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Puppy Dog Eyes for the Smartphone Generation

A new study has found that dogs make ‘puppy dog eyes’ in an attempt to communicate with humans. It is a learned behavior, resulting from over 30,000 years of cohabitation with people.

During that time, dogs have adapted to understand basic commands and to get their message across through facial expressions. The meme-friendly ‘puppy dog eyes’ are only employed when a helpful human is around, but never when dogs are on their own.

Anyone that has been on the receiving end will know, the eyes typically have the intended effect. They know our weak spot.

Cute, but so what?

Well, another study found that the domestic dog was significantly outperformed by its canine brethren, the wolf and the dingo, in spatial awareness tests.

The pooches were required to bypass a transparent obstacle to reach a treat, but struggled to do so.

Domestic dogs, dingoes, and wolves all began from the same evolutionary point, but their divergence has been marked by the former’s cohabitation with people.

This point of differentiation, combined with the results of the study, aroused the following suspicion among researchers:

Domestic dogs may have lost much of their original problem-solving abilities once they joined humans.

The studies keep coming, too. In a comparison of wolves and domestic dogs, researchers found that dogs look to humans for help when they need to solve a problem, while wolves do not.

In times of need, out come the puppy dog eyes.

And when people are not around to do the dirty work, dogs simply can’t get the job done.

That is not to say that domestic dogs are less intelligent than they were. After all, manipulation in a form as sophisticated as the celebrated puppy dog eye requires a deep understanding of context.

These are more than mere affectations, too; they are genetic modifications similar in type to the Williams syndrome. It is suggested that this development of hyper-sociability comes at the cost of dogs’ ability to solve simple problems.

There is also a growing consensus that in terms of social intelligence, dogs are now closer to humans than even chimpanzees.

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That’s still really cute, but what’s the point?

The real message within all of these studies is that the abdication of self-dependence has implications for intelligence.

Imagine spending a week without your smartphone.

Imagine, during that week, you have to navigate a new city, perform some simple arithmetical calculations, and recall the name of Armenia’s capital city.

For many, such tasks are indissolubly linked to smartphones. All of these problems are easily resolved with an Internet connection and a basic phone.

The good news is that we have not relied on technology for long enough to mutate genetically.

We could still use a map; a simple calculation might be laborious but it is doable with a pen and paper; and the requirement to know Armenia’s capital is really quite rare. If you need to know it, you’ll know it.

Nonetheless, as we repeatedly resort to the use of technology to figure out things we could do on our own, we run the risk of losing something very important in the long run.

This possibility looms ever larger as technology evolves to make our lives even easier.

Worryingly, smartphones and widely accessible Internet are new inventions.

And yet, we have already popularised phrases like “digital detox” to describe an enforced period away from man’s modern-day best friend, the smartphone.

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The simple reality is that we would only take the manual route if we were somehow left without our smartphones, which will never happen in the current context.

Our phones allow us to be tracked and targeted, they are our medium for fulfilling our role as ever-eager “consumers” of content and products. One need not be a fatalist to see that we are headed for a future of greater connectivity, greater speed, and greater dependence on our handheld devices.

We are what we repeatedly do (or don’t do)

As the experiments on domestic dogs revealed, through social conditioning they have lost aspects of their problem-solving abilities.

It would be quite a stretch to say that people, by proxy, will go the same way because of our reliance on technology.

Moreover, to say “technology is making us stupider” is both reductive and unhelpful in the extreme. It makes for a hyperbolic headline (it may even have graced my first draft), but we need to do better than that.

The article “If You Don’t Use It, You Lose It” by Benjamin P. Hardy points to the crux of this matter, however.

We must take on board the twin concepts of fluid and crystallised intelligence if we are to pinpoint the areas in which technology is hampering our cognitive abilities.

Fluid intelligence is defined as the ability to solve new problems, use logic in new situations, and identify patterns.

Crystallized intelligence is defined as the ability to use learned knowledge and experience. — (Study.com definitions)

There is significant overlap between these two categories, with each influencing the other over time. Our fluid intelligence can be committed to memory, while our memorized abilities can help us to solve novel problems.

The plasticity of the human brain, which enables us to create new connections and learn new skills, is precisely the factor that causes us to lose abilities that we do not use.

Quite quickly, technology is creeping into more and more aspects of our lives and offering a helping hand.

I notice this every day.

Even as I write, spell-check rolls its eyes at each typo and directs me to something more palatable to its rigid tastes. (Although I maintain, embiggens is a perfectly cromulent word.)

We don’t need to know anything, really.

All we need to know is where to find information, and that information is often very easy to locate.

However, having our phones close to hand reduces our intelligence — even if we aren’t using them.

We provide evidence that the mere presence of consumers’ smartphones can adversely affect two measures of cognitive capacity — available working memory capacity and functional fluid intelligence — http://www.journals.uchicago.edu/doi/10.1086/691462

One study found that, “Between the year 2000 and 2016, the average human attention span fell from 12 seconds to eight seconds”, while another concluded that “constant multitasking reduces gray matter density in the Anterior Cingulate Cortex”, which decreases our ability to make accurate decisions.

There is a parallel here with the impact on dogs of prolonged cohabitation with humans.

The hippocampus, home to the memory-based aspects of our brains, is adversely affected when we become dependent on technology to navigate, for example.

As a result, our ability to commit information to memory is most at risk, which will impact our spatial awareness and ability to solve new problems. In fact, it already has.

These are exactly the areas that the domestic dog now cannot succeed in; not because they never could, but because they have stopped completing challenges for themselves.

A 2008 study from the University of London even found that taxi drivers had more developed hippocampi than non-taxi drivers — https://medicalxpress.com/news/2008-09-satellite-brains.html

The unquestioning subservience to our digital overlords has started to manifest itself in our brains already, even if the trend is too nascent for us to draw full conclusions yet.

Perhaps, in the place of fully-formed memories, we will develop new skills, much as dogs have done. Our smartphones can do the hard work for us; all we need to know is how to get them to help.

Is that a wholly negative thing?

Not necessarily. Of course, we are the beneficiaries of many technological developments, leading to longer lives and easy access to a range of useful services.

But it is possible to be a technophile and still question whether technology is having a negative impact on our manual or mental abilities.

It is tempting to conclude that we should be alert enough not to fall asleep at the wheel, but even that phrase looks set to lose its meaning. Our self-driving cars will most likely encourage us to rest while they drive us safely to our destination.

That eventuality is not free from pitfalls. There is a phenomenon known as the automation paradox, which is cited as the cause for a number of fatal accidents.

In essence, the automation paradox states that we delegate responsibility to technology for the more mundane aspects of our lives. This causes us to lose the abilities we had; if technology fails us, we are no longer capable of performing the duties we once did. The lack of practice leads us to lose our sharpness.

The signs of this are hard to discern in isolation, but together they weave a familiar and mildly troubling pattern. The more we depend on technology, the less capable we become; the less capable we become, the more we depend on technology.

Hard evidence is surfacing already that our brains are being rewired by technology, which is a difficult (albeit not impossible) trend to reverse.

Memory, one of the core building blocks of personal identity, is particularly under threat.

This has serious implications for the manner in which we educate ourselves, for example. Most school systems rely on the commitment to memory of facts, dates, and formulae.

One could say that our liberation from the tyranny of cold, hard facts, which can always be reached through a few taps on a screen, releases us to be more creative.

That theory is alluring, but reveals its complexities upon investigation. How could we teach ourselves to be more creative? And what if we can’t trust the information we see on screen?

Everything points to a future of increased speed, “bite-sized” content, and reduced attention spans.

In spite of this, there are reasons to be optimistic - but a conscious effort is required if we are to dictate our own fate.

Technology, in and of itself, is not the issue and never has been. The ways in which we choose to use technology can be pernicious, but they can be advantageous too. Online education has provided access to in-depth resources for a much larger section of the population, and there are plentiful apps to help us develop new skills.

Therefore, we can say that through a better understanding of the areas in which we wish to develop, we can build the technology to help us get there, faster.

If nothing else, the exercise of questioning the future we want for ourselves will help to keep our brains sharp. Otherwise, our dependence on technology will lead us to lose some crucial cognitive functions.

We may learn new ones in their stead, but unfortunately I don’t think we could develop a new talent as endearing as the one dogs have invented.

This story is published in The Startup, Medium’s largest entrepreneurship publication followed by 276,798+ people.

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