June 24th, 2011
Does life online give you 'popcorn brain'?
When Hilarie Cash arrives home from work in the evening, she has a choice: She can go outside and tend to her garden or she can hop on her laptop.
The lilacs really need weeding. The computer, on the other hand, can wait, as her work is done for the day.
Despite this, Cash feels drawn to the computer, as if it’s a magnet pulling her in. Maybe there’s an e-mail from a friend awaiting her, or a funny tweet, or a new picture posted on Facebook.
“I find it extremely difficult to walk away,” Cash says. “It’s so hard to tell myself, ‘Don’t do it. Go do the gardening.’ “
Does it really matter if Cash gardens or goes online? Increasing, experts say it does. The worry is that life online is giving us what researcher, David Levy, calls “popcorn brain”—a brain so accustomed to the constant stimulation of electronic multitasking that we’re unfit for life offline, where things pop at a much slower pace.
Preferring a smartphone to a child
Levy, a professor with the Information School at the University of Washington, tells the story of giving a speech at a high-tech company. Afterward at lunch, an employee sheepishly told him how the night before his wife had asked him to give their young daughter a bath. Instead of enjoying the time with his child, he spent the time on his phone, texting and returning e-mails. He didn’t have to work, it was just that the urge to use the phone was more irresistible than the child in the tub.
“It’s really ubiquitous,” says Cash, a counselor who treats people who have trouble giving up their gadgets. “We can’t just sit quietly and wait for a bus, and that’s too bad, because our brains need that down time to rest, to process things.”
Clifford Nass, a social psychologist at Stanford, says studies show multitasking on the Internet can make you forget how to read human emotions. When he showed online multitaskers pictures of faces, they had a hard time identifying the emotions they were showing.
When he read stories to the multitaskers, they had difficulty identifying the emotions of the people in the stories, and saying what they would do to make the person feel better.
“Human interaction is a learned skill, and they don’t get to practice it enough,” he says.
This is your brain on technology
The human brain is wired to crave the instant gratification, fast pace, and unpredictability of technology, Cash says.
“I never know what the next tweet is going to be. Who’s sent me an e-mail? What will I find with the next click of the mouse? What’s waiting for me?” says Cash, who practices in Redmond, Washington. “But I know what’s waiting for me in my garden.”
Dr. Nora Volkow, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, admits she, too, has a hard time resisting the call of her BlackBerry. “On vacation, I look at it even though I don’t need to,” she says. “Or I take a walk with my husband and I can’t resist the urge to check my e-mail. I feel guilty, but I do it.”
She explains that constant stimulation can activate dopamine cells in the nucleus accumbens, a main pleasure center of the brain.
Over time, and with enough Internet usage, the structure of our brains can actually physically change, according to a new study. Researchers in China did MRIs on the brains of 18 college students who spent about 10 hours a day online.
Compared with a control group who spent less than two hours a day online, these students had less gray matter, the thinking part of the brain. The study was published in the June issue of PLoS ONE, an online journal.