You are what you Tweet: How is technology changing our brains?

Are you a chronic media multitasker? If so, as many of us are in this day and age, then a recent study published in PLOS ONE may be of interest to you. 

Neuroscientists Kep Kee Loh and Ryota Kanai set out to identify connections between high media multitasking; that is, frequently using several media devices, and its impact on brain structure within the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC), a part of the brain that is responsible for a wide variety of tasks, from attention to motivation, using converging neuroimaging evidence to make decisions.

The anterior cingulate cortex is located at the front of the brain, not far from your forehead, connected to both the (emotional) limbic system and the (cognitive) prefrontal cortex. Image provided by: http://www.sutherlandsurvey.com/Images/Columns09_Images/ACC_and_PFC.jpg

The study required 75 participants, alike in their age [mean: 24.6 years old] and education level, to answer questions on their use of a variety of media forms, from mobile phones to television, including the amount of hours they spent doing so per week. Following that, the participants’ ACC’s were scanned to reveal the grey-matter density, or, in other words, the amount of neuronal cell bodies within the ACC, that are responsible for sensory perception.

And as predicted, a ‘unique association’ was discernible between the participants’ media multitasking frequency and the grey-matter density of their anterior cingulate cortex. In Loh’s words, ‘individuals who reported higher amounts of media multitasking had smaller grey matter density in the ACC’. So, what does a smaller grey matter density in the ACC mean? Previous tests on the ACC, such as the Stroop Test, have found that those with a sparser grey matter in their anterior cingulate cortex have decreased cognitive control, slower to spot changes in visual patterns and distractions, as well as having decreased calculative skills and memorisation.

Considering too that the ACC is possibly involved with emotional and motivational processes, encompassing disorders such as obsessive-compulsive disorder and depression, the prospect that multitasking could lower the density of grey matter within the ACC, and provoke such conditions, will most likely be attended by further research in years to come. However, the study made clear that it could not allow any specific evidence with regards to multitasking’s role in causing a lesser grey-matter density, only that it had identified ‘light novel associations’ between multitasking and structural variations within the ACC.

So perhaps in years to come we could be hearing more about the biological implications of our technological obsessions, rather than the negative impact that our 21st century habits are having socially. Perhaps that reality is the key to silencing the Tweeters.

 

For more, see the article itself at http://www.plosone.org/article/info%3Adoi%2F10.1371%2Fjournal.pone.0106698

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