What is the impact of increasing digital and sensory overload on the human brain? Is it creating a generation of restless, easily distracted individuals? Or one with superior multitasking and parallel processing skills? Recent neurobiological and related research provide some answers, if not definitive ones.

Co-authored by Dr. Sowmya Bhaskaran, Dr. Arun Vangili, Dr. Shekhar Seshadri Department of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry NIMHANS, Bangalore

The human brain is an enigmatic organ. The ability to focus attention on a task is one of its important functions. In the modern era of advanced communications, with social media and 24×7 news channels, the human brain has the unenviable task of keeping up with the sensory overload that surrounds an average urban dweller. The impact of this information deluge has been explored in depth — in books such as ‘Future Shock’, for example, where Alvin Toffler describes the effects of our fast-paced lives on the way we think, feel and behave.

The speed with which things are currently communicated has altered the dynamics of human thought. The latest neurobiological research has dispelled an earlier belief that the human brain does not physically change after early childhood. Not only does stimulation of various kinds influence the way our brains develop, but this transformation continues throughout life. This phenomenon of reorganization in the brain is called neuronal plasticity.

The neuroscientist Baroness Susan Greenfield believes that, as a result of this property, every experience one is exposed to causes the brain to modify itself. As the experience changes, it follows that the brain will adapt in response. In this respect, she asserts that “technologies are infantilising the brain into the state of small children who are attracted by buzzing noises and bright lights, who have a small attention span and who live for the moment”.

Greenfield also highlights the impact of these changes on young people. She theorizes that the combined effects of the greater plasticity of the young brain and the extensive exposure to television, computers and video games is leading to a shortening of their attention spans Her theories have led to a full scale debate, at the heart of which is this question: Are we permanently altering our minds and cultivating certain cognitive capacities at the expense of other important ones because of our dependence on digital media?

Several studies have emphasised the benefits of video games and Internet searching as a way to “boost brain power” and drive plasticity. These activities are thought to delay cognitive and age-related decline of vision and memory by generating new brain cells and reorganizing connections between existing cells. From this view, digital technologies are enhanc­ing cognitive capacities such as multitasking and enabling us to live successfully in this fast-paced world. In fact, some have claimed that younger generations growing up with digital technologies are develop­ing the ability to parallel-process and encode information quickly — skills that give them a distinct edge in a high-tech environment.

However, the costs of developing these “hyper-kinetic teenage minds” through chronic use of digital media remain a matter of concern. Some scientists fear that habitual multitasking can lead to symptoms of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.This could continue into adulthood with significant impact on a person’s life. Such individuals are more vulnerable to drug abuse or more likely to underperform their peers in a professional setting. Disorders of this nature are increasingly being identified and treated.

Evolution has provided animals with the mechanism of attention in order to ward off attacks by predators. Thus, the ability of attention gives animals a survival advantage. Paradoxically the shortening of attention span seems to confer a survival advantage in today’s world. A recent article in The Economist titled ‘In Praise of Misfits’ describes how people diagnosed with Asperger Syndrome or Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) are sometimes sought out by organisations. Individu­als with Asperger’s with their obsessive interest in narrow subjects, passion for numbers and patterns, and interest in repetitive tasks are preferred by IT organisations. People with ADHD are restless and deemed more likely to come up with new and creative ideas. Of course, the old fashioned ‘organisational man’ who can win over clients is still needed, but the secret to organisational success lies in delegating tasks to those best equipped to handle them.

Thus, as of now, science does not have a definitive answer regarding the role of digital media on adolescent well-being. It merely suggests that the adolescent brain is particularly impressionable when it comes to environmental influences, good or bad. This period of vulnerability should also be viewed as a window of opportunity to learn, change and sustain in order to prevent mental illness and the negative effects of aging. Such response-adaptation is necessary given the frequency with which disturbing events take place in contemporary society.

It would appear that our collective public memory is shrinking as we routinely express outrage about scams, rapes, and bad roads before quickly moving on. Is this because our attention span is shortened or because too much is brought to our attention? Either way, the success of social media platforms proves that, as a society, we are comfortable expressing our thoughts before we jump to the next issue on hand. Mainstream media and new ones like Twitter are shaping our patterns of discourse. The neo-liberal economic policies have contributed to the chronic restlessness of our collective psyche.

What we believe has been lost in this fast-paced world is the capacity for reflection. In the digital world of split second decisions and instant gratification there is limited opportunity to think, reflect and learn from experience. Let’s take some time to reflect on that!

Arun Vangili is a psychiatrist who is also currently pursuing...
Dr Shekhar Seshadri is currently Professor, Department of Child and...