Can our brains adapt to the digital age?

Adults look at their phone screens around 30 times a day. Teens will spend upwards of seven hours a day looking at their phone screens. Knowledge workers today often spend most of the working day looking at their laptop and desktops with multiple screens attached, plus their phone, perhaps a watch too and a tablet. That’s a lot of screen time every day. Then of course, there’s our TV screens and increasingly, Virtual Reality (VR) goggles. Slowly, smart glasses are also coming into play.

The other way we’re interacting with the digital world is of course, voice, which is where Amazon is investing heavily. While I suspect that voice will play a key role, much like gestures will too, although gesture interaction is still in it’s early days and hasn’t quite moved beyond the early adopter stage.

While that is a lot of screens, it’s not just the fact that we’re glaring into a digital world ever more often, it’s how our brains might adapt. Most every app on a phone today and certainly social media services from YouTube to Facebook, Instagram and TikTok are specifically and intentionally designed to keep us interacting with them. There’s a reason that neither iOS or Android are designed to be black and white and are very colourful. There’s a reason there are multiple ways apps and digital products are designed to pop out notifications in multiple ways. It all comes down to one word: Dopamine.

Dopamine is a type of neurotransmitter, an organic compound, a chemical messenger that plays a key role in our brains pleasure . It also helps humans plan, strive, focus and be interested. Dopamine also plays a role in kidney function and how our blood vessels work, our sleep and mood. It is a necessary part of our humanity. Too much can lead to things like Parkinson’s disease and too little can have bad effects too. Those who make digital products know this very well. Much like the food industry hits us with way too much sugar, salt and fat.

While we know now that the unnecessary and vast amounts of sugar, salt and fat in foods is contributing to diabetes, heart disease, obesity, inflammation and other issues, we’re only just starting to learn about the impact of dopamine. Here’s a good article that looks at our dopamine addicted world.

As a digital anthropologist, I live and breathe at the intersection of human, our culture and society as it relates to technology. The theory I am working on in my forthcoming book is how humanity will adapt in what I call the Age of Cognitive Adaptation. Increasingly, we are using digital technologies to augment our lives, from automated cars to Artificial Intelligence. For humanity to not just survive, but thrive, we will have to use these technologies.

We know enough about technology now to know that every technology, be it physical like a hammer or digital like Artificial Intelligence, is a double-edged sword. All technologies, every single one, can be used for good and bad. We can’t always know exactly how, but we can use some frameworks to figure this out when we invent new technologies and take steps.

As digital technologies are very much a part of our cognitive world, interacting with our brains more than our bodies, in order to adapt and make the most of these tools, we are going to have to do more research and consider the impacts on our brains.

New research is showing some warning signs already. Especially with younger children. A study by PEW research centre in 2020 showed that in America, 60% of children were exposed to smartphones before the age of 5. In that group, 31% before 2 years of age. While there are advantages to having children use such devices, there are questions about what is the right age and the degree of use.

For younger children, 5 and under, they have difficulty processing images beyond bright, colourful pictures. Even 5 and older, studies have shown overuse can lead to a number of behavioural issues such as hyperactivity, inattention, mood swings. Symptoms very similar to drug addiction. The upside is that these can be reversed very quickly, without medication.

We also know that extended use and engagement in social media by teenagers can lead to depression, anxiety and sometimes suicide. A fact Meta (formerly Facebook) knew about its Instagram product very well, but hid until a whistleblower exposed them.

Other research into adults is also showing some warning signs. From disrupted sleep, to declining cognition, mental laziness and mood alterations.

There are now several companies developing Brain Computer Interface (BCI) technologies, where chips will be inserted directly into our brains. This could be extremely beneficial for helping blind people see, dealing paralysis, severe depression and all types of issues. We do not know however, what the downsides might be. Since no technology has ever been developed that doesn’t have a bad side, one must postulate that BCI technology will have a downside too. From weaponization to perhaps mood disorders we don’t know about yet or physiological side-effects.

We have these technologies and we are developing more. In the exponential age we live in, they are going to come at us fast and furious. They already are, like this hyperbolic idea of the “metaverse” which will likely not be the way we think of it today.

Our brains have adapted before, many hundreds of thousands of years ago, shifts in chemicals, our prefrontal cortex and other adaptations as we evolved language and writing and even created culture, knows “complex human behaviour.” So yes, likely we can adapt. But how? What are the dangers we can predict to avoid? Some we may not know until things happen, which is a human thing.

It is likely that we will need some degree of government regulation at some point. We already do regarding social media and disinformation as we cannot solve that problem with technology because it is not a technology problem, it is a human problem. The challenge will be not to over-regulate, which will stifle competition and innovation. That will be a very fine balancing act. Capitalism is critical to how we move into the digital era, but some degree of guidelines need to be in place.

Our organic computers sloshing about in our skulls are already being affected. We know this for scientific fact. We need now to think of how we will adapt in the Cognitive Age.

Note: This story also appears on my Medium site here.

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