Are Smartphones Changing Our Brains and Behaviour?

Drawing by Oliver McAinsh - www.olivermac.com/

Tap > Pause > Open > Continue

You’re on your own for the first time in an hour. You whip out your phone and make the most of this stolen moment.

Swipe > Zoom > Capture > Continue

Something catches your eye and you instinctively take a photo, continuing to walk whilst looking through the viewfinder of your phone.

Twitch > Touch > Check > Continue

You experience that familiar feeling that draws you back. A quick tap and you know in an instance that there’s nothing else to report. This isn’t a conscious decision, it’s ingrained into your behaviour making you as automatic as your phone.

Buzz > Bleep > Load > Continue

 

Four years ago whilst working as a Gallery Assistant at Bluecoat, I was captured by the dramatic impact of smartphones on exhibition experience. For hours I’d sit watching visitors and pick up patterns in their behaviour; from the number of photos they’d take; the length of focussed time spent looking; their reluctance to read long passages of text; to the continuous twitch that brought everyone back to their phones. Feeling more and more like a social observer, I asked myself the question: Does this go further than gallery experience? Are smartphones actually changing the human brain?

This was how Cognitive Sensations was born – my project exploring the intersection between art, science and digital culture, and the name of my research blog. Compelled by this idea that the digital age could be shaping society, I began my investigation with an online course in neurobiology and a stack of books examining the impact of the internet and digital technology.

Although I found myself easily led down the pathway in thinking that our brains are indeed changing, I couldn’t ignore the most crucial takeaway agreed by most in the great digital debate: the impact of our digital devices has yet to be determined. We have not yet lived a lifetime with the internet and smartphones, so the biological impact of their presence cannot be simply resolved.

Motivated by this important factor, I began raising the funds to organise a series of exhibitions and events, that would feature leading academics, artists and thinkers exploring these very issues. This is what I found out.

Welcome to the Attention Economy

One of the most common subjects in popular science and digital culture is that our attention supplies are running low. As we become increasingly productive with the help of our digital tools, it is common to multitask across different modes of communication and digital media. Although on one level this makes us more efficient, it also results in the division of one’s thoughts, resulting in a decrease in focus and the potential for distraction.

In the panel discussion series, the subject of attention was a popular feature. UCL neuroscientist Nilli Lavie explained that attention has a limited capacity and cannot be affected by what we do. As a biological function with a genetic component, we cannot generate more attention, just as we cannot reduce it. Neuroscientist Richard Cytowic says that we must approach attention in terms of energy cost, arguing that task switching consumes a high level of brain energy, reducing efficiency by up to 50%.

Although both of these arguments are scientifically correct, the most compelling thing that I learnt about attention is not to do with biology. Curator Vanessa Bartlett posed the question “if technology really is having an adverse effect on its user’s attention spans, whose interest does this fulfil?”. The ecosystem behind technology is built through forms of power, data and advertising, and it is these components that manipulate what we pay our attention to. In an essay by Warren Neidich, he analyses this ecosystem and the people behind it:

“The problems for business people lie in both sides of the attention equation: how to get and hold the attention of consumers…and how to parcel out their own attention in the face of overwhelming options…Understanding and managing attention is now the single most important determinant of business success. Welcome to the attention economy”.

Behind the screen, the keypad, the notifications and the glow are the companies that want your attention. It is not the technology that lures its user in, it’s the organisations that create the content. Blaming the device itself is a common misconception, we must ask instead who lies behind it.

Moulding the brain

Twitch > Touch > Check > Continue. This is a repeated set of actions reverberated by the majority of UK smartphone users, resulting in the shocking figure that the average person checks their phone every 12 minutes. What’s happening during this cycle? Every time you go to touch your phone, the same neurons in your brain are activated along a neural pathway. These pathways are strengthened or weakened depending on the regularity of their activity, and in this case are transformed into a rigid behaviour, otherwise known as a habit.

This might seem obvious, but it’s important to note that the regularity of our actions alter the structural connectivity of the brain. A personal favourite neurological function which underlies this process is neuroplasticity, which in simple terms refers to the brain’s ability to adapt to its environment. It is the fundamental biological process which explains the potential for digital technology to shape the brain.

Professor of Psychiatry Bruce Wexler, is a key academic in illustrating the important role of culture in neuroplasticity, and emphasises that ‘humans, and humans alone, shape and reshape the environments that shape their brain’. The same is thought about the influence of our actions, reflected through the views of philosopher Catherine Malabou, who claims that “human practices alter or affect brain-body chemistry, and, in return, brain-body chemistry alters or affects human practices”. This neuro-cultural interpretation forms the foundational ideas behind Cognitive Sensations, considering how our lives are permeated with everyday technologies, which embody our experiences, environment and behaviour.

So our brains are plastic with structures that adapt to our experiences, and businesses are competing for our attention. The leaders of the attention economy are well aware of the susceptible nature of our minds, and apply clever algorithms, advertising techniques, and repetitive notification stimuli to lure us into their clutches. It’s worth noting that one third of internet users are under the age of 18, making adolescents a prime target within the attention economy, a particularly susceptible group to social and environmental influences.

What’s My Role?

It’s completely redundant to group technology users together, as our breadth and purpose of use is dependent on a huge number of variables. As a society, I don’t believe that we are necessarily developing in the same way to digital technology engagement, especially not at a grand evolutionary scale that some suggest. The impact of our devices takes form at a minute scale, and can be reversed if the individual desires.

Desire and control are the key in this debate, and there are two different parties involved; the companies behind your device that are competing for your attention; and the user, which means you! Where some may be proud of their self-controlled digital habits, there are many who cannot resist the urge to tap in. Seductive and repetitive notification stimuli are programmed as dopamine hits, making the digital platforms a core reason behind our urges. However, the user is still accountable for their own decisions and lifestyle choices. If attention is part of a network that is economical, social, political and ethical, then it’s up to you where you invest it.

Come and Join me on this Cognitive Journey

Having entered this fascinating and vast landscape of research, I can confirm that I will not be leaving anytime soon! I was absolutely delighted to find I was successful in my Arts Council application for the Developing Your Creative Practice fund. The £10,000 will enable me to run the blog until June 2020, focussing on the development of my writing practice and research, and the commissioning of other writers in my field.

The upcoming season will be curated around the subject of perception, taking inspiration from my research trip in Belgium at the Visual Science of Art Conference. The pioneering media theorist and thinker Walter Benjamin, once said that perception evolves with history, determined by nature, historical circumstances, and the medium in which it is accomplished. In the digital age this medium is often screen-based, transforming daily experience into a dual relationship between the virtual and the physical. The upcoming months will test Benjamin’s theory of perception, repositioning it within 21st century digital culture.

If there are any readers who share a similar interest in the article content, then I would love to hear from you. Please don’t hesitate to contact me with ideas, coffee dates and artwork portfolios at gwarren-smith@hotmail.co.uk. I hope you’ve enjoyed reading this article, and invite you to subscribe to the Cognitive Sensations blog by either contacting me or signing up online.

 

This article was originally posted in print in Art in Liverpool October 2019 Issue.

Illustration by Oliver McAinsh, commissioned by Cognitive Sensations.

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