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 12:20 PM EDT, Thu July 10, 2014
Frida Ghitis says a poll of 14 Muslim-majority nations show people are increasingly opposed to extremism.
updated 2:28 PM EDT, Thu July 10, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says spending more on immigation enforcement isn't going to stop the flow of people seeking refuge in the U.S.
updated 4:48 PM EDT, Thu July 10, 2014
Faisal Gill had top security clearance and worked for the Department of Homeland Security. That's why it was a complete shock to learn the NSA had him under surveillance.
updated 2:41 PM EDT, Thu July 10, 2014
Kevin Sabet says the scientific verdict is that marijuana can be dangerous, and Colorado should be a warning to states contemplating legalizing pot.
updated 4:47 PM EDT, Wed July 9, 2014
World War I ushered in an era of chemical weapons use that inflicted agonizing injury and death. Its lethal legacy lingers into conflicts today, Paul Schulte says
updated 7:37 AM EDT, Thu July 10, 2014
Tom Foley and Ben Zimmer say Detroit's recent bankruptcy draws attention to a festering problem in America -- cities big and small are failing to keep up with change.
updated 8:01 AM EDT, Thu July 10, 2014
Mel Robbins says many people think there's "something suspicious" about Leanna Harris. But there are other interpretations of her behavior
updated 4:06 PM EDT, Wed July 9, 2014
Newt Gingrich warns that President Obama's border plan spends too much and doesn't do what is needed
updated 1:53 PM EDT, Wed July 9, 2014
Amy Bass says Germany's rout of Brazil on its home turf was brutal, but in defeat the Brazilian fans' respect for the victors showed why soccer is called 'the beautiful game'
updated 1:54 PM EDT, Tue July 8, 2014
Errol Lewis says if it really wants to woo black voters away from the Democrats, the GOP better get behind its black candidates
updated 5:07 PM EDT, Wed July 9, 2014
Aaron Carroll explains how vaccines can prevent illnesses like measles, which are on the rise
updated 8:08 PM EDT, Tue July 8, 2014
Aaron Miller says if you think the ongoing escalation between Israel and Hamas over Gaza will force a moment of truth, better think again
updated 6:41 PM EDT, Tue July 8, 2014
Martin Luther King Jr. fought and died so blacks would no longer be viewed as inferior but rather enjoy the same inherent rights given to whites in America.
updated 7:47 AM EDT, Wed July 9, 2014
Alex Castellanos says recent low approval ratings spell further trouble for the President
updated 11:49 PM EDT, Tue July 8, 2014
Paul Begala says Boehner's plan to sue Obama may be a stunt for the tea party, or he may be hoping the Supreme Court's right wing will advance the GOP agenda that he could not
updated 12:59 PM EDT, Sun July 6, 2014
The rapture is a bizarre teaching in fundamentalist circles, made up by a 19th-century theologian, says Jay Parini. It may have no biblical validity, but is a really entertaining plot device in new HBO series
updated 1:49 PM EDT, Mon July 7, 2014
Ruben Navarrette: President Obama needs to send U.S. marshals to protect relocating immigrant kids.
updated 3:03 PM EDT, Tue July 8, 2014
Norman Matloff says a secret wage theft pact between Google, Apple and others highlights ethics problems in Silicon Valley.
updated 6:37 PM EDT, Tue July 8, 2014
The mother of murdered Palestinian teenager Mohammed Abu Khder cries as she meets Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah, West Bank on July 7, 2014.
Naseem Tuffaha says the killing of Israeli teenagers has rightly brought the world's condemnation, but Palestinian victims like his cousin's slain son have been largely reduced to faceless, nameless statistics.
updated 4:28 PM EDT, Wed July 9, 2014
Danny Cevallos says charging the dad in the hot car death case with felony murder, predicated on child neglect, was a smart strategic move.
updated 9:26 AM EDT, Tue July 8, 2014
Van Jones says our nation is sitting on a goldmine of untapped talent. The tech companies need jobs, young Latinos and blacks need jobs -- so how about a training pipeline?
updated 9:09 AM EDT, Mon July 7, 2014
A drug that holds hope in the battle against hepatitis C costs $1,000 per pill. We can't solve a public health crisis when drug makers charge such exorbitant prices, Karen Ignagni says.
updated 7:33 AM EDT, Mon July 7, 2014
Julian Zelizer says our political environment is filled with investigations or accusations of another scandal; all have their roots in the scandal that brought down Richard Nixon
updated 2:14 PM EDT, Sun July 6, 2014
Sally Kohn says Boehner's lawsuit threat is nonsense that wastes taxpayer money, distracts from GOP's failure to pass laws to help Americans
updated 11:26 AM EDT, Mon July 7, 2014
Speaker John Boehner says President Obama has circumvented Congress with his executive actions and plans on filing suit against the President this month
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT