Friday, May 24, 2013

Are Gadgets Making us Dumber?

A classic plot in movies and novels is the scientist who invents a revolutionary device and is caught in a dilemma.  His discovery can be used for great good or for tremendous evil.  What should he do?  This is not only the work of fiction but happens in life.  The most striking example is atomic energy, which may be used to power large cities or as a bargaining tool by a despotic ruler of a rogue nation.  On a more mundane level, do you suppose the people at Apple, Microsoft, Verizon, Twitter or Facebook agonized over whether their technological contributions to society would cause harm to people? – Probably not, but now we find out the dangers of too many gadgets.

Beyond the danger of texting while driving and other irresponsible behavior, beyond the simple erosion of attention span, even beyond the common issue of addiction to a smartphone, new research finds that the constant distractions of our various gadgets actually impede our ability to be creative and to efficiently process information.  All these issues, of course, involve behaviors related to discipline.

It turns out that multi-tasking is not a cool and useful talent to acquire, as we have been led to believe.  It should be considered a weakness, not a strength.  "Multitasking while doing academic work — which is very, very common among young people — leads to spottier, shallower, less flexible learning." One study found that constant interruptions reduced scores on a test of cognitive abilities by 20%.  Another showed that the interruptions were, to a large extent, self-imposed.  Students observed during study time with access to computer and phone spent only 65% of the time actually working, despite knowing that they were being observed.

Further research “shows that multitasking can have long-term harmful effects on brain function.”  Contrary to the researchers expectations, multitaskers do poorly on experimental tests and “even when they focus on a single activity, frequent multitaskers use their brains less effectively.” 

For most people taking on more than two tasks at a time increases the likelihood of errors.  It reduces concentration and increases stress.  Even when you’re not driving, the phone and e-mail can wait.  It’s another area where stronger behavior in the dimension of discipline can have a long-term positive impact on your life.

Read more from one of the researchers in this transcript of a discussion on NPR.

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