation. There are two major ways of navigating: by spatial navigation or by stimulus-response methods. The spatial method uses landmarks and visual cues to develop cognitive maps that enable us to know where we are and how to get where we want to go. The stimulus-response method relies on repeatedly traveling by the most efficient route, as though on auto-pilot. The second method is familiar to anyone who uses GPS to navigate.

Both methods effect the hippocampus. That’s the part of the brain involved with memory and navigation processes. It gives us the ability to find new routes and identify short-cuts. When we don’t use the hippocampus, we tend to lose it.

Before GPS we had to create a mental map to tell us where things were in relation to each other. Now we remember less about the places we go, because we put less work into generating our own internal picture of the world. Using GPS can mean losing part of the hippocampus.

Of course I’m worried about the impact on our children, but I wanted to get another opinion. I asked my co-worker Cameron to give me his take on the impact of tech on today’s young people. Cameron has his finger on the pulse of Gen Z. Here’s what he told me:

1. My Fears Are Partially True

“Like Kathleen, I have concerns for my generation as well. As a part of Generation Z, I can definitely state that I only know 3 phone numbers, my mom’s, my dad’s, and my own. Rolodexes and phone books never intersected with my generation’s adoption of smart phones. It seems our memory and behavior has changed because of it.

When traveling to a restaurant, I don’t check the street names. An arrow pops up on my GPS or phone and tells me to turn right. There is no landmark recognition, there is little to no thinking about street names.

Going out to eat with my friends, 4 phones lie face up on the counter, our eyes peek over at the most subtle illuminations on the screen. It’s scary to see our attention spans interrupted to this degree.”

2. Perhaps this is an evolving brain, not a devolving one.

“Non-digital natives seem to think the long term impact of technology dumbs down our short-term memory and gives us “digital amnesia”. I’m wondering, if my generation never learned (or needed) to ingrain phone numbers and directions, how can we have amnesia for something we never knew?

We are moving towards an evolution of the brain. By eliminating those mundane, task oriented items, we are opening up space for deeper learning. “Digital technology corrupting our brains” is just the latest incarnation of change-based fear-mongering.

I’ve recently read an article quoting an experimental psychologist from Oxford University, Andrew K. Przybylski. He talks about how the human neocortex re-creates itself over successive generations. If this is the case, then Gen Z could end up being a more evolved human. Fear of change is driving what seems like a pile of ‘the doomed GenZ’ articles. Instead there should be more articles written on ‘the new model brain of GenZ’.”

3. Outdated practices get replaced.

“Historical periods bring enormous change. Much of this dictates what we need to remember and what we can forget. Much of it stirred by technology. With the industrial revolution came machines to aid in larger and broader harvests. People moved away from rural settings and lost much of their agricultural skills. Traditional home economic classes of the 1950’s ceased to exist in modern education. These skills and classes were all replaced through technologic advancements.

Why do we need to remember phone numbers? Why do we need to know street names? Without referring to ‘this is what we did in the past’ these questions are harder to answer. Technology has rendered this knowledge obsolete.”

4. Smartphones are a “Second Brain”

“The emerging generations consider smart phones and other forms of technology to be second brains. Phones are appendages, always on and always ready for questions. Technology in our lives brings me access to information that I otherwise wouldn’t experience.

On a Wikipedia page I can click a hyperlink and read about that subject, then dive into another hyperlinked topic and read about that. Soon I look back and realize I’m learning about volcanic eruptions of in early 200 BCE, far from my original informational dive.

Technology’s pace is exceeding that of psychologic study. By the time we understand the effect of technology good or bad, the change will have taken effect. It’s inevitable that our brain structures will change, but they might be changing for the better.”

5. Stress Relief

“Some say it’s not about the destination but the journey. Technology has fundamentally changed that journey not only for my generation but for all.

Adding technology to the wayfinding process relieves stress. In car trips of my childhood, I learned not to talk to my parents as an exit approached. If I interrupted their map-gazing I was certain to hear an emotional snap.

With GPS, we can autopilot through the stressful times to experience and enjoy that journey. Our brain capacities are like the phones we use for guidance. There’s a finite amount of space that always seems to be full. The omission of spatial navigation leaves us the power to truly enjoy the journey.”

Time will tell if the effects on our generations are for better or worse, but Cameron has some good points. One last hopeful example stands out to me: My 12-year-old started a business a few months ago. She only knows 3 cell phone numbers, but she knows how to build a website, create a business, track revenue and expenses, market her items, and generate profit. Her brain and her technology will evolve over the rest of my life and hers.

I’m excited to see where technology moves us forward. Progress is not always a positive change, but it’s progress that ignites my imagination into the inventible world we will live in.