For the past two decades, I have been developing advanced technologies to help us understand how the brain functions and changes over time. My group at UCLA invented a brain scanning technique that can detect the earliest stages of Alzheimer's disease decades before people experience obvious symptoms. And we continue to develop new technologies to better understand the workings of the brain and how it ages.
What has really impressed me in recent years is not just how we can use technology to measure and understand our brains, but how the rapid pace of innovation has led to new technologies everywhere in our lives. And, I think that this new digital age is altering how we think and interact.
Laptops, PDAs, iPods, smart phones and other technological gadgets seem to be taking over our pockets and purses with no end in sight. But could they be altering our families and affecting the way we interact with each other? Investigators at the University of Minnesota found that traditional family meals have a positive impact on adolescent behavior. In a 2006 survey of nearly 100,000 teenagers across 25 states, a higher frequency of family dinners was associated with more positive values and a greater commitment to learning. Adolescents from homes having fewer family dinners were more likely to exhibit high-risk behaviors, including substance abuse, sexual activity, suicide attempts, violence, and academic problems.
In today's fast-paced, technologically-driven world, some people consider the traditional family dinner to be an insignificant, old-fashioned ritual. Actually, it not only strengthens our neural circuitry for human contact (the brain's insula and frontal lobe), but it also helps ease the stress we experience in our daily lives, protecting the medial temporal regions that control emotion and memory.
Many of us remember when dinnertime regularly brought the nuclear family together at the end of the day - everyone having finished work, homework, play, and sports. Parents and children relaxed, shared their day's experiences, kept up with each other's lives, and actually made eye contact while they talked.
Now, dinnertime tends to be a much more harried affair. With emailing, video chatting, and TVs blaring, there is little time set aside for family discussion and reflection on the day's events. Conversations at meals sometimes resemble instant messages where family members pop in with comments that have no linear theme. In fact, if there is time to have a family dinner, many family members tend to eat quickly and run back to their own computer, video game, cell phone or other digital activity.
Although the traditional dinner can be an important part of family life, whenever surly teenagers, sulking kids, and tired over-worked parents get together at the dining table, conflicts can emerge and tensions may arise. However, family dinners still provide a good setting for children and adolescents to learn basic social skills in conversation, dining etiquette, and basic empathy.
The other day I actually heard myself yelling to my teenage son, "Stop playing that darn video game and come down and watch TV with me." Our new technology allows us to do remarkable things - we can communicate through elaborate online social networks, get vast amounts of information in an instant, work and play more efficiently. The potential negative impact of new technology on the brain depends on its content, duration, and context. To a certain extent, I think that the opportunities for developing the brain's neural networks that control our face-to-face social skills - what many define as our humanity - are being lost or at least compromised, as families become more fractured. Think about your family life, and ask yourself if technology is bringing you closer or farther from the people you care about?
Dr. Gary Small is co-author with Gigi Vorgan of "iBrain: Surviving the Technological Alteration of the Modern Mind" (HarperCollins, October, 2008). For more information, visit DrGarySmall.com.