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Brains on Overdrive

Am I thinking too fast for my own good?

Am I thinking too fast for my own good? I don't know - I can't slow down enough to think - of the answer.

The rapid pace of information constantly assaulting our brains challenges our ability to pay full attention to any one thing. Our email, twitters, texts, and instant messages pressure us into quick responses that lead us to sacrifice detail and accuracy. Radio and television announcers speak in time-compressed sentences leaving us with mere ideas of what they are saying. Many people are replacing depth and subtlety in their thinking with quick mental facts that may only skim the surface. The mental clutter, noise and frequent interruptions that assail us further fuel this frenetic cognitive style.

Our high-tech revolution has plunged us into a state of continuous partial attention, which software executive Linda Stone describes as continually staying busy - keeping tabs on everything while never truly focusing on anything. Continuous partial attention differs from multitasking, wherein we have a purpose for each task, and we are trying to improve efficiency and productivity. Instead, when our minds partially attend, and do so continuously, we scan for an opportunity for any type of contact at every given moment. We virtually chat as our text messages flow, and we keep tabs on active buddy lists (friends and other screen names in an instant message program) - everything, everywhere is connected through our peripheral attention. Although it seems intimate having all our pals online from moment to moment, we risk losing personal touch with our real-life relationships and may experience an artificial sense of intimacy compared to when we shut down our devices and devote our attention to one individual at a time. But still, many people report that if they're suddenly cut-off from someone's buddy list, they take it personally, deeply personally.

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When paying partial continuous attention, people may place their brains in a heightened state of stress. They no longer have time to reflect, contemplate or make thoughtful decisions. Instead, they exist in a sense of constant crisis - on alert for a new contact or bit of exciting news or information at any moment. And, once people get used to it, they tend to thrive on the perpetual connectivity. It feeds their egos and sense of self-worth, and it becomes irresistible.

Neuromaging studies suggest that this sense of self-worth may protect the size of the hippocampus - that horseshow-shaped brain region in the medial temporal lobe, which allows us to learn and remember new information. Dr. Sonia Lupien and associates at McGill University studied hippocampal size in healthy 20 to 26 year-olds, and older 60 to 84 year-old volunteers. Measures of self-esteem correlated significantly with hippocampal size, regardless of age. They also found that the more people felt in control of their lives, the larger their hippocampus.

But at some point, the sense of control and self-worth we feel when we maintain partial continuous attention, tends to break down - our brains were not built to maintain such monitoring for extended time periods. Eventually, the endless hours of unrelenting digital connectivity can create a unique type of brain strain. Many people who have been working on the Internet for several hours without a break, report making frequent errors in their work. Upon signing off, they notice feeling spaced-out, fatigued, irritable, and distracted, as if they are in a digital fog. This new form of mental stress is threatening to become an epidemic.

Under this kind of stress, our brains instinctively signal the adrenal gland to secret cortisol and adrenaline. In the short run, these stress hormones boost energy levels and augment memory, but over time they actually impair cognition, lead to depression, and alter the neural circuitry in the hippocampus, amygdala, and prefrontal cortex - brain regions that control mood and thought. Chronic and prolonged techno-brain burnout can even reshape underlying brain structure.

If you are in Los Angeles on October 30th, come hear me and other experts talk about multitasking brains and related topics at the UCLA Technology & Aging Conference at the Skirball Cultural Center. For more information, check out www.aging.ucla.edu.

Dr. Gary Small is co-author with Gigi Vorgan of iBrain: Surviving the Technological Alteration of the Modern Mind, and author of The Memory Bible. For more information, visit DrGarySmall.com.

 

Gary Small is a professor of psychiatry at UCLA. He directs the Memory and Aging Research Center and the UCLA Center on Aging.

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