Craig Evinger, Ph.D, is the recipient of the first Donald B. Lindsley Prize in Behavioral Neuroscience by the Society of Neuroscience. Evinger is a member of the Society for Neuroscience and is a faculty member in the Department of Neurobiology & Behavior.
An integral component of brain organization is that it changes with experience. So yes, our modern lifestyle alters our brains. The important question, however, is not whether technology changes the brain, but whether our technology driven life damages our brain.
A recent article on Vox asks whether GPS is ruining our ability to sense of direction. The author describes several studies reporting that reliance on the turn by turn information provided by a GPS when driving disrupts our ability to create a brain map of our environment. Most of us have a brain map of campus from walking around without a GPS. You know that there are several ways to get from Staller Center to the Earth and Space Sciences building. Depending upon the weather or the obstacles on campus, you can pick different routes between buildings or change routes mid trip. You develop this flexible internal map by walking around campus making your own decisions, correct and incorrect, about which way to go. Over time, the brain internalizes the spatial relationships between the different buildings on campus.
Your brain doesn’t develop these spatial relationships when your phone tells you when and where to turn to get to your destination. In this situation, your brain remembers a pattern of left and right turns and landmarks. This memory can get you to the right place, but unlike the flexible brain spatial map, this memory doesn’t enable you to change your path if you encounter a roadblock.
The hippocampus is a region of the brain that appears to be critical in constructing these spatial maps, and the size of the hippocampus changes with spatial map creation.
One example comes from studies of London cabbies who must memorize all of the 25,000 streets in London to earn a cab license. Researchers show that cabbies successfully learning to navigate London streets exhibit an increased growth of their hippocampus volume relative to individuals who fail the cabbie test. Non-drivers show even less hippocampal growth than individuals failing the driving test.
One interpretation of this result is that if we aren’t expanding internal maps, the hippocampus doesn’t grow and may even shrink. This interpretation implies that relying on GPS is bad for our brains. On the other hand, using a GPS to free your brain from the mundane task of getting somewhere on campus might enable us to engage in higher cognitive thinking. The hippocampus may not grow, but some other regions of the brian may expand.
Another example of “modern” technology that changes our brain is the invention of the Gutenberg printing press in 1450. Our brains evolved to respond to and produce speech, but reading is a relatively new cultural development. Reading requires repurposing brain regions. Children starting to read sound out words phonetically. Children who show the most improvement in their first year of reading possess a larger volume of the left brain region involved in the perception and production of speech than children who show less improvement. After progressing to greater proficiency in silent reading, however, children exhibit a decrease in brain volume in the region associated with manipulation of speech sounds. Very few of us would argue that this shrinkage is bad.
The constant adjustment of connections between neurons to support learning and behavior means that brain regions continuously change their volume and alter their ability to support different functions. The key is always challenging your brain. Although the lack of growth in hippocampal volume correlated with relying on your GPS reduces your ability to develop spatial maps in the brain, hopefully you’re building up new abilities with your freed up brain capacity.