Digital dopamine: How tech is rewiring our brains

smartphones header

Buzz, buzz, buzz.

It’s your smartphone again. So you check it and find … nothing. No calls, messages or notifications. What the heck just happened?

It’s called phantom phone syndrome and it’s one example of how technology is rewiring our brains.

Many scientific studies have been conducted on the phenomenon, including one involving 300 university students in India. In that 2015 experiment, 75 percent of the students “felt” their phone vibrate or “heard” it ring, even though the device was switched off or not even in their pocket.

The study concluded phantom phone syndrome is caused by ‘neuroplasticity’ or the brain’s ability to change throughout a person’s life. The brain can form new connections in response to changes in the environment, so when cellphone users regularly experience sensations, such as vibrating, their brains become wired to those sensations. Our technology is changing how our brains process information.

Dr. Murali Doraiswamy studies the human brain as a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Duke University’s School of Medicine. At RBC’s ongoing Disruptors event series, he recently explored how technology affects the brain (both positively and negatively), what people can (or should) do about it, and the broader ethical and social implications for all of us.

Head cases 

young brunette using her smartphone on transit

Dr. Doraiswamy outlined various ways technology is literally changing brain functions like memory. 

For example, having instant, constant access to information on smartphones has led our brains to focus more on where to find information (i.e., Google or Wikipedia) instead of how to find it or process it.

“People used to be able to calculate 26-digit numbers in their heads before calculators,” he said. “We’ve forgotten how to calculate the tip at a restaurant. We rely more and more on smartphones and Google for everything, for phone numbers, and for facts.”

Our ability to navigate has also suffered due to reliance on technologies like GPS, Doraiswamy says. But through neuroplasticity, “The brain can rewire itself. Those cells will eventually evolve or rewire … We’ll evolve new brain capabilities that match what the technology serves (up to) us.”

Brain drains

middle aged woman uses mobile device in a cafe

Doraiswamy warned, however, that some tech-based brain changes could harm your health. As a case in point, he said smartphone use at bedtime can lead to sleep problems.

“The biggest cause is the barrage of information that comes in,” he said, noting the brain “is still processing the emails for 20 minutes” after you check your phone at bedtime. People need to think about how and when they engage with devices so it doesn’t detract from their quality of life. 

Voice tech

Smart speakers have entered millions of homes – and minds. In 2017 researchers found that interacting with a device by voice uses 50 percent less brain activity than typing or using a touchscreen. In light of this data, how could smart speakers affect children’s brain development from an early age?

At the other end of the age spectrum, smart speakers can assist elderly people with memory issues like dementia or Alzheimer’s, reminding them when to take medication or pay bills on time.

AR and VR

Immersive technologies like augmented reality could become powerful teaching and training tools: experiments show AR improves memory storage and encoding by 70 percent.

The impacts of virtual reality, however, appear mixed. VR has been used to treat post-traumatic stress disorder and repair motor skills in stroke patients. Yet a 2014 study indicated that 60 percent of the brain’s neurons shut down while people use VR and pathways in the remaining 40 percent are “corrupted,” according to researchers.

Power tools for the brain

But the science surrounding technology and brain function isn’t all doom and gloom. Recent advances in neurotechnology look pretty exciting. As Doraiswamy has chronicled in blog posts, artificial intelligence (AI) is being used to detect signs of Alzheimer’s disease, spot suicidal users on social media and help diagnose depression and post-traumatic stress disorder through virtual counsellors like Ellie.

The next frontier of neurotech sounds truly mind-blowing. Elon Musk is working on Neuralink, an AI chip implanted in the brain as a direct user interface between the brain and the Internet. Elsewhere, research has been done on transplanting memories from one mouse to another. Yet Doraiswamy cautioned that these advances raise some ethical questions.

Beyond the brain 

“There are privacy and ethics issues that we have not solved. We need to put in place a framework to make sure we do this appropriately. If we don’t set the right framework and policy now, it will be abused.”

As governments, scientists and industry organizations work on that, what can the rest of us do to strike a balance between our technology use and brain health? Here is Doraiswamy’s prescription: spend time in nature; give your brain ample tech breaks; meditate; engage in active learning that includes interactive discussion vs. passive content consumption; turn that phone off at least one hour before bedtime.

And finally, stay human.

“Technology is a tool. Technology itself is not going to bring you happiness,” he said. “Spend time with someone you really deeply care about.”

About Fast Future

It is our mission to explore the implications of emerging technologies, seeking answers to next-level questions about how they will affect society, business, politics and the environment of tomorrow.

We aim to inform and inspire through thoughtful research, responsible reporting, and clear, unbiased writing, and to create a platform for a diverse group of innovators to bring multiple perspectives.

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