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Technology's Effect on the Mind and the World

Throughout history, technology has had positive and negative impacts on our brains and psychology. The advent of new tools and technology has shaped how humans behave, learn, and interact with each other. In particular, the impact of devices and the internet on young children could have far-reaching consequences. The environmental impact of technology is undeniable: the invention of engines and the burning of fossil fuels to power them has nearly destroyed the planet, but now technological advances could save the world through green and sustainable energy sources.


From the development of primitive tools to steam engines to the internet, each new invention has brought humanity forward in leaps and bounds in terms of societal and cognitive development (Loh & Kanai, 2016). Nothing has changed society more than technology. The first industrial revolution in the 1700s occurred with the use of steam engines to drive the steel and textile industries. The second industrial revolution happened in 1900 when the internal combustion engine was developed, and the auto industry took off. The third began in the 1960s when computers and information technology were used to automate processes. The fourth industrial revolution is ongoing and involves new, innovative technologies including renewable sources of energy, the internet, 3D printing and genetic engineering. With each industrial revolution, society changes exponentially (Min et al., 2018).


Figure 1: First Industrial Revolution (Unknown, n.d.).

Brain Meets Computer

There are many studies that have demonstrated how human brain physiology has been forever altered by technology. From how it changes how people think, feel, their memories, attention spans and even how they sleep and dream, the impact of technology on the brain is undeniable (Choudhury & McKinney, 2013). Overexposure to technology has been linked to attention deficits, poor executive control, and internet addiction (Loh & Kanai, 2016). In digitalised societies, the impact of technology on the mind and cognition is constantly debated: a reliance on technology has been accused of reducing attention span and infantilising the brain to a state where it is motivated by pop-ups and flashing lights, which is associated with impulsivity (Choudhury & McKinney, 2013).


Technology is able to affect the brain to such an extent due to a scientific phenomenon known as neuroplasticity, which is the brain's ability to alter its behaviour based on experiences. Neuroplasticity allows the brain to grow new neurons and form new synaptic connections in areas that are frequently used to aid learning and memory of new experiences. However, the reverse also happens: neuronal connections that are not used will deteriorate (Choudhury & McKinney, 2013).


Figure 2: Neuroplasticity (Ramasubramanian, 2022).

The brain is often compared to a computer and is said to be the most powerful machine in the world. Although the brain is highly complex and has far-reaching functions throughout the body, it is still limited by biology (Fitz & Reiner, 2016). One of the modern goals of technology and innovation is to enhance normal human nature and expand the capabilities of the mind (Vita-More, 2014). Expansion of the mind encompasses goals that include improving mental performance, memory and cognition enhancement and slowing age-related mental decline (Fitz & Reiner, 2016). 'Digital expansion of the mind' is a term used to describe technological methods to improve these processes (Marsh & Rajaram, 2019).


However, human memory is still limited. One theory of why the digital expansion of the mind has had such a limited impact so far is that the brain is already running at optimum capacity, and human biology is simply not capable of more. To circumvent this, many scientists and developers are investigating ways to marry the human brain and technological devices. Although upgrading human brains with implantable computer chips is still science fiction, there are already practical ways in which the brain's abilities can be harnessed by technology (Fitz & Reiner, 2016). Expansion of the mind also includes life extension. Technologies in development to extend the human lifespan include whole-body prostheses for movement and sensory perception, and systems to stream cognitive function (Vita-More, 2014).


A definitive example of where the brain and technology meet is in a brain-computer interface (BCI). A BCI is a communication technology that enables the user to control hardware and software systems through the sole use of the electroencephalographic activity of the cerebrum. This technology has already had life-changing effects on those who have suffered total paralysis from spinal cord injury or neuromuscular disorders, such as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. Although these patients may be unable to communicate or physically interact with the world through movement, they can control a BCI system through their cerebral activity. BCI systems include speech synthesizers and neural prostheses, which can dramatically improve the quality of life of paralysed patients (Nicolas-Alonso & Gomez-Gil, 2012).



Figure 3: Brain-computer interface (Rehman, 2020).
Memory

Human memory was once considered to be irreplaceable. The problem-solving, comprehension, and intelligent functioning of humans were thought to be unequalled on Earth. However, developments in computer memory and abilities have brought this into question. While human memory is limited by neurobiology, the potential for improving computer memory may be unlimited, and therefore the capacity of computers to learn and develop may soon surpass humankind. Computer memory was once based on relays, then was developed to store memory in transistors and then onto integrated circuits (Estes, 1980). While human memory is dependent on the brain’s hippocampus and the growth and strengthening of synapses, computer memory can be completely changed and expanded (Neves et al., 2008). Furthermore, while human capacity for learning depends on a variety of factors, including the method of teaching, sleep, and the attention span of the individual, machine learning is much more predictable (Cowan, 2008).


Computers store memory as 'bits' of data on a storage device, such as a hard drive, organised so the data can easily be retrieved. When this data is required, the computer's central processing unit (CPU) accesses the data and stores it in the computer's random access memory (RAM). From here, the data is processed and sent to the program where this data is needed (Bentoutou, 2012). In humans, memory is more varied and is stored differently depending on the type of memory. Human memory can be classified as immediate memory (lasting milliseconds), working memory (lasting a few minutes) and long-term memory (lasting anywhere from hours to years). Each type of memory is processed and stored differently in the brain. Immediate memory happens very quickly and is held in modality-specific brain regions. For example, immediate visual memory is held in parts of the brain that process visual information and immediate auditory memory is held in auditory parts of the brain. Working memory holds facts and information in the brain’s prefrontal lobe for long enough to use that information. Long-term memory holds facts and autobiographical information that are learned throughout life. Working memory is converted to long-term memory in a process called consolidation. To store long-term memories there must be a change to the brain’s hippocampus. The process of consolidation is sensitive to distraction—if a person is distracted after a class at school, for example, they are unlikely to remember a lot of information from the class (Baddeley, 1998; Cowan, 2008). Sleep is also essential to memory consolidation, as the consolidation process is believed to occur during sleep. It has been shown that sleep deprivation impairs memory recall (Walker & Stickgold, 2004).


Figure 4: Memory consolidation (Unknown, n.d.).

In a computer, memory is stored in a discrete, independent manner. Human memory is infinitely more complex and intermingled with sensory information. Remembering a friend’s phone number, for example, will bring to mind other information about that friend, from what they look like to plans you have made, as well as sensory information associated with that friend. While human memory is a complex tangle of association, this drives the ability of humans to invent and innovate (Cowan, 2008).


Influence of the Internet

Ever since it emerged over thirty years ago, the internet has forever changed the way humans behave, think, learn, and communicate (Loh & Kanai, 2016). In the fast-paced and ever-changing world of the internet, an abundance of choice, visual distractions, and interruptions can influence everyday lives and how work is done (Russell, 2019). “Digital Natives” are the generations that grew up with the internet and advanced technology (Loh & Kanai, 2016). These groups have been characterised by their short and rapidly changing attention spans, impulsivity, distractibility, poor executive control and tendency to rely on shallow, unproven information sources. They are also associated with a predisposition towards internet-related addiction behaviours, such as an inability to stop scrolling. The drastic differences between generations that grew up with a focus on the internet and those that didn’t highlight the direct influence of the internet on people’s lives (Loh & Kanai, 2016).


The internet can alter human cognition through several means. These include the time spent online, the high volume of information that constantly updates, and the connection to different communities from all over the world. Such features can explain how many people have a reliance, or even addiction, to internet usage, as well as how misinformation can be propagated throughout the world (Marsh & Rajaram, 2019).

Figure 5: Internet impact (Unknown, 2015).

As society has become more reliant on technology, children are seen to use technology and the internet for longer and at younger ages. Increased use of technology in early childhood has been associated with developmental and behavioural issues, as well as an increase in diagnoses of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Furthermore, studies have shown that the increase in cases of childhood obesity can also be traced to increased screen time. Even one hour extra per week using technological devices, such as television or tablets, has been linked to an increase in body mass index (BMI). Although it is true that many educational television programmes and games can aid learning for preschool-aged children, children under the age of two also require help and interaction from adults in order to learn from screens (Radesky & Christakis, 2016).


Environmental Impact

There are positive and negative implications when it comes to these new innovations. Technological advancements in the last few centuries have caused human productivity and innovation to develop at a ferocious rate, but this same innovation has led to carbon-emission-producing cars and factories. Although technology led to this problem, it may also be the cure. Aside from aiding in the fight against climate change in the form of instruments for tracking and analysing climate change, technology may help to stop greenhouse gases through emissions-reducing technology (Rip & Kemp, 1998).


Although human reliance on technology and the industrialised economy are some of the greatest contributors to the current environmental crisis, there is a technology paradox: these same technological advances can lead to an improvement in environmental quality. (Ausubel, 1991). Already, technology has enabled us to avoid the worst of the Malthusian population theory so far. This theory was proposed by Thomas Robert Malthus who, in 1798, predicted that population growth would eventually outpace the capabilities of the land to produce food and other resources. Although some agricultural innovations were in use in Malthus’ time, such as the plough, his theory does not consider that agriculture may continue to develop and improve (Marquette, 1997). By using agricultural and other technological advancements, such as genetic modification, humankind has been able to increase the ability of the land to produce food to provide for the increased population in many countries (Ausubel, 1991).


Figure 6: Type of green energy (Poudel, 2021).

In addition, while the burning of fossil fuels to power factories, cars and other man-made devices, these advancements have in turn led to the development of green energy alternatives (Ausubel, 1991). Green energy has little or no environmental impact: it is believed these sources could power the world indefinitely. Sources of this sustainable energy, such as solar, wind, geothermal, and hydroelectricity, are renewable and while they are expensive to establish, these energy sources have low long-term costs (Midilli et al., 2006). It may take some time for green energies to reach their full potential, as more technological advancement is required. For instance, as renewable energy comes from natural sources they can be naturally intermittent (e.g. some days are windier than others), so there is a clear need for an improvement in batteries and storage for green energy outputs to maximise their use and benefits (Dell & Rand, 2001).


Conclusion

There are many aspects of technology and the internet that can drastically affect cognition and psychology. The amount of time spent on the internet, the vast amount of information available, and connections to people from different communities and backgrounds are all unprecedented in human social constructs. Although there are many clear benefits to the internet and technology, such as having a world of information readily available, as well as a means to provide food and energy for the world’s population, it has been suggested that a reliance on technology could lead to the deterioration of natural human cognitive abilities and has already led to an increase in obesity and ADHD in children growing up in a world of technology. Overuse of technology has also had a detrimental impact on the environment, with increased emissions necessitating the development of green energy technologies to counteract the negative effects of technology on the planet.

Bibliographical References

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