Digital Devices Deprive Brain of Needed Downtime
August 25, 2010 3:55 PM   Subscribe

YOUR BRAIN ON COMPUTERS “Almost certainly, downtime lets the brain go over experiences it’s had, solidify them and turn them into permanent long-term memories,” said Loren Frank, assistant professor in the department of physiology at the university, where he specializes in learning and memory. He said he believed that when the brain was constantly stimulated, “you prevent this learning process.”
posted by wherespaul (42 comments total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
 
If you want a picture of the future, imagine an app stamping on a human brain — forever.
posted by The Card Cheat at 4:01 PM on August 25, 2010 [9 favorites]


So, learning is boring?
posted by TwelveTwo at 4:02 PM on August 25, 2010


tl;dr
posted by qvantamon at 4:08 PM on August 25, 2010 [1 favorite]


So, learning is boring?

Our brains probably evolved to prioritize new, and potentially dangerous stuff immediately and save the long term memory writing for when things were quiet and safe.
posted by yeloson at 4:15 PM on August 25, 2010 [3 favorites]


On a serious note, I've noticed that iPhones have affected my movie/tv watching at home. Nowadays, except when I'm forcing myself to watch foreign language movies, I'll be watching and gadgeting at the same time. Then a lot of times I get lost in the story, skip back 5 minutes, put the phone back, and watch it again. Depending on how "slow" the movie goes, repeat that 5 or 10 times during the movie. There's quite a few TV episodes that were great, but I didn't care much about because I wasn't really paying attention and missed all the greatness. On the other hand, that's probably the only way I'd ever be able to go through a Tarkovsky movie.

Taking out your phone on the theater is still a punchable offense, though.
posted by qvantamon at 4:15 PM on August 25, 2010 [2 favorites]


I'm not sure how I feel about this. I've had computers in my house literally since I was born, and as a household we generally were pretty on top of keeping up with new tech trends (cell phones, then dial-up access, then one of the first on the block to get broadband). Looking back, I don't feel like I had trouble balancing the computer time and the "learning" time in my mind.

High school through college, I did all of my homework in front of computers, splitting my attention between the problem sets and (usually) instant messaging. I stress this point because I tended to nap through class; homework was where I actually learned the material. Hell, during college I usually had two computers running while I was doing problem sets - surfing the web and chatting on my desktop, running Matlab on the laptop, fiddling with problem setups in my computation notebook.

Nowadays, at work, I'm in front of the computer eight hours a day. I always keep Firefox open to keep tabs on Gmail and chat with the girlfriend while going through my normal work routine. It's hard for me to focus on several hundred-page-long reports, but I've always had problems learning by reading texts.

I have a strong suspicion that a) the human brain is very good at adapting and b) the evolutionary process will weed out the weaklings that can't handle the digital shunt in the base of the neck.
posted by backseatpilot at 4:25 PM on August 25, 2010 [3 favorites]


I'll often spend a good half hour pacing around in mindless patterns or staring off into space doing something repetitive when I'm stuck on a coding problem or just thinking about things. It seems obvious to say it, but it definitely helps my productivity to remove myself from distractions for a while.

The research seems to be more about memory, though the article does mention "new ideas", but I couldn't find much actual information in there amongst all the slice-of-life stuff. I think this abstract is from the actual paper, but I can't read the full thing. There's a little more info in this article.
posted by lucidium at 4:27 PM on August 25, 2010 [2 favorites]


backseatpilot
"I have a strong suspicion that a) the human brain is very good at adapting and b) the evolutionary process will weed out the weaklings that can't handle the digital shunt in the base of the neck." A friend sent me the NYT link and that sentence said exactly what I was thinking. I did not know how to word it.
posted by wherespaul at 4:29 PM on August 25, 2010


Good thing the internet no longer stimulates my brain.
posted by The Light Fantastic at 4:46 PM on August 25, 2010


I don't think this is really a valid- That dog has a puffy tail!
posted by The Whelk at 4:50 PM on August 25, 2010 [5 favorites]


I don't know if I buy this. But anyway, is anyone really constantly stimulated? People do take breaks. Even if you have your smartphone with you, you're not staring at it all the time, just over intervals.
posted by delmoi at 5:02 PM on August 25, 2010


"I have a strong suspicion that a) the human brain is very good at adapting and b) the evolutionary process will weed out the weaklings that can't handle the digital shunt in the base of the neck."

He thinks the internet is literally going to kill people who can't handle overstimulation of the internet? Because that's what evolution means. Survival of the fittest. Either death or infertility, those are the only things that 'weed' people out of the gene pool. It's not a process that just makes people smarter. In fact education correlates both intelligence and wealth, and wealth correlates with lowered fertility.

And beyond that human brain sizes actually shrank early in our evolution. Why? Because larger heads made births more difficult, or more likely to be fatal. That's the whole death or infertility thing.

Anyway, this kind of wild misinterpretation of evolution is very annoying.
posted by delmoi at 5:07 PM on August 25, 2010 [2 favorites]


He thinks the internet

Er, somehow I thought wherespaul was quoting his friend who sent him the link.
posted by delmoi at 5:09 PM on August 25, 2010


Scenario: omnipresent digital shunts to back of neck.

You cannot stand one, for whatever reason.

Are you going to be able to get a mate, without even a basic shunt?

There could also be an eloi and morlock situation there. Radiation from the human species. Whatever you say, at this time the human equilibrium is definitely getting punctuated.
posted by curuinor at 5:13 PM on August 25, 2010


Anyway, this kind of wild misinterpretation of evolution is very annoying.

Wait, was that the punchline? I don't get it.
posted by krinklyfig at 5:19 PM on August 25, 2010


I've come to entirely different conclusions based on my own experience with this -

I love being constantly stimulated: if possible, I would be consuming information and doing social networking 24 hours a day. I live an "augmented" life - with the aid of computers, I can understand and be aware of much more of the world, and maintain a larger network of friends.

The downside of all this consumption is that there is no production. I find my creativity has gone way down: creating prose, music, or art is what happens in the quiet moments when your brain stops looking outwards and turns inwards instead. It used to be something that happened automatically during downtime - now, there is no downtime to speak off and we have to deliberately make space for it.

I think they're benchmarking the learning process wrong. It's true we probably retain a smaller % of what we consume, but we're also consuming 300% more than before. We're probably learning more in general but it's a broader, shallower knowledge. Not so useful if you're trying to pass an exam, but who's to say it doesn't also later give us an advantage in life -
posted by xdvesper at 5:37 PM on August 25, 2010 [8 favorites]


At the University of California, San Francisco, scientists have found that when rats have a new experience, like exploring an unfamiliar area, their brains show new patterns of activity. But only when the rats take a break from their exploration do they process those patterns in a way that seems to create a persistent memory of the experience. . . .

At the University of Michigan, a study found that people learned significantly better after a walk in nature than after a walk in a dense urban environment, suggesting that processing a barrage of information leaves people fatigued.


This is interesting information. It makes sense to me. The problem isn't multi-tasking, although I agree with gvantamon that keeping an eye on everything tends to be fatal to focus on any particular thing. I've learned to put everything else away if I really want to take in a book or good quality TV or a conversation. But forget focus, which this article isn't really about. What the two studies suggest is that contemplation time is valuable. Anecdotally, for me the time I take thinking is often calming and I believe it really does help with retention.

One odd thing about this article, however, is that the need to find some contemplation time to learn and process doesn't necessarily mean there is anything bad about playing with multiple electronics while on an elliptical. There really isn't any content in this piece which would indicate there is something damaging about that.
posted by bearwife at 5:37 PM on August 25, 2010 [1 favorite]


I'll often spend a good half hour pacing around in mindless patterns or staring off into space doing something repetitive when I'm stuck on a coding problem or just thinking about things.

When I'm stumped by something at work, say a particularly difficult separation job, I go sweep. I never solve these problems when I'm at the computer. I solve them when I'm sweeping, then I go enact them.

Bonus: the shop floor is usually pretty clean, so long as the 4-color process + bump plate on dark shirt jobs are rolling in.
posted by Devils Rancher at 5:44 PM on August 25, 2010 [1 favorite]


Oh, and this was mentioned in another thread, but there is still one contemplation time that is mostly intact: shower time. Innuendo aside, I'll bet you could prove a correlation between gadget addiction and longer shower times.

In my case, the same applies for my commute. Driving for me (even commuting) is a relaxing activity. A few times I tried to do something "useful" in my commute (audio books, language learning), but I always gave up after a while, because I need my driving zen time.
posted by qvantamon at 5:56 PM on August 25, 2010


qvantamon, as I read your comment, I was watching "Better Off Ted" on Nexflix Streaming.

Then part of my heart broke. For the situation being too apt.
posted by piratebowling at 6:11 PM on August 25, 2010


I knew metafilter was making me stupid!
posted by cjorgensen at 6:18 PM on August 25, 2010 [1 favorite]


What would I need long-term memory for if I constantly have access to my computing devices?
posted by webmutant at 6:24 PM on August 25, 2010 [5 favorites]


I don't know, I spent many hours on Super Mario Bros. 3, and I can still pick up a controller after years away from it and rock that game pretty hard. I must've learned something.
posted by Lukenlogs at 6:39 PM on August 25, 2010 [1 favorite]


Lukenlogs, seems consistent with the two studies quoted . . . as you apparently had some contemplation time away from SMB3 to lock your learning in place.
posted by bearwife at 6:56 PM on August 25, 2010 [1 favorite]


In my case, the same applies for my commute. Driving for me (even commuting) is a relaxing activity. A few times I tried to do something "useful" in my commute (audio books, language learning), but I always gave up after a while, because I need my driving zen time.

That, in a nutshell, is one of the major problems in traffic these days. You're hurtling down the road in a ton of metal! Stop multitasking, or zoning out, and instead pay complete attention to the complex task requiring constant vigilance and split-second timing that you're already undertaking. Seriously.
posted by PareidoliaticBoy at 7:08 PM on August 25, 2010 [1 favorite]


He thinks the internet is literally going to kill people who can't handle overstimulation of the internet?

Perhaps he does, perhaps he doesn't. Social adaption can influence sexual selection and opportunity, which can result in some traits outcompeting and eliminating other traits. It's not always about literally killing the non-fittest. If wild misinterpretation of evolution is annoying, then stop doing it ;-)
(that was a friendly ribbing, not a flame. It's an internet rule that when you say that something in others is annoying, some asshole has to try to find to some way to claim that you're not entirely blameless either :-)
posted by -harlequin- at 7:15 PM on August 25, 2010 [1 favorite]


I can't really pretend to have any kind of high ground on this subject, because I feel like if I'm not reading something while I brish my teeth that I am just wasting that time. However, it drives me crazy to watch movies or TV with my friends these days, because they are all tied to their phones and computers and they miss most of the damn plot. They laugh when I laugh, not because they heard what was funny, but because I signaled that it was time to laugh. It means that I don't bother trying to have a conversation about anything we watch.
posted by Nothing at 7:35 PM on August 25, 2010 [2 favorites]


That, in a nutshell, is one of the major problems in traffic these days. You're hurtling down the road in a ton of metal! Stop multitasking, or zoning out, and instead pay complete attention to the complex task requiring constant vigilance and split-second timing that you're already undertaking. Seriously.
posted by PareidoliaticBoy at 9:08 PM on August 25 [+] [!]


Quick derail- I've worked in a couple psychology labs. I just got my learner's permit. As I was reading through the various rules for driving that my state had, I was looking at it through the lens of a task that a participant in a psychology study might do, and thinking "there's no way anyone could do this task correctly, ever."

That's not to say that people can't drive around and avoid hitting each other, because (empirically) for the most part they do, but color me skeptical that people actually follow all of the rules they're supposed to even most of the time.
posted by Jpfed at 7:48 PM on August 25, 2010


I wonder where mindfulness fits into this issue of overstimulation?
posted by kuatto at 8:02 PM on August 25, 2010


I absolutely have this problem. I've become tedium intolerant to a fault. Washing dishes? Podcast. Bedtime? Surf or read. Walk dogs? Podcast. Car? NPR. I always always need input. I haven't noticed memory loss stemming from this, but I do suspect creativity is negatively affected. The shower's the last bastion of productive spacing out.

I think the only way I'll improve is to start looking at long, luxuriously paced movies (tarkovsky, malick, ozu), non-airport novels, and meditation as the equivalent of whole grains and salad, compared to the fluffernutters that make up the web (and I don't mean that the web is dumber, but that it stimulates the brain a little too quickly and efficiently).
posted by condour75 at 8:07 PM on August 25, 2010 [2 favorites]


This ties in somewhat with what I've been reading lately for my teacher training. Over and over various authors stress the importance of "reflection" in the learning process, as a way of processing, organising and refining what you've learned in class. They seem to stress it as an active process of metacognition, but I reckon it'd work in the passive mode of "downtime" too.
posted by robotot at 8:40 PM on August 25, 2010


So, I don't drive. Never learned, rarely am in a car. In the last week I've been in more car rides then the last four years combined and I've noticed this, car travel makes people really impatient. The tiniest delays induces foam- spitting rage and long car rides induce this kind of trance state that leads to poor decision making. I think this argument can be made about any accelerating technology.

Sent from my IPad.
posted by The Whelk at 9:09 PM on August 25, 2010 [2 favorites]


Oddly, I found an iPhone app recently that promises to help people 'disconnect' and feel less dependent on technology.
posted by ZeusHumms at 11:32 PM on August 25, 2010


That's not to say that people can't drive around and avoid hitting each other, because (empirically) for the most part they do, but color me skeptical that people actually follow all of the rules they're supposed to even most of the time.

Absolutely, that's why cars need bumpers, seat-belts, air-bags, and crumple zones. I was a driver trainer at a Limousine company, and can testify that even limousine drivers often aren't especially good at the task. The average driver pays far too little attention to what they are doing, acts like there is a magical force-field around them that cancels the laws of physics, and takes things way too much for granted. Add things like in-car DVD players !? and Smart phones into an inherently unstable situation, and it's no surprise that shit like this happens.
posted by PareidoliaticBoy at 11:56 PM on August 25, 2010


Huh. Take a look again at the NYT page. What's killing the brain isn't the internet, it's the clutter that the internet has spawned on the page. How many ads and hyperlinks are on single news story? How many are relevant that you actually care to follow?
posted by iamck at 12:37 AM on August 26, 2010


Well I'm not convinced that the Internet is any more ad laden than other media, after-allt, hey do call it the "news hole"; but that might just be because I load pages like that into Readability before reading them pretty much by default.
posted by PareidoliaticBoy at 12:47 AM on August 26, 2010


Oddly, I found an iPhone app recently that promises to help people 'disconnect' and feel less dependent on technology.

I hope it is a fake firmware update that bricks the iPhone and renders it unusable.
posted by ymgve at 4:42 AM on August 26, 2010


I hate that I find it difficult to not check email or surf on my iPod Touch while watching my favourite TV shows. It's astounding the number of times per day I think of something and immediately want to look it up online.

I have been trying to force myself to read books in the evening before I go to sleep to calm down all this impatient clicking and checking. I used to read all weekend as a teenager, but I find reading for an hour undistracted to be difficult now. I also recently took up running outside during the middle of my day, invariably it destresses me, and I usually come up with a work solution or two.

Still haven't quite managed to settle down enough to meditate - I feel anxious doing it.
posted by wingless_angel at 5:07 AM on August 26, 2010


MetaFilter: We're probably learning more in general, but it's a broader, shallower knowledge.
posted by lukemeister at 7:08 AM on August 26, 2010


Bram Cohen (author of BitTorrent) made a rather important observation.

Anyone who thinks constant distraction is a new thing for the human brain, probably has never had children.
posted by effugas at 9:12 AM on August 26, 2010 [1 favorite]


This seems like an appropriate thread to mention how wonderful M.T. Anderson's Feed is.
posted by Erroneous at 1:05 PM on August 26, 2010


Anyone who thinks constant distraction is a new thing for the human brain, probably has never had children.

Ever noticed how stupid people get once they have kids?
posted by Goofyy at 2:59 AM on August 27, 2010


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