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Technology Changes the Brain

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Friday, 05 Sep 2014 04:33 PM Current | Bio | Archive

Technology has made us impatient. If we send an email or a text message, we expect an immediate response. Why bother calling someone at their home or office when you can reach him or her directly on a cell phone at any time of the day?
 
In fact, today’s smartphones are not just phones anymore — they’re hand-held personal computers that can instantly provide the answer to any question or give the exact location of almost anything in the world.
 
There’s no doubt that technology has changed our lives; new studies indicate that it is changing our brains as well. Research at UCLA showed that searching the Internet causes significant increases in neural activation of the brain’s frontal lobes, where we make decisions and hold short-term memories.
 
Many of us have become so dependent on our gadgets that we can’t seem to live without them. Some even fly into a kind of panic if their web server goes down or the electricity goes out.
 
When you bring up the subject of addiction, people automatically think of alcohol or drugs. But the same brain networks that control dependence on such substances can also lead to dependence on almost any pleasurable experience, including eating, shopping, sex, gambling, or surfing the web.
 
The easy access and perceived anonymity of new technology appears to fuel people with a predisposition to compulsive behavior, leading to what many experts are now calling an addiction.
 
Internet addiction was initially described as excessive online use that shared features with other addictive disorders. Such features include preoccupation with the activity, inability to diminish use, and a need for more of the experience to match the original thrill.
 
Initial studies of Internet addiction defined the disorder as involving 38 hours or more of Internet use each week. The prevalence of this condition is not known but it is estimated that up to 10 percent of all Internet users reach that level.
 
A 2013 study published in PLOS ONE showed that Internet addiction was associated with depression, impulsivity, and autistic traits. Whether they’re surfing the web, playing video games for hours on end, or sorting through hundreds of emails, when people become engrossed in gadgets, their brains and bodies automatically react to the repetitious stimulation. Heart rate slows, brain blood vessels dilate, and blood flow shifts away from the major organs in the body.
 
This constellation of physiological responses allows the brain to remain focused on the device. However, prolonged use and rapid shifts in visual stimuli can cause disorientation, poor concentration, and mental fatigue.
 
Yet despite these symptoms, an addicted user may not be able to stop.
 
No matter what their activity of choice, addicts become conditioned to compulsively seek a burst of euphoria — what many call a “rush” — from the experience. Such pleasurable sensations are controlled by a neurotransmitter called dopamine, which modulates behaviors related to rewards and motivation.
 
Just as drug addicts report a feeling of elation from acquiring or preparing medication, many people who seem addicted to their computers feel a burst of euphoria at the mere sound of their computers booting up.
 
The brain’s frontal lobe normally regulates dopamine urges to continue an activity for prolonged periods of time. A particular area of the frontal lobe, the anterior cingulate, plays an important role in this rational decision-making.
 
But when a person is excessively drawn to technology, elevated levels of dopamine tell the brain “give me more, give me more.” Meanwhile, the anterior cingulate serves as the brain’s voice of reason, signaling “slow down, use restraint.” may not be able to stop.
 
When people struggle with addictions of any kind, there is a battle between the primitive, feel-good dopamine tracks in the base of the brain and the rational anterior cingulate circuits in the frontal lobe. To help people overcome their addictions, the dopamine system needs to be controlled and the anterior cingulate circuits require strengthening.

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Technology has made us impatient. If we send an email or a text message, we expect an immediate response. Why bother calling someone at home or office when you can reach him or her n a cell phone any time of the day?
technology, mind health, addiction, anterior cingulate
648
2014-33-05
Friday, 05 Sep 2014 04:33 PM
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