Digital Devices Are Reducing Your Brain's Processing PowerS

Getting in a quick hit of gaming on the bus or in the bathroom may seem like a good thing, but playing with your portable devices could be depriving your brain of important downtime needed to process memories.

Technology is everywhere today, and we're using it constantly. I sit in front of a computer all day long, writing up stories. When I'm not writing or researching, I'm catching a video on my iPad, or playing Puzzle Quest 2 on my DS, or tossing Angry Birds at pigs on my iPhone. I'm constantly connected and engaged in some fashion.

Now science says that might not be a good thing.

Scientists at the University of California, San Francisco, have used rats to see how information is processed in the brain. When rats are introduced to a new environment, their exploration triggers new patterns of activity in the brain. It isn't until those rats stop exploring and rest that that new activity is composed into something resembling a lasting memory.

In other words, the rats' brains need to pause while memories are written to disc. And so do human brains.

Assistant professor in the department of physiology at the university Loren Frank says, "Almost certainly, downtime lets the brain go over experiences it's had, solidify them and turn them into permanent long-term memories."

So learning isn't just about being constantly bombarded by new images and information; it's also about processing that information in your brain, annexing it into your archives, as it were.

According to researchers at the University of Michigan, processing large amounts of information can leave the brain fatigued. a study found that people learned better after a walk in the wilderness, as opposed to a walk through an urban environment, with its constant stimuli.

The New York Times article on the subject uses the example of working out while watching television, texting, or reading email via portable electronics. While many scientists agree that electronic devices help facilitate physical exercise in those who would otherwise have no time for it, the end result is mental fatigue on top of physical fatigue.

Mobile gaming isn't helping the issue at all. Speaking to the New York Times, Playfish co-founder Sebastien de Halleux says that game creators are tailoring new experience to fit into the moments we should be processing information.

"Instead of having long relaxing breaks, like taking two hours for lunch, we have a lot of these micro-moments," he said. Game makers like Electronic Arts, he added, "have reinvented the game experience to fit into micro-moments."

Consumers eat these tiny new experiences up, eager for anything to fill the spaces in-between meetings, family obligations, and other important events.

But we can hardly blame game companies or mobile phone manufacturers for giving us what we want. It's up to us to change our habits and give our brains time to process everything we see in this digitally connected world.

If my office had a window, I'd be staring out of it right now.

Digital Devices Deprive Brain of Needed Downtime [The New York Times]