I don't know what I'd do without my smart phone to manage my busy day, or my GPS in the car to get around the city. But if my smart phone and GPS are doing all the thinking, is my own brain power withering away from lack of challenge?
This is something I get asked a lot in my role as a clinical neuropsychologist. It's a fair question, but it turns out our gadget use is not so bad for our brains. Inputting and extracting information from our smart phone, for example, are mentally engaging pursuits.
The steps and effort involved in creating a reminder for our smart-phone calendar require the resources of several cognitive strategies. First, we must contemplate what to add to our calendar, thereby allocating our attention to this information. This is a very important first step to committing something to memory. Second, we must plan and organize our schedule to ensure we are available for a meeting and to avoid scheduling conflicts. Third, by thumbing, tapping or finger pecking this information into our device, we engage the motor cortex of our brain. We also engage the visual cortex and language-processing networks by composing and reading back our entry.
Processing information in all these ways creates more neural pathways (or avenues) to retrieve it later. While typing, we are likely to repeat the information to ourselves out loud or mentally, and again when we do a final check of the contents. The same goes for inputting a shopping list. These steps help us to remember the items, even if we have the misfortune of forgetting our smart phone at home.
In the Memory-Link program at Baycrest - which provides specialized training in the use of memory-supporting commercial technologies such as smart phones for adults with a memory impairment - my colleagues and I have found that clients with moderate to severe memory impairment report improvement in their memory for day-to-day tasks that they have entered into their devices. These clients also respond to daily audible alarms by checking their calendar application. While this is a seemingly passive activity, many clients show new learning of routine tasks and schedules. This suggests it is more difficult to shut off our brain power than we think, even when our brain is damaged.
With the sheer number of available gadgets and apps, and the endless upgrades we must adapt to, the worries about technology-induced downsizing of our mental capacities is not all that realistic. There is a lot of learning and problem-solving involved in using and integrating all these technologies into our lives. Research tells us that staying active and mentally engaged is good for the brain. Step-by-step instruction technologies, such as GPS, give a misleading impression that users can mentally disengage after inputting the destination to which they wish to travel. In reality, GPS is at best a useful guide and we must still use common sense and problem-solving abilities when navigating unfamiliar roads. We've all heard the stories about drivers ending up in a swamp after faithfully following their GPS instructions. The GPS is an instructive, navigational tool not unlike a cake recipe. We must still use discretion about whether to follow the exact recipe or modify it.
Despite concerns about over-reliance on assistive digital devices, most people do not believe that relying on a recipe will contribute to a decline in their mental capabilities. In more cases than not, we are cognitively active participants in following recipes and using our smart phones.
If we can make positive changes in our lifestyle by using gadgets and apps to motivate us to exercise, eat better, learn more, stay informed, and be socially connected and organized, then technology use may be contributing to a brain gain, not a brain drain.
Dr. Eva Svoboda is a clinical neuropsychologist in the memory-link program at Baycrest and a lecturer in neuropsychological rehabilitation at the University of Toronto.