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Tech, Neuroplasticity, and The Brain


The Laur family became very aware of how infant and youth brains are very malleable to environmental demands, and thus, the brain can rewire itself to learn new skills. A part of this journey was a book recommended to us by our neurologist called, “The Brain That Changes Itself” (1) which dives deeply into the science behind what is called neuroplasticity. Because the human brain is malleable, especially among youth, repetition of skills can induce long-term changes in the structure of the brain (2).


So, what does this have to do with technology - research is starting to emerge showing that there may be an association between the amount of time a person spends on the internet, what they are doing with that time (passive vs active), and how the amount of time spent online could cause changes in the brain (3).


According to this emerging research, there is a possibility that heavy online use could either have a positive or negative effect on brain structure, function and therefore cognitive processes depending upon age. As the above-noted study stated:


This may be of particular relevance to the developing brains of children and adolescents, as many cognitive processes (particularly those relevant to higher executive functions and social cognition) are not entirely innate, but rather are strongly influenced by environmental factors”

(like the amount of time spent on the internet and social media).


This 2019 study also found - heavy use (they didn’t define what “heavy use” was) of the Internet and social media could be influencing our brain’s cognitive process in a negative way specific to:

  • Sustained focus, and

  • memory processing

Both of these can lead to memory deficits where a user can have the challenge of deciding what information is important enough to remember (4).


However, the study also stated:


“the opposite may be true in older adults experiencing cognitive decline, for whom the online environment may provide a new source of positive cognitive stimulation. For instance, Internet searching engaged more neural circuitry than reading text pages in Internet savvy older adults (aged 55‐76 years). Furthermore, experimental studies have found that computer games available online and through smartphones can be used to attenuate aging‐related cognitive decline. Thus, the Internet may present a novel and accessible platform for adults to maintain cognitive function throughout old age. Building from this, successful cognitive aging has previously been shown to be dependent upon learning and deploying cognitive strategies, which can compensate for aging‐related decline in “raw” memory capacities. This has previously been referred to as optimizing internal cognitive processes (e.g., through mnemonic strategies), or taking advantage of cognitive offloading in traditional formats (list making, transactive memory, etc.). Nonetheless, as Internet‐based technologies become more deeply integrated with our daily cognitive processing (through smartphones, wearables, etc.), digital natives could feasibly develop forms of “online cognition” in the aging brain, whereby older adults can increasingly take advantage of web‐based transactive memory and other emerging online processes to fulfil (or even exceed)” the typical capacities of a younger brain."


Our takeaways from this emerging field of research:


  • There is new research that is showing an association between the heavy “passive” use of technology, the internet, and social media by youth that may cause changes in brain structure, function, and cognitive processing ability. Having said this, we do not yet know if this will have long-term positive or negative consequences, but it’s enough of an identified concern that we believe parents should be made aware of this ongoing research.


  • However, the opposite may be true in older adults experiencing cognitive decline, for whom the online environment may provide a new source of positive cognitive stimulation.


  • Yes, it appears that the use of technology can affect human brain malleability, especial among youth, repetition of skills can induce long-term changes in the structure of the brain. No matter if it is the use of tech (3) (5), or learning a new motor skill like juggling (6)


Once again, we believe this emerging research specific to tech, neuroplasticity, and the brain confirms our ongoing message - It’s all about balanced use of technology, and how it is being used (passive vs active) when it comes to the emotional, psychological, physical, and social well-being our kids. Too much of anything is not good for you; it doesn’t matter if it is food, exercise, or the use of technology!


References:


(1) https://amzn.to/3xYsj9C

(2) https://www.nature.com/articles/nn.2412

(3) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6502424/

(4) https://bit.ly/3xWpRR9

(5) https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/19820707/

(6) https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/25542777/