Is Technology Making Us Dumb?

23/04/2016 6:23 AM AEST | Updated 28/09/2016 9:58 PM AEST
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Human brain against a mother-board, artificial-intelligence.

As life and work becomes busier, faster and more complex, our reliance on technology continues to escalate. This has led to concerns that we are outsourcing our thinking too much. But perhaps it reflects a natural progression in the evolution of the brain as we rewire our thinking to adapt to our brave new world. Digital natives have little difficulty in assimilating new technologies, so does it matter that we no longer do the mental math to divide up that restaurant bill? The calculator is quick, efficient and less likely to make a mistake.

We have long been information gatherers. Whether you studied astrophysics, car mechanics or dietetics, studying helped you forge a career path with knowledge that distinguished you from others. As accessibility to that information has now become available to a far wider audience, we have developed into a society of armchair experts who, with a quick Google search, can now debate the finer nuances of what was previously your IP alone.

While technology lessens our need to 'know', or even to remember, what the modern workplace is crying out for is more innovation, creativity and flexible thinking to solve problems and make decisions quickly. This is where our capacity for imagination and creating insight sets us apart. The human brain remains (for the moment, at least) the captain of our conscious and deliberate thought, and far outstrips what technology can deliver. There are three areas where technology can trip us up.

1. Your shrinking attention span.

Yes, technology is brilliantly designed to distract us, and, being the curious creatures we are, we want to ensure we're not missing out on something important. Unfortunately, as our level of distractibility increases, we become less adept at focusing well on a given task. To learn anything, we must first give our full and undivided attention, with which we are becoming increasingly less generous. The result? We surface skim -- we grab the headlines but fail to dig a little deeper to get the full story. The remedy is to unplug regularly from technology, even for just 30 minutes at a time, to rebuild focus, reduce stress and perform at a higher level.

2. Your increasing sleep debt.

Spending many hours in front of a screen hyper-stimulates the brain, making it harder to switch off. Sleep deprivation is not just a cognitive menace, it's potentially deadly. Mental fatigue not only leads to more errors, it reduces memory, recall and emotional regulation. It's not just tired two-years-olds that are grumpy and less focused. In addition, the blue light emitted by our computers, tablets and smartphones has been shown to interfere with the brains' ability to secrete melatonin and prepare us for sleep. The good news is there are apps such as F.lux and Twilight available to convert those screen emissions to a non-sleep-disturbing yellow, and the latest IOS systems have recognised this problem and released Nightshift to help us get some much-needed shut eye.

3. Your invisibility cloak.

It's easy to hide behind the safety of a screen to send a message we feel anxious to communicate in person. It saves us the emotional pain of having to deal with the recipient of the message who now knows that you cannot come to a promised engagement, the relationship is over, or you are extremely angry.

The problem here is we acquire our social intelligence from having to deal with difficult situations face-to-face. It's easier to deny wrongdoing or lie using social media. While acknowledging fault and taking responsibility can feel horrible, it is an essential component to developing coping strategies for when things go wrong. Real human connection develops in 'real' time and can't be substituted using technology alone.

Technology may not be dumbing us down, but is changing the way we think. As we hurtle into the 21st century, the better question to be asking is: "How can this be done better using our brains and technology?"

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