The connected brain
In this interesting and thought provoking talk, Dr Tom Stafford, a psychologist and cognitive scientist at Sheffield University considered how digital technology affects us. Are web users losing the ability to concentrate? Is Google making our memory redundant? Can you have real friends on Facebook? How is gaming affecting brain development?
Many people are concerned that the endless live stream we're exposed to is affecting our ability to concentrate.
Stafford points out that this is not a new problem: "The single biggest finding from decades of research into attention is that it is — and will always be — finite." He illustrated this by engaging us in a "tracking moving dots" experiment. Some in the room were very good, others less so. Interestingly, those who regularly played action computer games were particularly adept.
Hence with practice we can improve our ability to multitask and balance competing demands — just as we can learn to focus more deeply. Yet we must choose how and where we direct our finite attention.
Harvard's Dan Wegner has clearly shown how the Web affects how we use our memory. When exposed to new information, we are now less likely to allocate memory capacity to the information itself, but instead form detailed memories of how to retrieve it should we need it again. Wegner calls this ability to outsource the business part of remembering information "transactive memory".
Our brains simply adapt to the way we live, and what's different now is the sheer volume and accessibility of information. Technological stimuli do not have any privileged access.
Hence rather than worrying about our brains" new reliance on the internet, Stafford suggests we should be cherishing the unprecedented access to new experience and new knowledge that we can access through it.
Stafford is unconvinced that the web necessarily means this: "newspapers became more widely read, but we're still talking." We may spend more time chatting online, but the bars and cafés outside are thronged as usual. Recent convincing research shows that those with more "friends" online also have more fruitful social lives offline.
Overall, rather than panic about it making us dumb, distracted and alone, Stafford says we should identify the principles which help us design technology which makes us smart, able to concentrate and empathetic.
Roddy Glen Associates
This article was first published in InBrief magazine, September 2013
Copyright © Association for Qualitative Research, 2013