All those tweets, apps, updates may drain brain

James Temple

Human minds evolved to constantly scan for novelty, lest we miss any sign of food, danger or, on a good day, mating opportunities.

But the modern world bombards us with stimuli, a nonstop stream of e-mails, chats, texts, tweets, status updates and video links to piano playing cats.

There's growing concern among scientists that indulging in these ceaseless disruptions isn't good for our brains, in much the way that excessive sugar or fat - other things we evolved to crave when they were in shorter supply - isn't good for our bodies.

And some believe it's time to consider a technology diet.

A team at UCSF published a study last week that found further evidence that multitasking impedes short-term memory, especially among older adults. Researchers there previously found that distractions of the sort that smart phones and social networks present can hinder long-term memory and mental performance.

A 2009 study at Stanford University found that, surprisingly, persistent multitaskers perform worse than infrequent ones on tests that require them to jump from task to task. It seems they were more easily distracted by irrelevant information thrown up during the evaluations.

That suggests continual multitasking may impair the filter that keeps our brain from flitting from thing to thing - making it harder to resist, say, the siren song of cat clips.

Some psychiatrists worry that people are increasingly demonstrating addict-like behavior when it comes to technology, unable to ignore its pull, even when it negatively affects them.

"The best way to define it is in terms of the offline consequences," said Dr. Elias Aboujaoude, director of Stanford's Impulse Control Disorders Clinic and author of the new book "Virtually You." "Are we suffering in terms of our cognition and attention spans because of all the time we spend online? Is our professional life negatively impacted because of all the nonessential Internet surfing we do at work?"

Too often, he says, the answer is yes.
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