How Technology Is Altering Your Brain Chemistry

Published On 08/14/2015 Published On 08/14/2015

You know the feeling. It happens when you dig your hands into your pockets to find your phone but come up empty-handed. Immediately, a switch flips. Your heart rate quickens. Your desk? The bar? The back seat of the cab? Where the hell did you leave it? Panic sets in. Whatever you were doing doesn't matter anymore, you need your phone and you need it now

Why do we freak the fuck out when we lose our phones? Why's it so hard to go a day without checking Facebook? Turns out, technology has wired our brains in such a way that we're not much different from cocaine addicts when it comes to our devices. We spend countless hours using them, and it's really messing with our heads. 


1. Your gadgets are causing your stress, not helping it

The explanation: Using modern devices increases levels of cortisol, the stress hormone.

The Internet has provided us with unprecedented access to information, entertainment, and baffling fetishes. It's also prevented us from ever truly escaping work, bad news, and that annoying friend whose Instagram looks like she's never not on vacation.

Now, research is telling us we need to unplug to de-stress. A study which looked at the cortisol levels of kids who used computers, phones, and video games throughout the day (so, all kids) showed that those who spent more than three hours wired in had significantly higher levels than a group that didn't.

Pexels/Karolina Grabowska

2. You're learning more, but remembering less

The explanation: Research shows that when we learn something, the "downtime" we get afterwards allows the brain to process it into our long-term memories. But our use of technology interferes with that process. 

Today's schedule: Work about 10 hours, almost 100% in front of a computer screen. Then, hop on the subway, where I'll foolishly stare at my phone in the vain hope that I'll get a signal. After that, send out some text messages, tune to a podcast for my trip home, eat dinner while watching TV, then drink beer and Hulu myself some Inside Amy Schumer until I pass out. Then I'll wake up and start all over again.

A lot of people live this way, and science thinks it could be killing our brains. Studies on rats show that the brain can't process new information for memories without some time away from the stimulation. If we're constantly moving from one tech task to the next, we can't retain what we learn. What's the use of listening to Serial during my commute if I can't remember enough details to effectively explain to everyone why they need to listen to Serial?!


3. All these bright screens are screwing up your sleep cycle

The explanation: Neuroscientists believe that the light from phones, tablets, and computers is suppressing the production of melatonin, the sleep hormone.

We, as humans, haven't truly evolved to deal with the sleep schedule that artificial light allows us. In the past, when night fell, the brain secreted melatonin, which tells our bodies it's time to shut down for a few hours. Light suppresses this, though—our brain thinks it's still the daytime, no matter where the light comes from.

That means that checking your mobile tech before bed convinces your brain to keep you awake. And lack of sleep can lead to depression, cognitive troubles, and starting a fight club. None of which are good for you.

Pexels/Karolina Grabowska

4. Multitasking with too many devices messes with your emotions

The explanation: People who report that they are more likely to multitask with different devices have less density in the anterior cingulate cortex, a region of the brain involved in regulating emotions.

It's pretty common knowledge that no one can actually multitask, but the gadgets in our lives make it too easy to try anyway. This could have some serious drawbacks, though, beyond being too distracted with your phone to truly take in the nuance of Louie. Brain scans of people who said that they do multitask with their tech, when compared to those who don't, show that such people's brains are abnormal in regions that help to keep our emotions in check, alert us to errors, and motivate us.


5. The Internet is making you stupid

The explanation: The brains of Internet addicts lack mass in areas associated with cognitive tasks.

Between TED Talks, brain training apps, and Neil deGrasse Tyson's Twitter, we can feel pretty confident in assuming that the Internet is enhancing our intelligence, can't we? I mean, our grandparents didn't have Wikipedia.

But they also didn't have the physical problems that come with Internetting so much that you forget what the sun looks like. Again, studies on Internet addicts have shown that excessive web surfing results in decreased cortical thickness in the parts of the brain that help us think through problems. We may be learning more, but our critical thinking abilities are shutting down.

Flickr/Sam Wolff

6. Being hooked on the Internet isn't much different from being hooked on cocaine

The explanation: MRI scans show that the brains of Internet addicts look the same as the brains of cocaine addicts and alcoholics.

"I lost my phone and I swear I was going through withdrawal when I couldn't find it. I thought I would die."

Turns out that the Internet can be so stimulating that the people who end up genuinely addicted to it suffer the same sort of brain rewiring as people addicted to alcohol and cocaine. The constant availability of the Internet also makes it extremely difficult to break the habit. Granted, most of us won't become full-fledged junkies, but we're all susceptible to the kind of brain changes that occur when we're too accustomed to our technology. Google is your drug, your Internet provider is the dealer.

UnSplash/Pawel Kadysz

7. The upside: video games can actually boost brainpower

The explanation: Brain scans of gamers show that gaming can increase gray matter in planning and memory areas.

Just in case all this info has convinced you to trash your tech and walk the Earth, don't worry, we have some good news: gaming in moderation can actually build up your brain.

A recent study showed that gaming results in greater gray matter in sections of the brain associated with strategizing, creating memories, and knowing where you are in relation to other objects. Think of it this way: when you need to murder a rival gang member in Grand Theft Auto, you have to remember which section of the city you can find him, drive there without crashing into anything, and pull off the crime without alerting the cops.

Hey, no one ever said games would make you a better person.

Joe Oliveto is a staff writer for Supercompressor. You/Kevin Smith can follow him on Twitter.

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