‘Dementia’ is a term sadly all too familiar these days, with soaring instances of Alzheimer’s disease and other conditions characterized by confusion, disorientation, and impaired memory—literally a ‘loss of mind.’ However, the notion that an analogous state might be linked to the screen lifestyle is as controversial as it is potentially troubling.
“Digital Dementia” is a term coined by neuroscientist Manfred Spitzer to describe an overuse of digital technology resulting in the breakdown of cognitive abilities.1 Spitzer proposes that short-term memory pathways will start to deteriorate from underuse if we overuse technology. Although in this blog, we have recently explored outsourcing your memory to smartphones, these two concepts are different—the mental disarray within the brain implied by the term ‘dementia’ is far more basic and complete. An under-practiced memory process is far from being comparable to the wider cognitive devastation that is dementia.
Perhaps a potentially more informative line of enquiry would be to explore the wider ways in which the screen lifestyle could induce states analogous to dementia. Researchers recently set out to investigate how action video gamers and non-video gamers navigated a virtual maze, using one of two potential strategies. The spatial strategy involves remembering the location of various landmarks within the environment and mentally building a map of these locations and their position relative to each other.3 Establishing relationships between landmarks allows for flexibility when navigating the world, as you are able to orientate yourself within your mental map. This particular strategy relies on a familiar area of the brain long associated with spatial memory: the hippocampus.
The response strategy, by contrast, entails learning the series of movements that follow from a set position, such as a certain pattern of left and right turns after seeing a particular landmark. Whereas the spatial strategy enables you to determine a direct path to any location, the response strategy is rigid in this regard as it relies on a series of movements triggered specifically by certain locations, and presses into service a different area of the brain, the striatum.3 The researchers found that video gamers were more likely to navigate the virtual maze using the response strategy.
Perhaps the exaggerated involvement of the striatum shouldn’t come as a surprise. We know that action video gaming is linked with greater brain volume in the striatum,4 but this may be at the expense of a reduction in hippocampal volume.2 Although this proposal requires further investigation, previous research has shown that reduced grey matter in the hippocampus is associated with an increased risk for schizophrenia, post-traumatic stress disorder, depression and dementia, amongst other disorders.
Perhaps the crucial question then is whether rigid yet efficient ‘response strategies’ or the more flexible ability to make connections are more important for the optimal cognitive tool kit—and indeed whether such a simple dichotomy can indeed encapsulate the impairments embraced by the single term ‘dementia.’