Show Mobile Navigation
Technology |

10 Ways Technology Rewires Our Brains

by Gregory Myers
fact checked by Jamie Frater

We all use technology every day, but we rarely stop to think about how it affects our brains. We wouldn’t have gotten where we are if we weren’t built to adapt, though. As civilization advances at an ever-quickening pace, these adaptations take less and less time. For better or worse, technology does change us.

10Phonographs Changed Our Idea Of Ideal Song Length

Most modern songs are approximately four minutes long. In fact, most people tune out or quickly get bored if subjected to a song that is much longer. It’s easy to blame the short attention spans of the Internet age for this phenomenon, but it actually goes back to the 19th century, when Thomas Edison invented his first phonograph. Early recording devices could only hold about four minutes’ worth of music, so all songs had to fit within that constraint.

Another side effect of the storage limitations of phonograph recording was the destruction of classical music as a popular art form. These longer pieces were incompatible with the new medium, so they started to fall out of fashion. As shorter song lengths became the norm, many people expressed boredom with anything longer, resulting in a much smaller audience for the classical genre.

9Listening To Radio Messes With Our Critical Thinking

Just like any new medium, radio was criticized, praised, and studied every way possible for strengths and flaws that could be exploited. When psychologists studied the effects of radio, they found something that made advertisers of the day fall to their knees and praise Satan: It makes us way more suggestible.

The research demonstrated that when people hear a disembodied voice, they assign it far more credibility than a voice with a body attached. That’s because a disembodied voice is presumed to have no agenda or other corporeal flaws. The removal of so much information that needs to be processed means that the message is not analyzed nearly as critically as a message that is written or told to someone in person. Listening to the radio was also shown to lower cognitive abilities in general for the duration of the activity.

8Old Televisions Made People Dream In Black And White

Many people think television has made us dumber, and while scientists are continuously studying that possible effect, other researchers have found something far more fascinating. A few years ago, a psychologist from Dundee University named Eva Muryzn looked at old data from dream studies and compared them to some of her own. She found that the advent of television had caused people to dream in black and white for a brief period of time. As television transitioned to color, more color was introduced back into our dreams until they were full Technicolor productions once again.

Modern subjects over the age of 55, who watched television exclusively in black and white in their youth, still dreamed in black and white approximately 25 percent of the time. That’s because children’s brains are far more impressionable than those of adults. If you watched black and white television as a child, those neural connections became cemented in a way that’s very difficult to change as you age.

7Constant Mobile Phone Usage Makes Us Depressed

Like any new technology, mobile phones were once heralded as the coming of end times. Rumors of a link between cell phone use and brain cancer that sprang up when they were first introduced persist to this day. Although that’s clearly nonsense, cell phones may be changing us in detrimental ways.

In a 2011 study, the mental health status of mobile phone users was assessed using written questionnaires, which participants were asked to complete again one year later. What the researchers found was alarming: increased risks of depression and sleep disturbances were associated with high rates of mobile phone usage.

The researchers believe that constantly availability is the biggest factor that causes problems for users. The possibility of being contacted at any time or woken in the night increased the stress of the high-usage participants, making them more likely to report mental health issues. Researchers suggested avoiding this problem by limiting when people have access to you on mobile devices.

6The Internet Is Changing The Way We Read

Depending on whom you ask, the Internet is either the end of everything as we know it or the greatest invention in history, but its effects on our thinking and behavior are only just beginning. It’s even changing the way we read.

For thousands of years, we have been reading in a mostly linear fashion, and large amounts of information were presented in novel form. Now, we’re more focused on scanning for keywords, following links, and amassing small amounts of information while we hop across different pages. Many Internet users rarely stay on a page longer than a few seconds before they click over to somewhere else.

According to Maryanne Wolf, a neuroscientist who has studied the effects of the Internet on how we read, our only hope for preserving the old ways is to teach children both methods of reading, if we agree that preserving the old ways is even desirable.

5Social Media Increases Our Self-Esteem

Facebook and other social media platforms probably have lower approval ratings than most world dictators. However, despite all the bad press it gets, it turns out Facebook can be useful for something besides arguing politics with people you barely know and telling your friends what you ate for lunch today.

Two researchers at Indiana University studied the effects of Facebook on self-esteem and found something surprising. By “selective self-reporting,” which means using social media to create an image of your ideal self, participants actually experienced increased feelings of self-esteem.

According to the researchers, “mirror” images of yourself usually decrease self-esteem, but the unique nature of social networking allows users to alter that image to better suit them. These findings may also suggest that one of the major keys to self-esteem is choosing to be happy with yourself regardless of your current situation.

4Cultivation Theory

Despite the seeming absurdity of some of the more alarmist claims, television does affect the way we think. We’re not as good at differentiating between fantasy and reality as we think we are. As we watch television, we are presented with images of the world that don’t reflect reality: more drugs, more violence, more poverty, and more wealth. As you watch a lot, you may start to integrate these images with your actual worldview.

This is called “cultivation theory,” and it’s supported by numerous studies. It can be dangerous because it can influence you to form opinions and biases based on a distorted view of the world. The methods of the studies that led to the theory’s conclusion have been criticized, but skeptical researchers seeking to replicate the studies have returned the same results.

3Digital Cameras Have Changed How We Attend Events

In the past, if you wanted to take a photo, you had to load your (large) camera with a roll of film that could only capture about 20 images. Developing photos required a dark room and a lot of skill, and if you didn’t carefully set up the shots, all that film and hard work might go to waste. Keeping an extra roll of film on hand for possible mistakes at an important family event was a must.

User-friendly digital cameras that can store thousands of photos have relieved much of that burden. Now, you can take as many photos as you like, knowing that you can delete the bad ones without much effort. As a result, many people spend more time at concerts, parties, and other events taking and uploading pictures than they spend participating in the event.

Steve Coburn, a doctoral student at Sussex University who has studied the phenomenon, explained that concertgoers prioritize the desire to show everyone that “they were there” and beat the traditional media to the punch. It may seem absurd to place so much importance upon proving attendance at an event involving possibly thousands of people, but it’s the same idea behind the Facebook mirror image. The event becomes a form of self-actualization, and the pictures are uploaded to social media to nurture the positive mirror-image self.

2The ‘Walkman Effect’ And Interpersonal Communication

Before the iPod, the Walkman revolutionized the field of personal music players. The problem is that wearing headphones effectively shuts out everything—and everyone—around the listener. One of the designers felt the effects personally during early testing, when his wife told him that she felt left out. As a result, features like extra headphone jacks and the ability to turn down the noise when someone talks to you were introduced to reduce interpersonal isolation.

The device became extremely popular, but features didn’t do much to mitigate the social effects of the Walkman. However, the ability to control our environment can have interesting effects. It has been observed that people are sometimes more willing to discuss private matters in front of those wearing headphones, even if they might not currently be playing anything, because it gives them a sense of privacy.

1Playing The Bad Guy In Video Games Makes Us Feel Guilty

The effects of violent video games on players’ behavior remains unclear. However, one study has shown that playing video games that include violent scenarios, among other immoral actions, can have a surprising and even beneficial effect. People who take part in immoral actions in video games later experience feelings of guilt about those actions.

In other words, even though we know it is a game, our brains still interpret those actions as real. We actually become more likely to toe the moral line after committing immoral acts against pixelated people and objects. Guilt is a strong motivational force for good, the researchers explained, and the guilt felt while playing video games can carry over into real life in the same way.

fact checked by Jamie Frater