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Technology

Are cellphones and the internet rewiring our brains?

May 21, 2007

Try reading this article to the end without checking e-mail. Find you can't? Before making assumptions of addictive behaviour, you should know there's a positive side to switching tasks often.

You may actually be training your brain to become faster and stronger.

Studies are beginning to show that cellphone-toting execs and Facebook-friendly teens may be multi-tasking their way into taking on even more, by rewiring their brains to handle it.

The action of using a cellphone or e-mail has an immediate effect on the brain. Answering calls and thumbing texts prepares the human brain to take on such tasks — because its circuitry adapts to the environment it's presented with.

"People will often ask me, 'Are kids today different to kids 20 years ago?' Well, yes, they are. Because the world is different, their brains have wired up in a different way," explains Dr. Martin Westwell, deputy director of Institute for the Future of the Mind at Britain's Oxford University.

For a change, malleable young brains aren't the only ones to benefit. As Westwell points out, "Even during adulthood this happens. The environment in which we find ourselves is really reflected in the way our brain cells rewire."

In fact, Westwell thinks people who grew up with cellphones and instant messaging aren't necessarily better at juggling tasks. Surprisingly, a study he conducted found 35- to 39-year-olds were more able to return to difficult mental tasks after being interrupted by nagging cellphone calls than their 18- to 21-year-old counterparts.

"The older group are just better at switching attention," Westwell says. "What we suspect is, as you get older you have to do more of this multi-tasking."

Which can lead to changes in behaviour, even at later stages in life. Besides the obvious ones, like taking calls in public, unexpected quirks also arise out of being in better touch, including the elusive phenomenon known as "phantom cellphone ringing."

Is that a cellphone in your pocket?

Sort of like Pavlov's dog, people have begun hearing cellphone rings or sensing vibrations when their phones aren't actually going off.

It's an occurrence all too familiar to busy Toronto film executive Link York, who uses his cellphone for work and can expect after-hours calls.

"It's like an audio hallucination in my brain," explains York. "I've even heard it in my sleep, on the cusp of a dream. But when I get up to check my phone, it's completely dead. I've even double-checked the incoming call log."

Not surprising in a society becoming on-call nearly all the time. As Westwell explains: "We're waiting for it to ring."

And the instant nature of the medium - not knowing when a call or an e-mail might arrive - seems to lead to obsessive checking. It's comparable to rats in a Skinner box waiting for pellets.

A study found when given a pellet at the same time every day, rats only depressed a lever around the time the pellets were dispensed. Rats that were unaware of when the pellet was coming checked constantly.

Devices as vices

Much of the talk around new communication devices is extreme. Checking e-mail has been compared to the way a drug addict moves toward a fix. Rather than thinking about it, the response is unconscious.

A Halifax writer who gave up the internet for one month found himself automatically clicking open his e-mail browser.

Robert Plowman took on the challenge for a newspaper article. He had been in the habit of checking e-mail every 10 to 15 minutes.

"That was partially why I wrote the piece. About a year ago, I was hearing a lot of ideas in the media about becoming addicted to or dependent on technology," explains Plowman. "People were going through the classic signs of withdrawal. Some were getting depressed, some were getting angry."

In his case, he did feel withdrawal and found that he was filling his days with appointments, telephone conversations and even coffee breaks (though he had already tried to quit drinking coffee). In the end, he came to terms with his devotion to the technology and went back to it with a new appreciation for the demands it can make on his time and emotions.

Don't ditch the Playstation quite yet

Video games, similarly discounted for their negative effects, have more recently been touted for helping people react more quickly to unexpected stimulus.

As Ren´┐Ż Marois, associate psychology and neuroscience professor at Vanderbilt University, points out, studies have suggested kids who play a lot of single-shooter video games might have an easier time reacting quickly in certain situations, for example while driving.

Essentially, these kids might one day seamlessly drive and chat on cellphones while dodging unexpected bikers.

Driving while using a cellphone is a challenge because each task draws from the same brain circuits — ones that involve focusing and concentration. These two activities overload the circuits, whereas walking and talking is quite simple for humans, an activity drawing from two separate circuitries.

"Can we improve upon this with practice? There is evidence that we can. To what extent, it's not known yet," says Marois.

But developing skills from playing video games can be a double-edged sword. Kids who play them tend to be more uncooperative with their peers. They can also be anti-social.

"Now young people are able to exit any kind of situation they don't feel 100 per cent comfortable in. So they never deal with discomfort, and this concerns me because I think we're going to end up with kids who are virtually autistic," explains Romin Tafarodi, associate psychology professor at the University of Toronto.

Interestingly, escaping social situations might not be the only thing at play. Some people use technological devices to entertain an audience.

From "happy slapping" (a slap or violent assault taped on a cellphone) to the less harmful answering of cellphones in restaurants, Christopher Dewdney, author of The Last Flesh, a book exploring culture and technology, finds the technology allows people to perform.

"When you're talking on a cellphone, you're actually not talking to one person, you're talking to an audience," says Dewdney. "When people receive calls at a dinner, there are others in the background. So you're not phoning one person, you're phoning an audience."

This is quite a change from the generation that saw the telephone as an instrument for private conversation between two people. But it's a nice take for those worried about becoming addicted to their BlackBerry. They can look at it as performance art.

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