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Technology and screens are killing cognitive functioning

It’s death by 1,000 swipes, but we need to allow for downtime too

I’m fascinated by people, partly because I work in marketing, but mostly because people intrigue me. I want to believe we are a rational species, and if that were true maybe marketing could be considered a science.

But we are not, and it is not.

This week we're joined by Dr Fiona Kerr, founder and CEO of Adelaide's NeuroTech Institute, for an insightful discussion on how tech impacts our brain health. Listen now:

This week on the Inside Marketing podcast I spoke to Dr Fiona Kerr, founder and CEO at the NeuroTech Institute in Adelaide, about the impact that technology, and the lack of human interaction, is having on our brains. I may have been wildly out of my depth with this subject matter, talking to someone from a bone fide field of science, but I occasionally managed to drag the conversation from the intellectual highs of neuroscience right down to the murky and largely inconsequential depths of marketing.

We started off talking about how technology is making us all collectively less smart. “Daydreaming, or abstraction, is our natural brain state. When we constantly reach for a phone, we distract ourselves with busy things on a screen, it gives us a quick dopamine hit which feels good, but it doesn’t feed our curiosity,” Kerr says.

“When we are abstracting we are allowing the brain to collate all the bits of information stored in different places, to connect everything, but when we revert to the phone we’re on task mode, pushing our brains down rabbit holes, stopping it from free forming and making neural connections needed to meaningfully store and process information.”

There are other negative impacts of being in a constant state of gazing downwards at our screens.

“When we look up we change the perspective, when we’re always looking down and always doing very short term things we’re never thinking about the bigger things in life – we stop ourselves reflecting on our thoughts and feelings,” Kerr says.

“As part of my work over years it has been worrying and fascinating to see the level of short -termism that has grown in areas of complex problem-solving in all walks of life and across practically every geography.”

It’s not just inward reflection that is stunted by our gorging on technology. There are lots of studies pointing to the harm that social media has on teenagers and the physical impact of excessive screen time on our bodies.

“We’ve had over 20 years of technology and screens so there are some fantastic long-term studies highlighting the negative impacts of over-reliance on screen time and social media generally [The iGen Project, and The Goldilocks Studies are two prominent ones] that have long-term data allowing us to monitor screen exposure in children as young as two and then looking forward on their development in teenage and young adult years,” she says.

“In addition to increased isolation and feelings of depression and loneliness, now we have these people as adults we see increases in things like cardiac disease, obesity, and damage to the general immune system.”

Technology has been a saviour during Covid-19, but much like the mobile phone, it has become the norm rather than the aide to the point where technology is managing us rather than us managing technology.

Collectively smarter

Kerr explains the importance of physical connectivity in the workplace and how it makes us collectively smarter. “One of the most fascinating things that has become obvious in the last few years is that the higher the interbrain synchronisation (IbS) between people, the higher the level of intra-brain synchronisation within each brain.

“The electrochemical stimulation created between humans when we interact positively is also exciting more activity within each brain, and this allows richer cross -connections to occur and speeds up many activities.

“This is why highly synchronous teams can be very creative or solve complex problems, often at speed, with lower stress and less need for communication as they are highly attuned to each other – quite literally like brain wifi.”

Because we’re not very good at reading people anymore, and we’re less capable of navigating negative face-to-face discussions, we’re more likely to resort to text or email, which further exacerbates the problem – and we become more socially stunted.

Kerr reminds me there’s a science to this.

“When humans are sharing the same space we emit, absorb and synchronise thousands of chemical signals (chemosignals) which are critical to our communication, and affect our behaviour, psychological state and cognitive activity.

Good organisations have always had conversations about how to use technology and space

“The exchange of chemosignals is thought to be why we can ‘read a room’ and pick up people’s emotional states even though they haven’t been consciously communicated with us. These chemicals can promote a kind of contagious emotion, whether it is psychological wellbeing or distress, as we empathise without being conscious of it, picking up emotional states like fear and happiness from those around us.

“We can’t pick up chemosignals over screens so when you use high levels of screens and social networking your ability for empathy is reduced, a major cause of what is known as the digital wall.”

Given the importance of physicality and human connectivity, I wondered what all of this means for today’s workplace. Agile working benefits the employee, and that’s great because we need better work-life balance, but if we need physical proximity to be at our best, is agile working better for the employer or business?

“One of the key requirements for building team synchrony is to spend time face to face. This doesn’t mean the team has to co-locate permanently, but they should be regularly in the same space to allow the physical IbS and chemosignal exchange to occur. This suits a hybrid workplace and can be built into an ongoing format of team formation, task activity and formal and informal interaction,” Kerr says.

A hybrid workplace needs to be tailored to your teams and tasks: you need to decide what you absolutely need to be together in the same space for, and what can you do over a screen as well as or even better, and then try and combine both.

“Good organisations have always had conversations about how to use technology and space, what is the deep work people need to be able to focus on, and what are the task-driven activities that if distracted are less problematic,” she says.

Fatigue

Co-locating reduces fatigue too. “Covid took away control and humans hate that as we require an ‘internal locus of control’. It’s a large part of our change fatigue, cognitive fatigue and anxiety as we’re in a perpetual state of change, lockdowns, and restrictions and of re-emergence,” Kerr says.

“We also miss out on the electrochemical boost from live interaction, replaced by virtual fatigue as parts of our brain never turn on over screens while others never turn off, instead going crazy trying to pick up information it knows it should be receiving from the individual in front of us but it isn’t – that’s really tiring.”

As we muddle our way through hybrid working it’s worth remembering that there are certain things that cannot be replicated over a screen no matter how efficient it may appear to be.

And it’s also worth remembering our brains need time to think, to daydream and to connect everything. In a world where everything is fast and we’re busy being busy, take time away from the problem you’re struggling with.

Avoid the urge to always be doing, sometimes it can be more productive to do as Ronald Reagan (and many others who have this quote attributed to them) said, “don’t just do something, stand there” and let your mind soar.

Dr Fiona Kerr also recently participated in The Smart Coffee Break podcast series, which has been launched in partnership with WORKTECH Academy, the global knowledge platform and member network exploring how we’ll work tomorrow.

Dave Winterlich is chief strategy officer at Dentsu Ireland

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