How Digital Technology Shapes Us
Indre Viskontas is an Associate Professor of Psychology at the University of San Francisco, where she runs the Creative Brain Lab. She earned a PhD in Cognitive Neuroscience from the University of California, Los Angeles. She has published more than 50 original papers and chapters related to the neural basis of memory and creativity. A passionate science communicator, she has appeared on major TV and radio programs and hosts the popular science podcast Inquiring Minds as well as the podcast Cadence: What Music Tells Us about the Mind.
01: How Experience Alters the Brain
It is the adaptable nature of the human brain that has allowed us to become who we are today and dictates who we will become in the future. Learn how our lived experience changes our brain wiring as well as the relative sizes of different brain regions. Each of these changes is susceptible to alterations resulting from our use of technology.
02: Are New Media Shortening Attention Spans?
Teachers claim that students’ attention spans have drastically changed because technology is eroding their ability to focus. But what about adults? Explore the impact of technology on our own ability to perform “deep work” and whether or not multitasking is even a neurological possibility.
03: Does the Internet Make Us Shallow Thinkers?
While our brain circuitry evolved to support speech, reading is not an innate, passively acquired skill. Instead, the connections in our brains are shaped and reinforced as we learn to read. Compare the neurological difference between reading on the internet and reading a physical book—and understand why we need to ensure that the next generations acquire the skill of “deep reading.”
04: Outsourcing Our Memory
Has our ability to remember details declined as more and more information becomes instantly available on the internet? After all, why bother memorizing a fact you can so easily look up? Explore the positives and negatives of the internet with respect to memory creation, and learn how the latest technology might help us expand our memories to take full advantage of our human potential.
05: Human versus Digital Content Curators
Recommendations, whether from a real person or an algorithm, have an enormous influence on our behaviors. Consider how much of your digital content—e.g., social media, books, movies, political ads—is determined by an algorithm that might or might not have goals aligned with your own. Recognizing the strengths and weaknesses of these algorithms will help you make more informed choices.
06: Virtual Realities and Our Sense of Self
Given that our experiences affect not only how are brains are activated but also their structural anatomy, explore the many ways in which virtual reality can affect us. Learn why leaders of VR research are calling for a code of ethics, and why VR could also be a place where human imagination could thrive, leading to new ideas and inventions.
07: Screen Time’s Impact on Kids
Does increased screen time enrich or impoverish children’s environments and how are their emotions influenced by digital media? You might be surprised to learn that “it depends”—just like almost every other aspect of parenting. Explore the many factors scientists are studying to help answer these crucial questions.
08: Video Games and Violence
We might easily assume that those who play violent games would be more likely to perpetrate violent acts than non-players—but the scientific research is less conclusive. Dig into the fascinating studies that have been addressing this issue for decades and learn how playing violent video games factors into overall cognitive development and perceptions of the world.
09: Is Digital Technology Ruining Sleep?
Although studies show we are not sleeping fewer hours than before the days of technology on the nightstand, the quality of our sleep has likely been affected—especially for young people. Better understand the lifesaving functions your brain performs while you sleep and how technology, used the right way, just might help you sleep better, allowing your cognitive functions to be stronger the next day.
10: How “Dr. Google” Is Changing Medicine
Have you ever used a search engine for medical advice? If so, you’re certainly not alone. But how often does that search result in more harm than help? Consider the many ways in which technology has impacted the practice of medicine and the doctor-patient relationship, and the moral dilemmas that have resulted.
11: The Virtual Therapist
Is on-screen talk therapy as effective as in-person therapy? Studies show it is. And in some respects—with the addition of virtual reality, for example—it can be more helpful than in-person talk therapy alone. Explore the many ways in which technology can help both mental-health patients and researchers, as well as the associated risks.
12: How Big Data Can Predict the Future
Learn how big data is changing scientific research and deepening our view of ourselves and the world around us. But does the ability to process previously unimaginable amounts of data and jump from one finding to the next really help us understand the relationships between variables? What risks might we be taking without realizing it?
13: Is Privacy Dead in the Information Age?
Examine the privacy paradox, our increasingly lax attitude toward our own privacy and its many implications for our future. How often do you unwittingly sell your privacy for a store discount, a few more social media “likes,” or the convenience of choosing specific amenities at a vacation spot? Learn about the complex relationship between privacy and trust in the digital age.
14: The Emotional Effects of Social Media
Studies have shown that the use of Facebook (more than 1 billion users worldwide) often results in increased feelings of sadness, jealousy, and envy. Explore the neurological basis of our social interactions—where we focus our attention and why, how we make choices, and what is required for humans to maintain stable relationships. How do those factors interact with our social media usage?
15: How Online Dating Transforms Relationships
Examine the potential differences between relationships that begin through online dating services versus those that begin more traditionally. Discover which neurological processes we use in making our choices—whether a new car, new house, or a mate. How can we make sure we assess potential mates with careful deliberation if we use an online service?
16: Technology and Addiction
Substance addiction leaves traceable changes in the brain, from the structure of brain cells and regions to their connections. Learn how technology can “supercharge” experiences to affect us neurologically and biologically overall, particularly with respect to one of our strongest motivational drives: sex.
17: Is the Internet Hurting Democracy?
It is well established that the internet and other technologies can shape our political behavior and give one candidate an advantage over another. But what are the mechanisms by which we make our political decisions? You might be surprised to learn that differences between different political alignments can be seen in our brains.
18: The Arts in the Digital Era
In the digital age, who decides which art is of the best quality? Or rather, who builds the algorithms that decide? In a time of almost infinite choices, is there greater or lesser opportunity for unknown artists to put their work out there? And how has technology affected the artist’s ability to learn deliberatively and experiment with all options?
19: How AI Can Enhance Creativity
Can artificial intelligence (AI) help us realize our fullest creative potential in the future, or will it become a hinderance we nevertheless can’t live without? Learn about the many ways in which AI might help us become more creative than ever before. How could we harness the strength of machines to enhance our creativity, a trait we often consider one of our most revered human characteristics?
20: Do We Trust Algorithms over Humans?
No one deliberately taught you how to speak. After hearing and processing millions of words over many months—and with a brain that is wired for speech—you started talking. Dive into the world of machine learning to discover whether or not machines can teach themselves, the way we do, and what the implications might be both for machines and for ourselves.
21: Could Blockchain Revolutionize Society?
Learn what makes blockchain a social technology and why some researchers say it could be a force for good, bringing together disparate elements in a framework of trust. Could blockchain represent a giant leap forward in allowing us to be more confident in online transactions and lessen constant concerns about hacking? Explore the potential of this technology to take us both back to basics and into the future.
22: Effects of Technological Metaphors on Science
The metaphors we use when talking about the brain can limit our ability to think “outside the box” and perceive the real workings of the brain in all its complexity. Consider the many ways in which the computer metaphor, although popular, is a poor match for the human brain, and what scientists might miss by continuing to use it.
23: Robots and the Future of Work
What skills for success will the next generation need in a society with automation and robots as commonplace in the home as in the factory? Should everyone learn coding to prepare for work? Discover why many scientists discourage that outlook and why they believe an age of robots might help us learn more about ourselves than ever before.
24: Redefining What It Means to Be Human
A society with increased AI and robotics is not necessarily a dystopian environment with increased human isolation and decreased human activity. Explore our current definitions of human life and death to better understand where we are now and where we might be headed.