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Hannah Rowland asked:
I’ve heard that London cab drivers get bigger parts of their brain from having to know where all the roads are and I’m wondering if the bit of my brain that makes my right thumb type text messages on my phone might also be changing?
Are smartphones changing our brains? If so, how and is it a permenant change? We put these questions to Zurich University neuroscientist Professor Arko Ghosh...
Arko - If you take the brain of a London taxi driver, regions associated with memory are on average, bigger than the general population even when compared to bus drivers who navigate on more constrained routes. Our brains are very flexible and can allocate their resources depending on our experiences. This can be very specific. For instance, concert violinists who grew up playing the instrument have higher activity in the part of the brain linked to the little finger of the non-bowing hand but not of the bowing hand.
Danielle - Estimates suggests that more than a third of world’s population will own a smartphone by 2017. What is in store for this growing smartphone community? Are we also changing our brains like the taxi drivers or violinists?
Arko - We recently found that the part of the brain that receives information from the thumb generates more electrical activity in people who use touchscreen phones compared to old fashioned phone users. We think this brain difference reflects the heavy reliance on the thumb in the more modern users.
Danielle - Hold the phone! How soon before our smartphones have an impact on our brain and is it permanent?
Arko - These changes seem to occur rather quickly, immediately falling a period of say, intense texting. The brain area that receives information from the thumb becomes more active. So, do not think these brain changes are permanent. In fact, we believe that the brain is continuously updated according to how we use our thumbs. This activity is likely to tail off after a period of non-use. Possibly taking a few weeks to revert back to normal. But we don't fully understand this as yet.
Danielle - It’s good to know your brain does go back to normal after a phone detox, but is this change something we need to be worried about in the first place?
Arko - Every time you thumb through your phone, you do change your brain a little. But it is too early to say if this is something to be concerned about. We have a lot to learn about how the ever-changing brain impacts our behaviour in general.
Danielle - So, our interactions with our smartphones are shaping the way our brains work and respond. With always increasing possibilities of new technology, it looks like our brain will be changing for as long as our futures last. But we still have a lot to understand about how and why this is happening.
Arko - In fact, smartphones offer a beautiful opportunity to understand how our brains are shaped by our daily lives as the day to day behaviour is seamlessly stored into the phone logs.
Danielle - A big thumbs up to Arko, that brain tingling answer. Next week, we’ll be releaving ourselves of this question sent in from Johannes...
Johannes - Why is it that I want to urinate more frequently in colder weather?
There seems to be evidence that taxi drivers develop a larger area of brain used for spatial memory, musicians for reading music, etc. it makes sense that our brains would develop to give more area to new skills such as gesture control.
Key things to remember are: 1.) our brains are malleable and 2.) neurons which fire together wire together.
It's been known for a long time that violin players or pitchers in baseball have an altered map of the primary motor and sensory cortex that corresponds with the greater, more specialized use. But there's probably lots of neurological real estate for the fingers to begin with.
The thing that made the biggest difference to my brain was probably having access to a spellcheck on computers. Before I had a computer, my spelling was terrible because I'd always refused to waste any of my time looking words up in dictionaries - I didn't care which which ridiculous spelling was required for which word and even devised my own spelling system so that I could write things for my own use without having to worry about it (though it was also designed for multilingual use).
I was also a terrible speller, and still not that great but much better than in university, mainly thanks to spell check and the immediate feed back you get. The problem with being a bad speller is if you write a word incorrectly over and over, it starts to look right unless someone or something corrects you. It often seems that people are bad at predicting the effect technology will have. In the beginning, they said spell check would make everyone bad spellers, because they would become "dependent" on it, but I think it has helped because of that instant feedback after an error. In the same way, I've heard that texting will destroy literacy because of short forms, abbreviations, etc. but given that a lot of people didn't write at all, I can only see it helping.
For most people, I suspect the ability to spell will take a big hit before long as speech-user-interfaces become the norm and virtual keyboards disappear (well, they'll still be there for times when privacy is vital, but most people will rarely use them). Their lesser ability won't show up though except when they need to write notes on paper. It would be interesting to see what impact speech recognition has on writing and on thought. I'm sure my writing would be quite different if I had to use a typewriter as it would make it impossible for me to edit things a hundred times to knock things into shape, but I suspect if I was to shift to speech input it would make little difference, although I'd be completely unable to work that way in any situation where someone might be listening in as I don't want anyone to hear anything other than the final polished version. David Cooper, Tue, 24th Feb 2015
I simply couldn't do it, but I have a hard time explaining why. It's as if the person who talks is just a slightly different version of me than the person who writes. They'd have to collaborate and it would slow everything down. But my brother uses voice recognition all the time and he loves it. cheryl j, Wed, 25th Feb 2015
Doing anything changes your brain, obviously. If you do it enough, you can transfer a conscious action into an autonomic response - like driving a car. It's entirely reasonable (though pretty remarkable) that any area of the brain that gets a lot of work, may expand as it rewires.
It makes me wonder about handedness. We tend to think of lefties as just opposite versions of right handed people, but most of them aren't, and use their right hand for certain things like cutting with scissors or throwing. Maybe there was a slight advantage to having certain fingers that are more dexterous on different hands. cheryl j, Wed, 25th Feb 2015
Left-handed people using their right hand with scissors is almost always because of the design of scissors and not because they prefer to use them in their right hand - the natural way the thumb pushes left as it goes down helps to push the blades together, but if you use right-handed scissors in your left hand you'll find that it pushes the blades apart instead, so they don't cut well. David Cooper, Wed, 25th Feb 2015
They did have lefty scissors in school but you had to hunt through the whole coffee can to find a pair so maybe I just gave up and learned to use the regular ones. Sort of like using the mouse right handed because everyone at work would get mad at you for switching it around. But even though lap tops have a track pad in the center, I still do it right handed.
It's just part of life becomes faster. There are many other things we need to do, and more people won't spend on the smartphones too much time. Our brains have been running in order to live or work or study or any other things.