A couple of days ago, I was watching some Cyberpunk 2077 gameplay on YouTube. The game introduces to all of us the endless possibilities of integrating technology into the human body. Furthermore, it got me thinking about how the brain would associate itself with technology. Also, is it already happening to us in our world today? Indeed, we still don’t have anyone merging their brains with some technological enhancement. However, does today’s technology, such as computers and phones, pose any effects to our brain? If so, are the effects harmful or beneficial for our cognitive functions?
The Effects of Video Games
One of the most fascinating segments of technology is video games. We have come a very long way since PacMan. Today, we can build close to real-life simulations on our screens because of video games. The main difference between a video game and a ‘normal’ or real-life game is that it is much more mentally demanding. Video games are very similar to chess, except in a virtual setting.
However, our society might not agree with this statement. I am sure you have heard someone saying that video games make someone stupider. Well, if you play video games instead of studying for an exam, you will look stupider. However, if you focus solely on the improvement of cognitive abilities, the statement “video games make you smart” might actually be a reality.
UC Irvine Study
In 2015, a study was conducted on UC Irvine to investigate the effects of video games on the brain. The investigation was carried out by gathering individuals who do not play games and splitting them into three independent groups. They were all asked to perform several virtual tasks on a computer that measures their spatial memory.
The participants then got instructed to follow the designated assignments that were given to each group. The first group was not permitted to play any video games. The second group only plays 2-D games, and the third group only plays 3-D games. After two weeks, the participants took the same test to measure any changes in their cognitive abilities. Interestingly, only the third group, who plays 3-D games, improve their scores. The first group who did not play any games and the second group who only played 2-D games does not have any improvements.
Therefore, playing certain video games does improve your memory, specifically spatial memory. But how does this happen? To answer this question, we must first look at the hippocampus.
The hippocampus is a structure in your brain that is responsible for handling memory, short-term or long-term. Specifically, it is responsible for the formation and storage of new memories. An example of where the hippocampus is needed is when we try to remember where we park our car in the parking lot, just before entering the mall. The hippocampus is located in the temporal lobe, and each person has two of them. Though it plays a major role in our cognitive function, the size of your hippocampus is just slightly smaller than your thumb.
The study speculated that the improvements in the scores are due to changes in the structure of the hippocampus. These changes are, of course, triggered by the frequent playing of 3-D games. Later, the researchers actually confirmed that this was true. Playing games does alter the structure of the hippocampus and improves the effectiveness of its function.
The explanation seems to check out if at the functions of the hippocampus. The hippocampus is responsible for forming new memories. Participants play video games that enhance the hippocampus. Because of this enhancement, they were able to perform better in spatial memory tests.
Thus, we can conclude playing specific video games does improve your cognitive abilities and make you smarter. However, this is just one of many ways tech affects and physically changes our brain.
Technology is not only capable of affecting the memory functions in our brain. Apparently, it can also affect our brain’s empathy and social circuits. Sometimes, we may empathize and relate better with machines than people. We can see the effect in today our society and maybe even yourself. Think about how much you care about your phones. Do you feel uncomfortable when someone drops their phones on water? Or when someone smashes their phone screens?
To investigate this effect of technology on our brain, we can refer to the BlabDroid. The BlabDroid was created by Alex Reben, a roboticist, and alumni of the MIT Media Lab. It is a tiny and cute-looking robot, programmed with a small and innocent voice. Its main goal is to ask some personal questions to unsuspecting pedestrians. Most pedestrians actually complied and answered these questions that they normally would not share with other people. Just look at the video below. It is absurd how easily our emotions and trust are manipulated by machines.
In 2015, researchers at MIT conducted a study to investigate this effect of empathy in human-robot interactions. Their main hypothesis is giving robots a unique name, backstory, and movement will increase the levels of empathy shown in humans. The degree of empathy was measured by the hesitation shown when asked to smash a robot called the Hexbug.
The 101 participants of the study were divided into two groups. Participants in the control group were given a motionless Hexbug without any name or backstory. The other group was given was introduced to Hexbugs that have motion, a name, and a backstory. The paper gave us an example of such introductions:
“This is Frank. Frank is really friendly but he gets distracted easily. He’s lived at the Lab for a few months now. He likes to play and run around. Sometimes he escapes, but he never gets far. Frank’s favorite color is red. Last week, he played with some other bugs and he’s been excited ever since.”
All the participants were then instructed to smash the Hexbugs with a mallet. As expected, the people in the control group shown little to no remorse when smashing the Hexbug. The other group, however, showed a great deal of hesitation. They took a lot of time and asked many questions, indicating they had not understood the instructions.
From both the BlabDroid and the Hexbug experiments, we can see that technology can really affect the emotional response and empathetic functions of our brain.
We already discuss the potential benefit of technology to our brain from video games. But are there any harmful side effects of technology on our brain? A popular argument to support this claim is that we use technology to delegate or offload our cognitive activities. For example, we don’t have to remember our schedules anymore because we can just use Google Calendar. We don’t have to remember road routes because we can use GPS. Because technology can make us “think less”, we will sooner and later become dumber.
However, this argument might not be correct and just be a severe case of Juvenoia. About 2000 years ago, Socrates said a similar thing about a new piece of technology. The technology is writing, very different from our technology these days. When it was first invented, he said that it would have a negative impact on our minds. Because we can write out our memory and store it on a piece of paper, our society will become stupider. Socrates said that writing will “implant forgetfulness” and “they will not practice using their memory because they will put their trust in writing”.
Well, we now know that this is not the case. Although the technology of writing fundamentally changes our brain, it is also the pinnacle of the success of human civilization and is probably one of the greatest inventions of all time. Therefore, while we may not be 100% sure if technology actually makes us dumber, the past has suggested otherwise.
From the examples above, we can see that technology is capable of affecting the human brain. Furthermore, these are only a few selected examples. I’m very sure that there are still unmentioned and undiscovered ways that tech affects our brain. You don’t have to look so far into the future to see technologies that mold and change the brain. It is already happening right here, right now.
Featured Image by Pixabay