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Techs That Make Us Stupid

Computer innovations have transformed how we work, how we interact, how we live -- and how we think.

"We are a gadget happy nation, but the gadgets make us dumber, not smarter." This sentiment might seem obvious to 21st century audiences, but it was actually written in the Lakeland Ledger in 1977 by a writer confounded by the transformation brought about by innovations including 8-track stereos and instant cameras.

Computing and communications technology innovations have transformed how we work, how we interact with one another and how we live. Recent research has shown, however, that technology can also change the way we think.

As certain skills become unnecessary or obsolete thanks to technology, we adjust and adapt. Our brains, however, aren't quite as flexible. Explore how different technologies are dumbing us down.

Increasing dependence on GPS devices might affect development in our brains. Three studies out of McGill University in 2010 suggested that how a person navigates can have implications for brain function as that person ages.

To find our way around, humans use one of two strategies, as reported by NBC News: spatial navigation memory, in which we use maps developed in our brains using visual cues, and stimulus response, which is essentially just following directions that are either memorized or presented as needed.

The hippocampus is the part of the brain that deals with memory and spatial orientation, and is among the parts of the brain initially impacted by Alzheimer's disease. The hippocampus shrinks as we age.

Those who actively use their spatial memory will have higher volumes of gray matter in their brains. London cab drivers, for example, have a larger hippocampus than other people, according to a study of brain scans published in 2000.

Although the study does not show causality, exercising your hippocampus, as the authors suggest, by occasionally turning off the GPS is a smart move to make.

Once considered a form of cheating, the calculator has for decades been an acceptable part of the classroom in higher-level math classes.

Learning calculator procedures in lieu of understanding more advanced mathematical principles is the trade-off, according to a limited study published in the British Journal of Educational Technology last year. The outcome hinders a student's understanding of mathematics.

This study, however, could simply be an outlier. A meta-analysis published in 1990 of 200 studies of calculator use found that the tool enhanced the ability of students to learn the basics.

The Internet puts at our fingertips the single greatest archive of information ever assembled in human history. Having that volume of information available has affected our focus, and is leading us to increasingly become unfocused and superficial thinkers, according to research.

As the Nicholas Carr succinctly explains in the Wired Magazine:


This constant distraction changes the way we think by encouraging information to be little more than a fleeting short-term memory. Instead of retaining new details, our brains process the info and move on to the next tidbit.

Smartphones combine all the distractions of the Internet with more distractions that you can shake a stick at. There are apps, games, emails, text messages and phone calls. Oh right, don't forget phone calls.

As these little devices become ubiquitous and we rely on them more and more to manage our lives, what parts of our brains will go unused? Memory and processing speed naturally decline as we age, as noted on a Forbes piece published last year.

Given that we're already essentially outsourcing these parts of our brains to technology now, what effects will there be decades from now on our brains? For now, researchers can only speculate.

Auto correct and spell check may seem like a good idea, especially if we're not using our brains to their utmost capacity, thanks to technology.

But auto correct is not helping us. It's been shown to affect the ability of adults to correctly spell words consistently, according to a study of 2,000 adults reported in BBC News.

The upside is that the same survey found that 96 percent of adults claimed proper spelling was important.

With so many smartphones, tablets, laptops and other handheld devices around, self-proclaimed multitaskers say they're able to function better. Research, however, seems to suggest otherwise.

A study published in 2010 by the Institute of Psychiatry at the University of London found that multitasking caused a greater decrease in IQ than smoking cannibis, as reported by the Chicago Tribune. Eleven hundred workers at a British company participated in the research, which also found that sleep-deprived employees were more intelligent than their multitasking peers.

Multitasking reportedly temporarily reduced the IQ of the study participants by 10 points. Women, however, proved better able to multitask than men. Still, however, the loss in IQ points was on average three times greater than those using cannibis.

Although attributing any changes in the brain to one device or another can be difficult to prove, sometimes the combination of two or more technologies can have an immediate and verifiable impact on our intelligence.

Using a cell phone and driving a car at the same time puts a strain on the brain's resources, according to an article published in 2008 in the journal Experimental Psychology. Listening and talking makes it more difficult for a motorist to process visual cues while driving. Texting while behind the wheel, in which a driver's visual attention is directly competing between two tasks, is even worse.

According to a government website on distracted driving, using a cell phone while driving reduces the amount of brain activity associated with driving by 37 percent.