Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on
 

How mobile tech can influence our brain

By Adam Gazzaley, Special to CNN
updated 1:20 PM EDT, Sun September 23, 2012
Children play video games on their smartphones.
Children play video games on their smartphones.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Adam Gazzaley: Frequent interruptions challenge our cognitive control system
  • Gazzaley: "Noise in the system" erodes our performance, including memory
  • He says we're not slaves to technology; we should try to operate in focus mode
  • Gazzaley: Despite concerns, mobile technology can be harnessed to improve our minds

Editor's note: Adam Gazzaley is a professor of neurology and director of the Neuroscience Imaging Center at the University of California, San Francisco.

(CNN) -- The rapid evolution of mobile technology has placed quite a burden on our brains.

Nowadays, attention to even the most pressing of matters can be interrupted at any moment by a familiar buzzing in the pocket -- a friendly nudge to "pay attention to me!" that many find virtually impossible to resist, even while driving on busy roads.

These frequent and unplanned interruptions, coupled with growing expectations for immediate responses, challenge our cognitive control system at its very core.

Cognitive control is our ability to focus on accomplishing a task in the context of competing demands. This increasingly taxed ability is what has allowed humans to achieve remarkable feats, such as developing languages and building complex societies.

Special series: Our mobile society

Adam Gazzaley
Adam Gazzaley

Although data are still lacking on the direct impact of mobile technology on cognition, there is extensive evidence showing that our brains are exquisitely sensitive to external interference by both irrelevant distractions and multitasking. This "noise in the system" erodes our performance on a wide spectrum of cognitive activities, including the ability to recall details in our lives. In other words, an overload of "noise" can wear down our memory.

For example, we found that a simple task that intervenes while you are holding a piece of information will degrade your ability to remember it. This is because the memory network in your brain that is responsible for remembering is disrupted by the interrupting task and has to be reactivated. This is why we often consider multitasking a myth, and feel it is more accurate to think of it as rapid task switching.

Likewise, we found in another experiment that even having your eyes and ears open and exposed to normal visual and auditory environmental stimuli can diminish the details of visual memories when you try to recall them.

The negative impact is greater for those with undeveloped or impaired cognitive control, such as children and older adults, and is exacerbated by the presence of neurological or psychiatric conditions like ADHD or Alzheimer's disease.

There is no doubt that we have to be careful about the influence of unending streams of interference on our minds. We should make more informed decisions about how best to interact with the technologies in our environment. When we are engaged in something that requires high-quality attention, especially if it is time sensitive, we should attempt to conduct ourselves in a manner that is most appropriate for how our brains function: in focus mode.

Just because all of this marvelous technology exists does not mean that we have to use it all at the same time. We are not slaves to it, obliged to respond whenever it calls. Turning off mobile notifications and making an effort to use only one high-tech device at a time is a way to stretch our cognitive resources. While this is not always feasible, we should be mindful to do so.

Despite all the very real concerns, mobile technology can be harnessed to improve our minds. There are ongoing efforts by cognitive science laboratories and companies to develop cognitive assessment and brain training software that will function on mobile phones and tablets. This field is still in its infancy, but early signs are encouraging.

For example, one day we might be able to design apps that allow people to probe their own cognitive abilities (processing speed, memory, decision-making, etc.) at any time during the day and track these abilities over the years, transmitting the results from their smartphones to a health care provider if desired. This real-time data will be more powerful than what we currently obtain by using questionnaires and cognitive snapshots during stressful visits to the doctor's office. Over time, with growing databases across the population, you can compare yourself to any of your cohorts.

Such tools that measure our biological signals can help advance our understanding of our bodies and aid doctors and scientists in their efforts to combat illness and diseases. In addition, we might be able to play immersive apps that incorporate the best video game mechanics into brain training programs to enhance cognition, perhaps allowing people to correct neural deficiencies and even delay the development of dementia.

Of course, this potential needs to balance against any unforeseen negative effects. For now, it's exciting to speculate on the promises of what mobile technology can offer.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Adam Gazzaley.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 3:47 PM EDT, Wed October 1, 2014
Julian Zelizer says Jimmy Carter's message about the need to restore trust in public officials is a vital one, decades after the now 90-year-old he first voiced it
updated 9:09 AM EDT, Thu October 2, 2014
Ford Vox says mistakes and missed opportunities along the line to a diagnosis of Ebola in a Liberian man have put Dallas residents at risk of fatal infection
updated 6:21 PM EDT, Wed October 1, 2014
Pepper Schwartz says California is trying, but its law requiring step-by-step consent is just not the way hot and heavy sex proceeds on college campuses
updated 10:17 PM EDT, Wed October 1, 2014
Mike Downey says long-suffering fans, waiting for good playoff news since 1985, finally get something to cheer about
updated 5:39 PM EDT, Wed October 1, 2014
Steve Israel saysJohn Boehner's Congress and the tea party will be remembered for shutting down government one year ago
updated 8:15 AM EDT, Thu October 2, 2014
Yep. You read the headline right, says Peter Bergen, writing on the new government that stresses national unity
updated 7:12 PM EDT, Wed October 1, 2014
Hong Kong's pro-democracy demonstrators are but the latest freedom group to be abandoned by the Obama administration, says Mike Gonzalez
updated 12:53 PM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
Jeff Yang calls Ello a wakeup call to Facebook and Twitter, and a sign of hope for fast-rising upstarts Pinterest and Snapchat.
updated 10:23 AM EDT, Wed October 1, 2014
Paul Waldman says the Secret Service should examine its procedures to make sure there are no threats to the White House--but without losing the openness so valuable to democracy
updated 10:55 AM EDT, Wed October 1, 2014
Jesse Williams says the videotape and 911 call that resulted in police gunning down John Crawford at a Walmart reveals the fatal injustice of racial assumptions
updated 7:03 PM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
Mel Robbins says officials should drop the P.C. pose: The beheading in Oklahoma was not workplace violence. Plenty of evidence shows Alton Nolen was an admirer of ISIS.
updated 3:11 PM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
The Occupy Central movement has already achieved much by bringing greater attention to Hong Kong's struggle for democracy, William Piekos says..
updated 3:11 PM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
The Occupy Central movement has already achieved much by bringing greater attention to Hong Kong's struggle for democracy, writes William Piekos.
updated 10:13 AM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
As Prime Minister Narendra Modi visits America, Madeleine Albright says a world roiled by conflict needs these two great democracies to commit to moving their partnership forward
updated 10:04 AM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
John Sutter: Lake Providence, Louisiana, is the parish seat of the "most unequal place in America." And until somewhat recently, the poor side of town was invisible on Google Street View.
updated 9:11 AM EDT, Mon September 29, 2014
Julian Zelizer says in the run up to the 2016 election the party faces divisions on its approach to the U.S.'s place in the world
updated 10:19 AM EDT, Mon September 29, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says Common Core supporters can't devise a new set of standards and then fail to effectively sell it.
updated 9:29 AM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
Earlier this month, Kenyans commemorated the heinous attack on the Westgate Mall in Nairobi.
updated 2:59 PM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
David Wheeler says Colorado students are right to protest curriculum changes that downplays civil disobedience.
updated 9:58 PM EDT, Fri September 26, 2014
Sally Kohn says when people click on hacked celebrity photos or ISIS videos, they are encouraging the bad guys.
updated 7:55 AM EDT, Fri September 26, 2014
Loren Bunche says she walked by a homeless man every day and felt bad about it -- until one day she paused to get to know him
updated 9:32 AM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
ISIS grabs headlines on social media, but hateful speech is no match for moderate voices, says Nadia Oweidat.
updated 8:33 AM EDT, Mon September 29, 2014
A new report counts jihadists fighting globally. The verdict? The threat isn't that big, says Peter Bergen.
updated 5:37 PM EDT, Tue September 23, 2014
Ebola could become the biggest humanitarian disaster in a generation, writes former British Prime Minister Tony Blair
updated 12:58 PM EDT, Fri September 26, 2014
ISIS has shocked the world. But will releasing videos of executions backfire? Four experts give their take.
updated 10:39 AM EDT, Fri September 26, 2014
Eric Holder kicked off his stormy tenure as attorney general with a challenge to the public that set tone for six turbulent years as top law-enforcement officer.
updated 9:09 AM EDT, Fri September 26, 2014
LZ Granderson says Obama was elected as a war-ending change agent, not a leader who would leave behind for his successor new engagement in Iraq and Syria. Is he as disappointed as the rest of us?
updated 5:10 AM EDT, Wed September 24, 2014
Gayle Lemmon says the question now is how to translate all the high-profile feminizing into real gains for women
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT