We’ve all heard the grumblings of certain people in society. “People today, they’re so glued to their phones, they wouldn’t know how to function without them.’’
If you look around at modern society, then this may seem accurate, hardly anybody uses a physical map anymore and people are much more likely to communicate through text messages than they are to meet and discuss something.
Technology has developed rapidly in the last twenty years and has changed the landscape of the world, making our lives more fast-paced and making access to information incredibly easy.
If you have a question, you won’t need to ask somebody or use a textbook anymore, you just go to Google and type your query.
We will be exploring whether or not this easy access to information is actually damaging our ability to think for ourselves and our capacity to learn, along with the other effects of the internet on daily life.
An interesting hypothetical surrounding this scenario would be, “would Christopher Columbus have been able to discover North America if he had been using a primitive version of Google Maps for most of his life?” This question is interesting because he likely would not have been able to use Maps whilst at sea, so the question would be, would his use of Maps have damaged his ability to navigate independently?
The Effects of GPS on the Brain
In the modern age, there are a number of people that pay too much attention to the annoyingly polite, yet scathing voice of their GPS system. Whether it be a recalculation of your route that actually means it takes you longer to get to your destination, or, whether you are looking to closely at your GPS and end up in a river, this incredibly handy piece of hardware is not without its downsides.
In fact, a study published by University College London actually discovered that when people stay glued to their GPS systems when navigating, instead of relying on their own spacial awareness, the amount of activity present in the brain takes a dramatic decrease. The way our brain works when we are navigating new areas without GPS assistance is as follows, firstly, the hippocampus of the brain controls our spatial movement whilst the pre-frontal cortex area of the brain acts to decode and figure out various routes that we would be able to take to navigate the area.
During the study, the university decided to test this by fitting volunteers within fMRI machines and had them navigate through a simulated version of the Soho area of London using only their own wits. Then, to monitor the difference that occurs when using a GPS system, another group of volunteers went through the same experiment but were required to only follow GPS directions to reach their destination. What the scientists discovered was that in the group who were using GPS, their brain activity was massively absent in comparison to the group without GPS. This means that they were letting the technology completely do the job for them, without using much of their own brain power to navigate.
Hugo Spiers was the individual who led the study and when approached for comment by The Guardian Newspaper, he stated “When we have technology telling us which way to go, these parts of the brain simply don’t respond to the street network. In that sense, our brain has switched off its interest in the streets around us,”.
This seems to suggest that when using the technology, our mind’s enter a trance where we are not actually aware or absorbing sufficient information about the world around us, as we are relying on technology to handle our spatial navigation for us. Now, it’ll be a bit more understandable when you are reading the news and hear a story about a person who drove into a lake whilst concentrating on their GPS.
Effects on Memory and Independent Decision Making
You may have heard the assertions in the past that using the internet consistently to answer questions has a detrimental effect on your ability to recall information. A group of scientists from both the University of California, Santa Cruz and the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champagne decided to conduct an experiment to measure people’s reliance on technology for remembering things and how this reliance changed the process of answering questions.
The scientists took a group of volunteers and split them into two smaller groups. They were looking to see how likely people were to use their smartphones to answer questions. Once separated, both groups were given a set of general knowledge questions, one group was permitted to use Google and the other group had to rely solely on their own memory. After all of the questions had been answered, both groups were provided with a new set of questions and both groups were also allowed to use Google if they wanted to do so.
With the group who were allowed to use Google, it was observed that they were much more likely to use the search engine, even for relatively simple questions. This is different to the other group, who in the second phase were found to be more likely to attempt the questions themselves, only using their smartphone if they genuinely couldn’t come up with an answer.
It was also discovered that the participants who were answering questions from their memory, in general, answered their questions more quickly than the other group had. It was also noted that within the group who were initially allowed to use Google, none of these participants answered a question without using their smartphone.
The lead author of the study, Benjamin Storm had this to say when approached for comment- “As more information becomes available via smartphones and other devices, we become progressively more reliant on it in our daily lives.”
What can be gleaned from this statement is that people who have access to a large amount of information from the internet are incredibly likely to make use of it to answer their queries, even if they are likely to know the answer. There is a growing reliance on the internet as an information source as people believe it is superior to their memory, leading to a decrease in decision making that is independent of the internet due to the fact that people do not trust their memory.
The Internet’s Effect on Brain Power
Despite some of the negative assertions of how the internet affects the power of our brains, there has been some credible research which states that the internet can be beneficial to the power of the brain in both the middle-aged and the elderly.
A group of scientists from UCLA conducted a study in 2008 to measure the ways in which internet use has an effect on the power of the brain. To conduct this study, UCLA used a group of 24 volunteers with all of them being between the ages of 55 and 76. Half of the study participants were experienced internet users, whilst the others had never used the internet. Variables such as age, the highest level of education and the gender of the participants were kept consistent between the two groups.
During the study, the volunteers were asked to browse the internet and complete tasks related to traditional reading whilst having their brain activity recorded by fMRI machines.
The results of the study showed some major differences between the two groups. During the reading tasks’ section of the study, both groups of volunteers showed similar levels of brain activity, in the temporal, parietal and occipital sections of the brain. In contrast to this, during the internet browsing task, all of the participants in each group experienced the same brain activity that they did in the reading task, the group who had previous experience in using the internet also displayed additional brain activity in the frontal and cingulate sections of the brain.
When commenting on the results of the study, Dr. Gary Small was reported as saying “Our most striking finding was that Internet searching appears to engage a greater extent of neural circuitry that is not activated during reading — but only in those with prior Internet experience,”
When broken down into measurable statistics, the findings are even more shocking. The smallest unit to which you can measure brain activity with the fMRI machines is referred to as a voxel. The UCLA scientists discovered that during Internet-based tasks, the internet-experienced participants registered an average of 21,782 voxels whilst the group without prior experience only registered 8,646 voxels, this is a massive difference.
Dr. Small also stated that “A simple, everyday task like searching the Web appears to enhance brain circuitry in older adults, demonstrating that our brains are sensitive and can continue to learn as we grow older,”
As it stands, highly-publicized research has not come out relating to changes in brainpower for young people who use the internet, however, as time goes on, it is incredibly likely that we will get a better idea from newer studies.
The Effect of the Internet on Productivity
Organizations which allow their employees to keep their mobile devices switched on during the day can open themselves up to noticeable losses in efficiency if they don’t put restrictions in place.
One of the main reasons that this happens is that employees will be more likely to browse on their phone and get absorbed into their personal lives if they are given an avenue to be able to do so. Unchecked access to the internet is a great avenue for this. As a result of employees then turning their attention away from work and towards their own personal matters, they end up achieving less within their role each day, with current estimates saying that employees already spend an average of one hour of their working day performing activities not related to work.
An hour a day of lost time from a few employees doesn’t mean much in the short term, however, in larger organizations, the number of employees who are using the internet for personal reasons will increase. This will lead to even more hours of wasted time each day, then when you consider those daily losses for a year, you will begin to understand that lost time due to employee use of the internet can be a big hit on an organization’s productivity.
In some events, unauthorized internet use can cause catastrophic consequences for your business, with potential exposure to cyber attacks, the theft of sensitive information and the hijacking of social media accounts, leading to ruinous fake posts about your business.
The root cause of this lost productivity is down to the fact that these employees are likely not feeling engaged or challenged by the current working environment, which means they don’t care about keeping high-performance standards.
Some potential solutions to this include adding filters to your work computers which prevent employees from viewing certain sites, this would also guard against cyber attacks, you could also implement a strict internet and device usage policy, linked to your disciplinary guidelines to prevent unauthorized internet use.
As has been discussed in this article, overreliance on technology can impact the way in which we learn and attempt to solve problems, it can also cause businesses to register lower levels of productivity if the use of technology isn’t policed and monitored.
Despite some of the negative impacts of technology on the brain and the way in which we work, it can also have some benefits for certain individuals. As the study in middle-aged and elderly people has shown, internet use can help to exercise the brain and keep your mind nimble.
With all of these factors being considered, it is still obvious that as long as Columbus had reception on his mobile phone and had North America marked on Google Maps, then he would be able to discover the continent. In fact, he may have actually been able to meet his goal and find India, rather than mistakenly traveling to the New World.
If we are assuming that Columbus had access to Google Maps before leaving, however, does not have signal during the voyage, it may have been less likely that he would have been able to follow his planned route. This is because the frequent use of GPS was found to decrease the activity being recorded in the parts of the brain which control sense of direction. Furthermore, it could be considered that with access to the internet, the crew would have been less diligent and would have spent less time doing their jobs, this could potentially lead to a disaster or the ship taking the wrong heading.
It’s an interesting question to consider and the answer is likely as simple as previously stated.
As time goes on, more research will be published about the effects of technology on the human brain, and as this happens, we will get a greater understanding of the potential consequences and benefits to our world becoming much more interlinked and advanced.