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How the Digital World Is Changing Our Brain
How does the digital transformation affect our psyche and our brain? In this interview with 42, Professor Montag discusses the use of Counter Strike, conditioned behaviour, and explains why we urgently need to find better ways to control digital transformation.
Professor Montag – I hardly know any telephone number by heart and I cannot find my way around without the help of Google Maps. Has my brain fallen victim to the digital revolution?
The fact that we no longer know telephone numbers by heart does not necessarily mean that we have become “more stupid”. Nowadays, skills other than the memorisation of said numbers are needed. Unfortunately, there are only a couple of studies on this topic. That is why we do not really know whether and how the digital revolution has negative effects on our capacity to memorise things.
What do the studies that have been done say?
There is an exciting study by a team of Israeli researchers. They gave smartphone novices a mobile phone for three months. Before and afterwards, they conducted neuropsychological tests; these measured impulsiveness, memory capacity, but also simple mathematical skills. The participants showed no decrease in memory capacity after the three months.
Of course the question is always how you measure a complex construct such as memory capacity – there are very different methods. Interestingly, the participants that used the smartphone a lot scored lower in the mathematical tests after three months. In a different study by Kostadin Kushlev, the instruction to use the smartphone frequently during the experiment led to a lack of concentration and behaviour that resembled symptoms of ADHD These first smartphone studies indicate that the frequent interruptions created by smartphone usage can indeed influence our psyche.
Apart from these negative effects, are there also positive ones?
Positive transfer effects have mostly been studied in the context of computer games, especially those that have fallen into disrepute: ego-shooter games such as Counter Strike. In these games, players have to react to stimuli very quickly. Some studies have shown that the games can improve spatial awareness. But here I have to say that a new review by Giovanni Sala and his colleagues could not demonstrate these effects in a wider context over a number of studies. This means that there are perhaps no transfer effects of this kind, or only weak ones. However, reviews have also shown the effects of these types of games on the potential for aggression, which are rather weak according to some studies.
Today, our brain is confronted with completely different conditions than twenty years ago. How does digital transformation fundamentally affect its structure?
Our brain is neuroplastic, which means that it is constantly changing. After this conversation, your brain will not be the same as it was before. Actually, it’s a nice thought: everything we experience in our day-to-day lives leaves a footprint. The intensity of the experience influences how big this footprint will be at the end of the day. By the way: if your brain did not change, you would not be able to remember this conversation. What we are still missing in our research, however, are “in vivo” methods, which are imaging techniques of the brain in the living human being, to map these changes on the molecular level. Our current methods in the studying of humans mostly use magnetic resonance tomography techniques. These techniques are great, but at the moment only provide us with a rough overview of how the human brain works.
I am convinced that the daily confrontation with the digital world will leave traces. The question is what kind of traces it will leave exactly. One example: in a study with players of a Massively Multiplayer Online Role Play Games (MMORPG), we discovered that experienced players that described themselves as more addicted to the game had a smaller orbitofrontal cortex. After six weeks of playing the MMORPG, the brain volume in this area had decreased for participants that had not played the game before. At the same time, the participants of this group described themselves as more addicted after six weeks of playing. The area seems to be directly connected to the development of addiction. We could show that this effect is possibly due to playing this game.
„There is a difference between reading Die Zeit’s feuilleton on a tablet computer and being addicted to online pornography”
There seem to be two camps of psychologists and neuroscientists when it comes to the topic of digital transformation: those that see the devil’s work in it and those that see new potentials in it. What group do you belong to?
Digital transformation always has two sides. The invention of the iPhone, only eleven years ago, was an incredible achievement. But this has not only simplified communication – it also accelerated the speed of our work. I am convinced that we need half the amount of time to do certain jobs today, compared to twenty years ago. Nevertheless, we do not work four hours less, but often work even longer than before. We have to recognise that the digital revolution – a development that should really also relieve work-related burdens – is in fact accelerating everything, to the point that we are spending even more time in the (mobile) office. This seems to be one of the core problems to me.
Apart from this you have to see that we use very different forms of digital content in our daily lives. This means that you cannot make sweeping generalisations about their effects. There is a difference between reading Die Zeit’s feuilleton on a tablet computer and constantly browsing online pornography websites and perhaps becoming addicted to them. The smartphone, as such, is not good or bad either. Positive and negative consequences depend on how we use these technologies. In other words, the usefulness of the digital revolution for every individual person will be reflected in whether we learn to use devices like smartphones in a smart way.
What does smart usage look like?
Years ago, I set up a reversed U-function that describes the connection between productive working and smartphone usage to illustrate this. If you use your smartphone in a smart way, then the device will make you more productive. But there is a turning point where the whole thing changes and the device makes you unproductive. In my view, this starts at the point where you are constantly interrupted in your daily life. Later on, when you’ll be writing up our conversation, you will never get it done if you check your emails or WhatsApp messages every two minutes.
Our poor brain cannot but react to these new cues – after all, they might be important. In fact, what we are dealing with today are numerous micro-interruptions which often prevent us from becoming properly absorbed in our work. By the way, there is an exciting new study which has shown that smartphones draw cognitive resources simply by lying on a desk. You cannot concentrate on your work on the computer if you are constantly waiting for something nice to happen on your smartphone.
So am I simply conditioned?
Yes, what we are observing here is indeed a simple learning process. Let us travel back to the time before the introduction of the iPhone: you are walking to the bus stop after work and miss your bus. What do you do? Perhaps you read a book or talk to a colleague. The same situation after the introduction of the smartphone: the bus drives away, you are annoyed – and then you remember that you can now answer emails on your phone. At this point, reaching for your smartphone when you are at the bus stop starts to become a habit. After a couple of weeks, the cue bus stop alone will be enough for you to reach for your device.
What can I do to break this vicious circle?
Unfortunately, I can only give you a disillusioning answer to this question. A study recently examined how long it takes to learn a new habit – the median number of days it takes is 66. That is quite a long time. If this number could be transferred to the development of habits regarding the smartphone, this would mean that you would have to put it into the back pocket of your rucksack every time you leave work. Then you would have to walk to the bus stop and reach into thin air for about 66 days. But the problem is: the bus stop is not the only cue that is connected to the smartphone. By now, there are numerous other cues that make us reach for our phones automatically.
„The smartphone is a sleep killer”
So the back pocket of the rucksack alone will not do the trick. What else can we do to reduce our smartphone-usage?
I myself spend too much time on my phone. That is why I have stopped using it altogether in the bedroom. For this reason I have bought an analogue alarm clock again. We know that using a smartphone in the evening correlates with a lack of sleep duration and quality. This is because many of us do not only use the device as an alarm clock in the bedroom, but instead browse the internet for a long time before going to sleep. All of a sudden, it’s one o’clock in the morning, but the smartphone alarm is still going to ring at six… What’s more, a lot of people forget to put the messenger functions on mute, so they get woken up by incoming messages during the night. You have to admit that the device is a sleep killer.
Furthermore, I wear a wrist watch in my daily life. Because of this, I don’t need my smartphone anymore to see what time it is. After all, the bad thing is that it never ends at checking what time it is. While I have the device in my hand, I suddenly see that I have received a message on WhatsApp. And all of a sudden I am on my phone for 20 minutes, and when I put it away I still don’t know what time it is.
„Social networks use perfidious mechanisms to increase social pressures”
Apart from habit, social pressure is also a factor. Your boss, your friends – everybody expects a fast reply…
Social networks use perfidious mechanisms to increase this social pressure. A typical example is WhatsApp’s double tick function – I see that you have read my message, why aren’t you answering me? In my view, providers introduce things like this to accelerate and increase the traffic on their platform.
Facebook uses another significant mechanism: one motivation to use the platform is the expectation of positive feedback in the form of likes. There is no ‚thumbs down‘. Users could use a thumbs down to signal their disapproval of hate speech, for instance. In my opinion there is no thumbs down because users would not feel as well at ease on Facebook if it existed. After all, who wants to get negative feedback? It would reduce traffic, Facebook would get less data and earn less money.
We urgently need to think about Silicon Valley’s payment model in this context: most internet platforms lead users to believe that they are getting something for free. But the service is not free of charge – we pay with our data, and the platforms are designed to make us generate as much data as possible. Wouldn’t it be better to pay something like €2.99 a month for a service like this and be safe in the knowledge that the data will only be used to improve the service, and not to manipulate elections or influence users in other ways?
Apart from the fact that we pay with our data, the digital also generates a lot of stress. Are analogue people happier?
No, I would not generalise it like that. What’s more, this seems to be more of a theoretical question to me; in Germany, about 82 per cent of people uses the internet. The rest will mainly be made up of toddlers and very old people. Everyone in between has at least a connection to the internet, and most will have a smartphone. Today, there is hardly anyone who lives completely analogously.
How have we adapted our environment to this behaviour?
It has come to the point where changes in urban development are being made for smartphone users. Cologne and Augsburg are testing so-called “smombie“ traffic lights. They are embedded in the ground at train stations and shine a light on the smartphone user from below when the train comes. In the USA, in New Jersey, you can even get a fine for texting while crossing the street as a pedestrian.
Would you want something like this for Europe?
I think this could quickly lead to overregulation. Really, we should trust our common sense. But that is difficult because our behaviour is overlearned with regards to the smartphone in particular – we are no longer aware of our own usage. If I asked you how much you have used your smartphone since last Wednesday, you would only have a rough idea. We perceive this time in a distorted way. Our measurements have shown that the average smartphone user uses his or her device for about two and a half hours a day – that is in direct interaction. If we project this onto a week, that is almost a whole day. We could surely use this whole day more sensibly – to learn new skills, to meet up with friends, and last but not least, to spend more time with our children.
„The digital revolution has completely overrun us“
That does sound rather pessimistic.
Don’t get me wrong, I am not critical of technology across the board. We need digital transformation, but we have to make sure we steer it in the right direction so it can improve our society – from the individual health and psychological level to the socio-political level. We are currently looking at problems brought on by digital transformation in a lot of different areas.
In our defence, though, we have to admit that the digital revolution completely overrun us. It is still steamrolling us and we are still lagging behind in many respects without being able to take a moment to answer questions like: where is all of this supposed to lead us? We really need this debate. But we cannot turn back time and our modern society is dependent on a well functioning digital infrastructure. Personally, I do not want to live without Skype when I am in my lab in China for several months, and could hardly stay in contact with my wife and daughter otherwise. All the same, a lot of companies have become so powerful that some regulation is necessary. That I am convinced of.
Interview: Eliana Berger
Translation: Charlotte Bander
Prof. Dr Christian Montag is the Head of Molecular Psychology at Ulm University and a visiting professor at the University of Electronic Science and Technology of China. He primarily conducts research on the effects of digital processes on human nature. At the end of 2017, he published a book on the topic called “Homo Digitalis”.