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Technology Can Push Our Crazy Buttons, Rewire Brains

Victor Hebbick Visions | Science Photo Library | Getty Images

Jason Putorti, 29, of San Francisco, is a tech exec who's almost always online.

Putorti, co-founder of the Web service Votizen, says it's easy to "get hooked on that flow of information," so he makes very deliberate decisions about how much he lets technology rule. When he went to Italy for two weeks in 2009, for example, he vowed no cellphone, no e-mail, no Internet cafes.

"For me, I feel like it's creating a lot of weak ties," he says. "I have a very large network of acquaintances. I have people I connect with through work and social events. I can reach a lot more people now, but strong ties? Strong ties are very few for me. I feel like the technology has made us a little lazier in keeping up, and working on strong relationships. … What's that going to do to us? It's a little scary."

Putorti's concerns mirror a conversation bubbling up across the USA. Our smartphones and other devices make staying connected easier than ever. We're constantly on Facebook and Twitter, checking out new apps, and "checking in" so our friends know our whereabouts.

But now that we've been immersed in technology for a good while, the question "How much is too much?" looms larger than ever. Our tech saturation has reached such a critical point that some experts say it's rewiring our brains. One new book even suggests that our gadgets can make us act as if we have psychological disorders ranging from narcissism and anxiety problems to addictions and compulsive behaviors.

"I think people do realize it's kind of out of control," says Howard Rheingold of Mill Valley, Calif., who has written about the cultural implications of online communication since the mid-1980s. He suggests "mindful use of digital media," and says people haven't yet learned "how to manage it."

"Mindfulness means being aware of how you're deploying your attention and making decisions about it, and not letting the tweet or the buzzing of your BlackBerry call your attention," says Rheingold, who talks about such issues in a new book, Net Smart: How to Thrive Online.

Nick Deviley of Fish Creek, Wis., also worries about smartphones taking over our lives. "People live on their phones now. People don't even look up," says Deviley, 30, who produces an annual glass art trade show.

He didn't have a cellphone until his wife, Mary Nelson, asked him to get one in 2009 before the birth of their second child.

"This is a daily argument," says Nelson, 30, who owns a juice bar. She uses a smartphone and an iPad. "Pretty much since the beginning, it's been this head-to-head clash about technology vs. not."

"It's remarkable we're all walking around with these handheld computers that connect us anytime," says neuroscientist Gary Small, a brain researcher at the University of California-Los Angeles. "They give us opportunities to enhance our lives, but also to disrupt our conventional lives."

Small has found that because the human brain changes in response to the environment, technology is literally changing our brains. His study of 24 people ages 55-76, half Net-savvy, half not, used functional MRIs during Web searches. Brains of frequent users showed twice as much activity as novices. Findings appeared in the American Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry.

Small says our brains do get rewired, but whether it's permanent, no one knows.

"Our brains are sensitive to stimuli moment to moment, and if you spend a lot of time with a particular mental experience or stimulus, the neural circuits that control that mental experience will strengthen," he says. "At the same time, if we neglect certain experiences, the circuits that control those will weaken. If we're not having conversations or looking people in the eye — human contact skills — they will weaken."

Research psychologist and computer educator Larry Rosen of California State University, Dominguez Hills, suggests that being so hyperconnected can make us behave as if we have real psychological disorders.

In his new book iDisorder: Understanding Our Obsession With Technology and Overcoming its Hold On Us, Rosen says technology is causing some people to exhibit symptoms of problems including narcissistic personality disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, addiction and depression, among others.

"My concern is that we have become very enmeshed with our technologies … it is affecting every single aspect of our world. It's gone past the stage of 'this might be a problem' to 'it is a problem for many people.' "

Technology today is "so user-friendly that the very use fosters our obsessions, dependence and stress reactions," Rosen says in his book. "I am not arguing that we are all crazy and technology is to blame. I find, however, that our actions and behaviors when we use technology make us appear out of control."

But is our attachment to smartphones, tablets and apps really so bad? "If it interferes with you having social relationships, then it is a problem, and it really is what I consider an iDisorder," Rosen says.

What's an Addiction?

But other experts aren't so sure. Mental health professionals are still considering whether Internet addiction should be considered an official psychiatric diagnosis, for example.

"I don't know whether it formally qualifies as an addiction, but certainly you get used to it, you want it and it's hard to do without it," says Marcel Just, director of the Center for Cognitive Brain Imaging at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh.

Students asked to go without media for 24 hours liken their experiences to addiction withdrawal. In two separate studies, 200 students from the USA and 1,000 students worldwide had similar experiences, says Susan Moeller, director of the International Center for Media and the Public Agenda at the University of Maryland in College Park.

"They talked about a language of dependency that we saw again and again," she says. "People made explicit connections to drug addiction, alcohol addiction, addiction to smoking. They talked about needing a fix."

'A Squirt of Dopamine'

Part of the hook technology has is the feedback, says psychiatrist Steve Daviss of the Baltimore Washington Medical Center in Glen Burnie, Md.

"There's good evidence the feedback we get from technology — the retweets and bings and pings that come out of the phone every time somebody sends us a text message — create a reward system in the brain that gives us a little squirt of dopamine each time," he says. "For some people, that can turn into what looks a lot like addiction. Some people have a harder time regulating their behavior in response to this reward. The ones who really can't turn it off in their brain are the ones who start to get in trouble."

However, Daviss isn't convinced of Rosen's conclusions. "He's talking about people who can't get through a dinner meeting without checking iPhones multiple times. We all see that when we go out," he says. "I think his observations are on target. I think his conclusions are overstated that this is a mass disorder we are all having."

Daviss, co-author of the 2011 book Shrink Rap, says it's an age-old question about the line between eccentricity and pathology. "We should look at functional capacity, ability to function at work, at school, socially. These are the measures we look at."

Rheingold also cautions against "pathologizing" people's behavior. "I want to be very careful about judging and how much to generalize about the use of media being pathological," he says. "For some people, it's a temptation and a pathology, for others it's a lifeline."

Such pluses are spelled out in Networked: The New Social Operating System, due May 31. Co-author Barry Wellman, a sociologist who directs Netlab at the University of Toronto, says social networking has made it possible for people to know "500-600 other people in some sort of meaningful sense. Both the Internet and mobile revolution have, generally speaking, changed our lives for the better. Anything that makes people more connected at a lower cost with greater global reach enhances our lives."

But some worry that more time online means missing out on important face-to-face interactions. In a review for the American Academy of Pediatrics social media guidelines, experts said "Facebook depression" can result when young people who spend a lot of time on such sites exhibit symptoms of depression because their lives aren't as interesting as the posts of others.

Putorti worries about the developing brains of kids in middle and high school. "I would hope we won't get a generation with no patience, and everyone has attention deficit disorder."

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