Monday, June 7, 2010

All Input, All the Time

How wired up is your family? Do any of you have your Blackberry or iPhone at the dinner table? Can you ignore a vibrating cell phone in your pocket while you are in a meeting? When is the last time your entire family spent a day together without electronic gadgetry? Can't remember? You may find the extensive piece in today's New York Times on the impact of modern gadgets on families and on individuals' brains to be of great interest.

The article looks at current research on how the brain reacts to -- and is changed by -- the constant stimulation and multitasking that is part of contemporary lives. It looks at one father whose addiction to his electronic world has impacted his family and how difficult it is for individuals who are used to constant streams of information to put their sources of stimulation aside. What we found fascinating is the discussion of findings from teams such as the one at Stanford University's Communication Between Humans and Interactive Media Lab. Researchers at the Stanford lab looked at individuals whom they labeled "heavy multitaskers" because of their use of gadgetry, and others who used these devices more sparingly. They found clear differences in the abilities of these two groups to focus on a specific task at hand. The heavy multitaskers were not able to focus on the question in front of them; they were distracted by other information. In contrast, individuals who made limited use of electronic gadgets could better focus on a particular question and scored better on lab tests.

The Stanford researchers did not determine whether the individuals who they labeled multitaskers had different brain wiring that predisposed them to function in a distracted way, or whether they had damaged their ability to concentrate by their heavy use of gadgetry. But parents who are considering their child's latest request for another computer, smart phone, or other device to add to their already substantial electronic collection, may want to think carefully about the impact of their decision -- and to unplug themselves a bit to be a role model for their overstimulated child.

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