The Price Of Putting 'Your Brain On Computers'



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This week on Fresh Air, we're marking the year's end by revisiting some of the most memorable conversations we've had in 2010. This interview was originally broadcast on August 24, 2010.

The average person today consumes almost three times as much information as what the typical person consumed in 1960, according to research at the University of California, San Diego.

And The New York Times reports that the average computer user checks 40 websites a day and can switch programs 36 times an hour.

"It's an onslaught of information coming in today," says Times technology journalist Matt Richtel. "At one time a screen meant maybe something in your living room. But now it's something in your pocket so it goes everywhere -- it can be behind the wheel, it can be at the dinner table, it can be in the bathroom. We see it everywhere today."

Richtel has spent the past several months researching the toll technology and "information juggling" are taking on our lives -- and our brains. His series "Your Brain On Computers" describes how multitasking on computers and digital gadgets affects the way people process information -- and how quickly they can then become distracted.

The Brain In The Wild

Recently Richtel accompanied several scientists, all of whom are studying the brain, on a weeklong retreat to a remote corner of Utah. The rules of the vacation? No cell phones, no Internet access and no technological distractions.

"Partly they wanted to go on vacation and see it through a neurologic lens," he says. "They wanted to take a look at what was happening to their brain and their perspectives -- and by extension, ours -- as they got off the grid."

The scientists were divided in half about how they felt about information overload. Two of the five -- whom Richtel termed "the believers" --  thought that the constant stream of data coming into their lives was making it increasingly difficult to focus and concentrate, and that heading back into nature could help them recharge. The other three neuroscientists --  "the skeptics" -- thought that the benefits of having constant access to information far outweighed any consequences.

While out in the wild, the scientists -- skeptics included -- noticed something significant happening on the third day they couldn't use their hand-held devices, computers and mobile phones.

"You start to feel more relaxed. Maybe you sleep a little better. Maybe you don't reach for your phone pinging in your pocket," Richtel says. "Maybe you wait a little longer before answering a question. Maybe you don't feel in a rush to do anything -- your sense of urgency fades."  Richtel terms it the "three-day effect."

Though the three-day effect didn't surprise the neuroscientists on the trip, they realized it presented a new research problem.

"They said, 'Let us see if there's anything in this three-day effect that might be the basis for future study that might help us understand when we're overwhelmed with data and what happens to us when we get away from it,' " explains Richtel, who accompanied the scientists on the trip. "To some extent, the skeptics did see a bit of a change in their perspective. They did say [things like] 'I am not as engaged in my world when I'm constantly using devices as I am when I am away from them.' They also said that revelation will inform [their] research going forward and may help us reach broader conclusions. But they didn't say, 'I understand now what is happening to the brain.' They simply said, 'There is something that merits real study here.' "

Streaming Information And The Brain

Richtel says another question scientists are asking is how much is too much, when it comes to processing technology.

"What is the line right now when we go from a kind of technology nourishment to a kind of stepping backwards, to a kind of distraction -- where instead of informing us, [technology] distracts us and impedes our productivity?" he asks. "There's growing evidence that that line is closer than we've imagined or acknowledged."

He points to one study conducted at Stanford University, which showed that heavy multimedia users have trouble filtering out irrelevant information -- and trouble focusing on tasks. Other research, he says, says that heavy video game playing may release dopamine, which is thought to be involved with addictive behaviors.

"When you check your information, when you get a buzz in your pocket, when you get a ring -- you get what they call a dopamine squirt. You get a little rush of adrenaline," he says. "Well, guess what happens in its absence? You feel bored. You're conditioned by a neurological response: 'Check me check me check me check me.' "

Richtel says that research is ongoing, particularly into how heavy technology may fundamentally alter the frontal lobe during childhood, how addictive behavior can lead to poor decision-making and how the brain is rewired when it is constantly inundated with new information.

But it's not all doom and gloom, he says. There are enormous benefits associated with technology, too. Research from the University of Rochester indicates that certain video gamers have more visual acuity than those who don't game. And there's value in offloading thinking to a computer, he says -- by, for example, using Google Maps instead of calling for directions or organizing information in Excel instead of keeping track of it in your head.

"There's some stuff being done at UCSF where scientists are trying to figure out if they can train older drivers to pick up more information in their surroundings that would let them react more quickly," he says. "Could they effectively develop games that would have transferability outside the game environment into the real-world environment? A key word in this discussion is transfer. How do tasks we perform on the Internet transfer to real life? That stuff is still very much in its embryonic stages."

One way of looking at all of this research, he says, is to think of technology the way we think about food.

"Just as food nourishes us and we need it for life, so too -- in the 21st century and the modern age -- we need technology. You cannot survive without the communication tools; the productivity tools are essential," he says. "And yet, food has pros and cons to it. We know that some food is Twinkies and some food is Brussels sprouts. And we know that if we overeat, it causes problems. Similarly, after 20 years of glorifying technology as if all computers were good and all use of it was good, science is beginning to embrace the idea that some technology is Twinkies and some technology is Brussels sprouts."

In addition to covering technology and telecommunications for The New York Times, Matt Richtel also writes a syndicated comic strip, Rudy Park, and is the author of Hooked, a thriller set in Silicon Valley. Richtel received the Pulitzer Prize in 2010 for a series in The New York Times on driving while multitasking.

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This week we're featuring some of our most entertaining interviews of the year. Our next interview was one of our most popular. It's about how we keep ourselves entertained, informed, and constantly connected with our digital devices, and how those devices are also distracting us and driving us crazy.

With computers, smartphones, apps, we have the potential of being constantly connected just about anyplace we go. Scientists have been investigating how being constantly plugged in is affecting our brains and our stress levels.

Matt Richtel is a technology reporter for the New York Times who has been writing about this new science. He won a Pulitzer Prize this year for his series of articles "Driven to Distraction," about the dangers of driving while multitasking with cell phones and other digital devices. We spoke in August.

We think, when we're multitasking, that we're really doing great; we're getting two things done for the price of one, or three things done in the amount of time it should take to do one thing. But what are scientists learning about how efficiently we're doing any of those two or three things when we do them at the same time?

Mr. MATT RICHTEL (Technology Reporter, New York Times): This is - it's pretty clear to scientists you cannot do more than one thing at a time. This research goes back years, and it is having like its new day in the sun, its new applicability.

Your brain effectively processes one stream of information at a time. I've heard this very basic test from a Stanford scientist that has stuck with me. It's a kind of cocktail party test that researchers have known about for years, where if you sit at a cocktail party and you're listening to the person in front of you, you can't really listen to the person behind you.

In fact, you may pick up very basic things like your name being said, if someone says it behind you, but beyond that, you're not processing both those streams of information.

So apply that to the person sitting at a desk, fiddling with a device or trying to read an IM while surfing a website or talking on the phone to a boss or colleague or subordinate. What you are basically doing is switching rapidly among those tasks, not doing them at the same time.

And all the research says when you switch among those tasks, you cut your effectiveness at each one of them by a significant degree.

GROSS: I keep wondering, did my brain develop in a different way than children's brains are developing now, because they have different technology than I did when I was growing up?

Mr. RICHTEL: Terry, you are asking what I think is the question. I mean, this is - it's maybe one thing for those of us whose brains are mostly formed. But the frontal lobe of the brain tends to develop last. It is the thing scientists say makes us the most human. There is some thought that the way kids' brains are developing now is different from the way ours developed.

This is something we have been - I have spent much of the year researching and I think this frontal lobe question is fascinating. This is the part of the brain that - it's the front of the brain. It evolves last. It sets priorities. It helps us balance between and make choices. It essentially says, here's where I'm going to direct my attention at any given time. And it's kind of long-term thinking, long-term goal-setting.

But it is constantly, if you will, in a simplistic sense, under bombardment from other parts of the brain. The sensory parts that like, you know, we see something and we send a message to the frontal lobe that says, should I pay attention and how much?

When we have an onslaught of data coming in, the sensory cortices of the brain are now constantly bombarding the frontal lobe, saying, what should I pay attention to?

GROSS: Right, and that is so distracting, and it makes it impossible to do the project that you're really trying to do.

Mr. RICHTEL: And on some level, all this modern technology, what it winds up doing is kind of playing to a very primitive clash between the sensory cortices and the frontal lobe. If you take yourself back millennia, and you're in the jungle or you're in the forest and you see a lion, then the lion hits your sensory cortices and says to the frontal lobe, whatever you're doing, whatever hut you're building, stop and run.

Well, here's what scientists think is happening in this data era, is that these pings of incoming email, the phone ringing, the buzz in your pocket, is almost like we get little tiny lions, little tiny threats or, let's say, maybe little tiny rabbits that you want to chase and eat, you get little tiny bursts of adrenaline that are bombarding your frontal lobe asking you to make choices. But these in some ways aren't these modern bombardments; they're the most primitive bombardments. They're playing to these most primitive impulses and they're asking our brain to make very hard choices a lot.

GROSS: It's really interesting. Now, I don't know if this relates to what you're saying or not, but here's a paradox for me; I'm driven crazy by email because I feel every time I open it, I'm on everybody else's agenda instead of my own. I'm answering their questions and responding to their needs and doing all these things as opposed to doing the research for my next interview or something, you know what I mean?

At the same time, when it's really late at night and I know it's time to go to bed, I'll often say, I wonder what's in my email. And I'll check it one last time because I'm just so curious. And it's hard for me to reconcile that, that sense of curiosity, I wonder what's there, maybe it's something interesting, I better open it. And the sense of, oh, if I open it it's going to drive me crazy. There's things I'm going to have to respond to right now.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: I don't want to. I need to go to sleep or I need to prepare my interview or whatever, and those things are always clashing in me.

Mr. RICHTEL: You have illustrated a number of the concepts that underlie the why question. And this is, to me, some of the most fascinating part of what we learn not only in distracted driving, but that we learned - that we're learning this year, which is given that we recognize attention, that we're having trouble getting things done at some cases, that we're having trouble focusing on the face of the person across from us at the dinner table because we feel the buzz in our pockets, why? Why are you compelled at night to check your device?

Do you want to take a shot at that before I start throwing out what some of the research says?

GROSS: I always think maybe it'll be a little gift there, like some really wonderful message, something like really interesting and fascinating or somebody I'm dying to hear from.

Mr. RICHTEL: Terry, you are a winner. You know, if this were like "Family Feud," that would be answer one or two.

GROSS: What did I win? What did I win?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. RICHTEL: You have won an email. You've won an attachment you can't open.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. RICHTEL: So, let's break this down between psychological and physiological. You've hit on one of the really interesting psychological reasons people constantly feel compelled to check their devices. And this goes to one of the ideas that psychiatrists think is the most powerful in luring people, and it's called intermittent reinforcement.

I'll use a crude analogy. If you have a rat in a cage and the rat doesn't know when a food dispenser is going to dispense a pellet, it feels compelled to check all the time. It creates intermittent reinforcement. You or I or anyone else who doesn't know when something fascinating is going to come by email, when something good is going to come, feel compelled to check all the time. So that would be a psychological lure. And if you take that back again to the primitive analogies that we discussed earlier, you know, you don't know when you're going to get a little rabbit coming in or a little lion. It's not only the positives you're looking for but you also get stimulated by the threats.

GROSS: You describe psychological reasons why we check our email even when we don't want to be bombarded by it. Is there, like, a neurochemical thing going on there too?

Mr. RICHTEL: Yeah, and these things, I mean, I guess as we all kind of know in life, the brain and the body are hard to differentiate at this point. But let's make that division and say that there's some research out there now that says for instance, heavy video game use gives you some dopamine release. Dopamine is a chemical that is also thought to be involved with addiction. A lot of this research is still forming, so I want to be careful not to overstep my understanding of this.

But the connection that scientists are making are saying basically this: when you check your information, when you get a buzz in your pocket, when you hear a ring - you get what they call a dopamine squirt. You get a little rush of adrenaline. So you're getting that more and more and more and more. Well, guess what happens in its absence? You feel bored. You're actually conditioned by a kind of neurochemical response.

Now, I don't want to go too much into the distracted driving thing 'cause, you know, that was something we handled last year. But to me, it's the most powerful manifestation in a way of this concept because you're behind a two-ton vehicle and yet you feel compelled to check your device, or you're sitting at a stoplight and you feel bored for a second and you feel compelled to check it. That's a place where you might have a deadly manifestation.

Sitting behind your desk, though, as we've talked about the last, you know, hour or so, there are other kinds of manifestations, while not as potentially dangerous, still take their toll.

GROSS: My guest is Matt Richtel, a technology reporter for the New York Times.

We'll talk more after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: Let's get back to my interview with Matt Richtel, a technology reporter for the New York Times, who has been writing about how digital technology is affecting our brains, stress levels and ability to concentrate.

You wrote such a great series called "Driving While Distracted." This is the series you won the Pulitzer for, and it was all about drivers, you know, texting and using their cell phones while they drive and often getting into accidents, as a result. And you looked at all the science behind that and the behavior behind that.

Now, here's one of the things that scares me: I don't text while driving, and I try not to dial phone numbers while driving. But I will dial a phone number in a parked spot and then listen through my headset to a call - you know, to somebody on the phone - and I'll think that that's fine. But you've written that science is finding that it's riskier to talk on a cell phone, even with a hands-free device, while driving than it is to talk to a passenger in your car. And it's hard for me to understand: What's the difference? I mean, you're still talking and listening. Why is it different if you're doing it on a cell phone than to somebody who's in the back seat or the front seat in the same vehicle?

Mr. RICHTEL: It's not fair to call this nugget trivia, but in some ways, this is one of the most interesting pieces of trivia I learned in writing that series and that I get asked about the most. The reason is - remember, we talked about how you can't process two streams of information at a time. Well, if you're engaged in a phone conversation, even if both hands are on the wheel, you're processing a stream of information.

Most times, you can get away with that because driving turns out to be, you know, a fairly rote experience. But if something comes into your field of vision, if a kid walks into the roadway unexpectedly, if a car swerves into your lane, you have missed - you have forfeited milliseconds of crucial time to make decisions that would've allowed you otherwise to react. And I, you know, I did some research for our articles on some really tragic accidents, head-on death collisions, where the researchers tell me they would not have happened if a person hadn't been on a hands-free phone.

Now, how is that different, you asked, from talking to a passenger next to you? This kind of gets to that really fascinating nugget I mentioned earlier. It turns out, when you're sitting next to someone in a car, that person helps your safety, the research shows, by acting as a second set of eyes. They watch the roadway. They modulate their conversation, both topic and tone, based on what they see in front of them. They tend to get more quiet when the weather gets bad. So rather than being a detractor, like someone on the phone who can't see you or your conditions, they're an advantage.

GROSS: All right. Well, Matt Richtel, it's been great to talk with you. Thank you very much.

Mr. RICHTEL: Thank you, Terry. I've enjoyed it.

GROSS: Matt Richtel is a technology reporter for The New York Times. Our interview was recorded last August.

You can download Podcasts of our show on our website:

I'm Terry Gross.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: On the next FRESH AIR, we continue our series featuring our most entertaining interviews of the year with Jay-Z. He'll talk about writing his most famous song and his first rhyme when he was nine.

JAY-Z (Hip-hop artist): They were kind of advanced for a young kid. Like I'm the king of hip-hop/ Renewed like the Reebok/The key in the lock/With words so provocative/As long as I live.

GROSS: Jay-Z on the next FRESH AIR.

Join us.

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