Put your smartphone away or risk developing digital dementia

Technology may give us information, but we're losing skills that we may not even recognise as important until they're gone

28 April 2019 - 00:11 By Lisa Witepski

The human brain starts developing from the moment of conception, and never stops. Even as an adult, it continues to form fresh neural pathways and connections, enabling you to learn new skills - unless it encounters an obstacle that inhibits the formation of these pathways, that is.
According to German neuroscientist Manfred Spitzer, technology is one such obstacle. Back in 2012 he coined the term "digital dementia" to describe the increasingly frequent occurrence of deteriorating cognitive abilities caused by the overuse of technology.
Marlena Kruger, a neuroscientist and educationist, says it's easy to see how this happens once you understand how the brain works.
"Simply put, the less you experience life, the less you build your brain," she explains. In this way the brain is not unlike your biceps. Challenge it daily, and it will grow; let it languish, and atrophy is inevitable. "If you don't use it, you lose it. Neurons have to be stimulated in order to keep developing," Kruger states.
The memory is a case in point. It's no coincidence that you may have found your recall skills faltering as soon as you committed all your friends' contact details to your phone's memory rather than your own.
Forgetfulness and brain fog are only two of the symptoms of digital dementia, however. Kruger points out that the brain isn't restricted to the grey matter inside your skull; it is just one part of an intricate neural network that stretches from your head to your toes.
The sedentariness that's part of a screen-centred life therefore affects your muscle dexterity and even sensory perception - and that's before you factor in the blue light emitted by screens, which interrupts sleep patterns.
Since the brain assimilates learning and new experiences during sleep, a process Kruger likens to wiping a slate clean so that you can start to accumulate new knowledge in the morning, you may feel overwhelmed if you're not getting quality shut-eye. Inadequate sleep may also contribute to stress and anxiety; which further hinder memory function.
For Dean McCoubrey, founder of digital social skills educator MySocialLife, the real problem lies in the fact that screens offer no "off cues".
"The typical web-surfing session entails hopping from one site to the next, or even looking at several sites simultaneously. There's no incentive to unplug; often you'll find that you've spent far more time online than you intended."
This is in stark contrast to offline pastime: activities like reading or sport always come to a natural end, prompting us to do something else.
Navigating the Internet is a bit like walking through an emporium filled with displays, each more enticing than the last - you simply don't know where to look first.
This in itself is perfectly normal; McCoubrey notes that the "monkey mind" - the busy part of our brains which flits from one thought to another - is an established part of the brain, along with the primal mind (or amygdala) which pushes you into fight or flight mode when you see a scary spider, and the cognitive mind which we rely on to process information.
"The problem is that the 'umpire' part of the brain, which would usually kick in to tell us that it's time to focus on something else, becomes lazy in the face of this relentless sensory bombardment," McCoubrey says. Consequently, we never emerge out of "monkey mind" state, which makes it difficult to give our full attention to anything for a prolonged period.McCoubrey notes that spending time in the digital non-world affects memory in other ways, too. You may have noticed that the high points and lowlights in your day stand out in particular, and the unremarkable moments seem to fade away. That's because the dopamine hit triggered by happy instances help to imprint memories, as does the norepinephrine that's released when you're sad. Since we're unlikely to experience either extreme when whiling away time on Instagram, those moments simply slip away, with nothing imprinted.
Is it possible to reverse digital dementia, or even halt it? Happily, yes. The first step, says Rianette Leibowitz of SaveTNet, is stepping away from the device.
"It's impossible to give up technology cold turkey because it's such an enormous part of our lives. But you need to make a conscious decision to resist being driven by the next alert."
These deliberate choices may mean drawing up a digital "constitution" that outlines the amount of time you and your family are "allowed" to spend online, or setting up tech-free zones in the house or office.
For McCoubrey, the answer lies in strengthening the brain's umpire so that the mindless drift from screen to screen doesn't become a habit. Mindfulness and meditation are excellent tools in this regard - they train the brain to focus. It's also a good idea to invest in making connections - whether that's with your friends, family or even surroundings - because when we connect we are reminded of our humanity.
Kruger echoes this sentiment. "The brain thrives when it is fed with deep, enriching experiences," she observes. Keep learning, and your brain will keep growing: try your hand at yoga or crochet, for example, and new neural pathways will form.Spending time in nature is also a proven antidote to the "fake" world of Instagram and Twitter, she says - plus, a walk or hike through the park counters hours spent hunched over a screen.But it's not simply about making sure your memory doesn't give up on you halfway through introducing your colleagues to your partner, Kruger insists; rather, it's acknowledging that the loss of the creativity and problem-solving abilities that make us human will make us poorer as a species.McCoubrey agrees. "I believe that 'dementia' has many facets. It's not just about feeling less sharp; it's also about being less empathetic, less in tune with each other. Yes, technology may make us smarter in some ways by giving instant access to information, but we're losing skills that we may not even recognise as important until they're gone."

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