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Mindful : August 2017
the technolog y is simply too new for scientists to have figured it out. Before we hit the panic button, it’s worth reminding ourselves that we have been this way before. Plato, for instance, bemoaned the spread of writing, warning that it would decimate peo- ple’s ability to remember (why make the effort to encode information in your cortex when you can just consult your handy papyrus?). On the other hand, while writing did not trigger a cognitive apocalypse, scientists are finding more and more evidence that smartphones and internet use are affecting cognition already. The Google Effect? We’ve probably all expe- rienced it. “Sometimes I spend a few minutes trying hard to remember some fact”—like whether a famous person is alive or dead, or what actor was in a particular movie—“and if I can retrieve it from my memory, it’s there when I try to remember it two, five, seven days later,” said psychologist Larry Rosen, professor emeritus at California State University, Domin- guez Hills, who researches the cognitive effects of digital technolog y. “ But if I look it up, I forget it very quickly. If you can ask your device any question, you do ask your device any question” rather than trying to remember the answer or doing the mental gymnastics to, say, convert Celsius into Fahrenheit. “ Doing that is profoundly impactful,” Rosen said. “It affects your memory as well as your strategy for retrieving memories.” That’s because memories’ physical embodiment in the brain is essentially a long daisy chain of neu- rons, adding up to something like architect I.M. Pei is alive or swirling water is called an eddy. Whenever we mentally march down that chain we strengthen the synapses connecting one neuron to the next. The very act of retrieving a memory therefore makes it easier to recall next time around. If we succumb to the LMGTFY (let me Google that for you) bait, which has become ridiculously easy with smartphones, that doesn’t happen. To which the digital native might say, so what? I can still Google whatever I need, whenever I need it. Unfortunately, when facts are no longer accessible to our conscious mind, but only look-up-able, creativity suffers. New ideas come from novel combinations of dis- parate, seemingly unrelated elements. Just as having many kinds of Legos lets you build more imaginative structures, the more ele- ments—facts—knocking around in your brain the more possible combinations there are, and the more chances for a creative idea or inven- tion. Off-loading more and more knowledge to the internet therefore threatens the very foundations of creativity. Besides letting us outsource memory, smart- phones let us avoid activities that many people find difficult, boring, or even painful: daydream- ing, introspecting, thinking through problems. Those are all so aversive, it seems, that nearly half of people in a 2014 experiment whose smartphones were briefly taken away preferred receiving electric shocks than being alone with their thoughts. Yet surely our mental lives are the poorer every time we check Facebook or play Candy Crush instead of daydream. But why shouldn’t we open the app? The appeal is undeniable. We each have downloaded an average of nearly 30 mobile apps, and spend 87 hours per month internet browsing via smart- phone, according to digital marketing company Smart Insights. As a result, distractions are just a click away—and we’re really, really bad at resisting distractions. Our brains evolved to love novelty (maybe human ancestors who were attracted to new environments won the “survival of the fittest” battle), so we flit among different apps and websites. As a result, people spend an average of just three to five minutes at their computer work- ing on the task at hand before switching to Facebook or another enticing website or, with phone beside them, a mobile app. The most pernicious effect of the frenetic, compulsive task switching that smartphones facilitate is to impede the achievement of goals, even small everyday ones. “ You can’t reach any complex goal in three minutes,” Rosen said. “There have always been distractions, but while giving in used to require effort, like getting up and making a sandwich, now the distraction is right there on your screen.” The mere existence of distractions is harm- ful because resisting distractions that we see For tips on how to mindfully engage with your tech, go to mindful.org/ phone People spend an average of 3 to 5 minutes at their computer working on the task at hand before switching to Facebook or other enticing websites. 22 mindful August 2017 brain science