Distractions can alter your memory

Total distraction: the brain in constant digital stress

Henriette hesitates when asked to climb into the tiny cabin. A little later, the two-year-old is sitting on her mother's lap. The eyes shine. There is a screen in front of her and a film is on. Suddenly she listens. Something is buzzing, like a cell phone. What Henriette does not know: A special camera for eye tracking records her eye movements and the size of the pupils. Henriette is sitting in the center of an experiment in the children's laboratory in Magdeburg. It's about attention, distraction, and building the brain. It's about current research - also on the influence of digital continuous playback.

Outside the cabin, Professor Nicole Wetzel's eyes wander between several monitors. The data from test persons are transferred to it inside. White blouse, dark jacket, jeans - that's how the 45-year-old sits in the laboratory at the Leibniz Institute for Neurobiology. She wants to find out how attention, learning and the memory of children and adolescents develop.

A hot topic in times when many kids can hardly keep their fingers off their cell phones. In times when health insurances are warning against internet addiction and social media addiction. It is true that the Magdeburg-based researchers originally researched brain activity in learning and remembering in general and not the effects of the media. But Wetzel's attempts to pay attention are a building block in the mosaic of studies around the world that are exploring the work of cells in the brain.

What traces does the permanent presence of smartphones leave in our heads? Are there deformed Twitter or Facebook brains, as some pessimists warn?

"Basically, we still know relatively little about how digital media change the brain and its activity," says Nicole Wetzel. The expert smiles infectiously friendly. "There is no question that they will change it. Because everything we experience, what we learn, regardless of whether we read a book or build a sand castle, changes our brain. The question is not whether, but how, exactly." Pathways in the brain depicted
Image: dpa

The ringing of cell phones distracts the brain

Her team checks their eyes during tests - as with Henriette. The pupils respond not only to light, but also to cognitive processes. "When we hear something surprising, our pupils dilate," explains the researcher. The test subjects are actually supposed to perform a task. If a cell phone rings in between, the researchers can use their eye trackers to see that someone is being distracted from their actual goal.

Another measurement method starts with the electrical currents in the brain. For this, the test persons are given hoods with electrodes for an EEG. The measuring caps record which areas in the head get going when a stimulus occurs. Certain patterns allow researchers to draw conclusions about how distracted someone is.

"When a background noise is played in, the children usually react more slowly or make more mistakes," says Wetzel. "And the younger the children are, the more their performance is impaired."

Now our thinking apparatus is not a hard drive on which one only stores and retrieves, but a sensitive, highly changeable organ. The brain reacts quickly to external influences, it changes its networks. Experts speak of plasticity.

"In simplified terms, you can think of it as a network of paths: At the beginning, with a toddler, there are many paths," explains Wetzel. "And the roads that the children often use will be expanded into large, wide streets where the traffic flows quickly." Paths that are seldom used become stunted - expanding them becomes more difficult later in life. "If I pull out my cell phone many times a day, it will eventually become such a wide street - to stay in the picture."

If people at a young age are quickly distracted by cell phone messages and beeps, if they find it difficult to control interference, does this hinder deep understanding? "There is still a lot to be explored," says Wetzel. Researchers would report very different results: Attention can be trained with certain computer games. On the one hand. "On the other hand, there are reports of associations between excessive media consumption and impaired attention."

Smartphone boom not yet fully explored

Digitization is still in full swing. The smartphone boom, for example, has only been going on for a little over ten years - too short for large long-term studies. Nevertheless, people are increasingly using navigation apps instead of street maps, tablets instead of books, parking aids in their cars and speaking assistants at home. Connections are often indicated, but whether an event is really the cause of a change in the head often remains unclear at first.

In the UK, the RSPH health organization published a report on social networks and the health of young people. An important point: The cell phone by the bed, checking so as not to miss anything at night, can massively disrupt sleep. One in five young people check their networks at night. For the development of the young brain, however, a lot of sleep is essential, as the study organizers emphasize.

In the USA, the psychologist Adrian F. Ward made exciting discoveries in two experiments that he presented with colleagues in 2017: The proximity of one's own smartphone is enough to make people do worse on test questions. If the device is in a different room, subjects think more and answer more correctly. Ward concludes that a nearby cell phone is so cluttered up that resources in the brain are occupied. The working memory in the frontal lobes of the cerebral cortex, in the prefrontal cortex, for example. It can then do less in other fields. We need it, among other things, to understand sentences. It is also active in logical thinking.

Exciting research in Tübingen

The experts from the Leibniz Institute for Knowledge Media in Tübingen also report that digital technologies leave their mark on this important part of the brain. Housed in an imposing yellow brick building with a view of the medieval city center, around 90 IWM scientists are researching how computers, tablets and the Internet can improve learning and teaching. Like the Magdeburg team, they also use eye tracking and EEG caps.

"Digital media are neither good nor bad per se," explains psychology professor Ulrike Cress, 53 and director of the institute. "They have certain properties that influence thinking. We analyze how we use media better to facilitate learning processes. And how we avoid negative effects, for example - in relation to the Internet - overloading the brain with too much information."

Reading is not always reading, links are distracting

Working group leader Peter Gerjets has an example ready for the keyword overload: "Reading and learning on the Internet is different than in a book," says the 54-year-old. "This is because digital texts contain different functionalities than analog, printed texts."

Basically, reading, unlike seeing and speaking, is not biologically innate, but is learned. This means that the brain first creates the broad reading streets, the network connections of the cells. Whereby a person achieves top performance when reading: The brain has to create connections in a flash, suppress nonsensical word meanings and much more.

In experiments, the people of Tübingen had their test subjects use Wikipedia-like texts that contained links to click on to learn. And in comparison, texts without links. The result: links mean distraction. "If you look at the same word when it is marked as a link, the pupil becomes measurably larger, an indicator of cognitive stress." The brain starts up, namely the working memory. Obviously, resources are required that are also important for learning. The learning outcome can decrease. Analog employment in a family
Image: dpa

Links in the text can be distracting

"The exciting thing is: Links are distracting even if they are not opened - just because they are there," continues Professor Gerjets. "Even if we tell test subjects not to click on the links, but only to concentrate on their learning goal, we can show that their learning performance is falling." The explanation: The link can trigger an impulse in the head, the desire to jump to the new website. The brain has to suppress it. "And suppression also burdens the working memory."

Distraction, suppression of impulses, learning - everything demands its share of limited resources. How exactly is the connection and how does that affect your mind in the long term? Peter Gerjets' answer: You have to research further.

The experts suspect similar reactions of excessive demands when trying to find out more about complex, opinion-heavy topics on the Internet. "Think of the subject of vaccination protection, everything that is buzzing through the net, including fake news," says the psychologist Gerjets. You can find a lot of information. But, and that would be a mammoth job, one would have to check the sources for credibility and compare them - also a task for the working memory. "Then at some point the brain switches to a stop mode." When doing internet research, often only the first few links are called up - then it is canceled.

Despite such alarm signals, the father of a family has no concerns about encouraging their own child to learn language using an app. And both he and IWM director Cress agree: "Excessive demands and the potential for distraction are not arguments against a medium as such, but against its uncontrolled use."

Maryanne Wolf's analysis sounds more drastic. The cognitive and literary scholar from Los Angeles has specialized fully in reading. More precisely, the differences between paper and screen. It draws on experiences that many people know: If you regularly read on the screen for hours, it is often more difficult than in the past to master long distances concentrated on paper. Intensive reading suddenly becomes stressful.

Book author Wolf ("Fast reading, slow reading") analyzes that digitally one usually scurries over large areas. You tap the text for keywords, skim the rest. This superficial scanning is designed for speed. The deep immersion in writing, on the other hand, is more likely to be encouraged by paper.

Blind trust in technology is dangerous

In line with this, researchers can show that long informational texts from books and paper are better remembered in the brain than when they were fished out of the net. Wolf warns that the new digital reading habits could result in the brain getting used to thinking flatly and impatiently. She sees the danger that people will lose some of their ability to analyze complex questions. A risk for thinking ahead in politics, for elections and for democracy. But it has not yet been proven, admits Wolf.

The "Stavanger Declaration" from the beginning of 2019 is aimed in a similarly warning direction. Maryanne Wolf signed it, as did Yvonne Kammerer from the Tübingen IWM. In it, more than 130 experts call for analogue reading to be further promoted. At the same time, pupils and students should learn to read on the screen in an understanding-oriented manner. And they appeal: keep researching these topics!

"There are indications that digital reading of factual texts is disadvantageous compared to analogue reading when there is time pressure - not so without time pressure," says the 37-year-old Kammerer.

"I think we are at a critical point," warns US author Wolf. Blind trust in technology is a mistake. "We shouldn't be moving as fast as we have been in switching to digital reading. We should take the time to explore the advantages of digital media and see how we can avoid the disadvantages."

The Braunschweig professor Martin Korte also speaks of a "transitional state". The 54-year-old neurobiologist may not be considered a pessimist. Cell phones and tablets did not make young people more stupid than their parents per se - be it two-year-old Henriette or today's teenagers. The brain has an old basic structure. "We don't have a Twitter brain, and we don't have a Facebook brain either. We have the brains of a horde of Stone Age people who were used to living around a cave," he says. "That will certainly not change anytime soon. We will certainly learn certain new techniques and skills and lose others in return."

Neuroscientist: We're doing our brain a disservice

When people are supposed to process large amounts of information, their brains like to switch to defense. Does the flood of data on the Internet promote mental blocks? The Braunschweig neurobiologist Martin Korte deals with such aspects of digital media. In an interview with the German Press Agency, the professor advises storing more knowledge in your own memory instead of relying on the Internet.

Are we currently experiencing a revolution in the brain because many people make massive use of smartphones and digital media?

I don't see a revolution in our brain. The brain is highly adaptable in the course of our life. People can learn a lot. But the basic genetic makeup of our brain changes over a period of tens of thousands of years. In this respect, we are not experiencing a revolution here. What I think more is that we are experiencing a state of transition in which we have to learn to deal with a new technology. Right now, however, I am seeing evidence that we are using digital media in a way that is not doing our brain a favor.

What's wrong

One thing is that we outsource too much knowledge and no longer try to store knowledge ourselves. This is important in order to be able to think about complex problems and come up with new solutions yourself.

What do you mean exactly?

There is research with people who grew up with the Internet, with so-called digital natives. If you ask them a simple question, they don't even think about whether they know the answer themselves, but only through an Internet search. But we can only start a reasonable search query if we already know a lot. Otherwise you get 80,000 hits in 0.4 seconds. It takes a lifetime and a half to read it. Most users only read the first three hits. You then think you have the correct answer. But in order to be able to assess the answer as good or bad, you have to have a lot of prior knowledge. But you no longer collect this knowledge when you switch to the Internet. Knowledge is also a skill that has to be acquired.

You can find a lot of information on the internet ...

Yes. But having information and being able to think is a difference. In order to really penetrate a topic, you have to have things stored in your head and work with them. Because it is a misjudgment that has to be read over and over again that our brain has a hard drive. And we don't need that anymore because we have a much higher storage volume via the Internet. The brain has no hard drive. Rather, whenever we learn a lot in one area, or become an expert, a great many processes change in the brain. Our perception of the topic works differently, our thinking, our actions. Smartphone use among children
Image: dpa

And what is still changing in the mind in the digital world?

The second thing that changes in the brain is that the working memory becomes smaller: our ability to concentrate, the time we can concentrate without being distracted, becomes smaller. There is research showing that a number of computer users spend about 40 seconds doing something before they become distracted. One can expect that this will not lead to meaningful labor productivity.

How much smaller does working memory get?

There's a big study out there that we've dropped from 15 to 11 seconds here. If you ask test subjects to memorize a term for a certain period of time without them knowing what is important, then you see: they used to manage 15 seconds. Now most of them can only manage eleven seconds. We clearly fell away.

They say: There are mountains of information on the Internet that people find it difficult to evaluate. At the same time, people are often unable to concentrate and do many things at the same time. These things are reflected in your head?

The brain changes its processing ways in response to what comes in from the outside. If the brain feels overwhelmed by the amount of information it is supposed to process, then it does not happen that you sit down and try to think differently. Instead, the brain switches into a mode of thinking in an undifferentiated manner and rather fending off information. For current debates, for example, this means: With someone who feels overwhelmed, you will not be able to think differently about a US President Donald Trump. Especially when you present 100 facts where this politician lied, the brain will tend to reduce the huge amount of data so much that there is only black and white. Too high a complexity often leads to avoidance in simplification.

And how certain is it that this has something to do with digital technology?

There are no very precise measurements for this, so there is no 100 percent certainty about cause and effect, because one only creates correlations, i.e. relationships. For example, one can say that since 2007/08 there has been a significant increase in the fact that more people feel overwhelmed by information. Since then we have intensified discussions about difficulties with very simplified representations on the Internet through to misrepresentations, i.e. fake news. This date is not accidental because the iPhone was introduced in 2007. Shortly afterwards, more than 50 percent of people in Western societies had a smartphone. Since we have been able to carry the Internet with us on the phone, the amount of information with which we constantly surround ourselves has grown.

But the connection is not proven?

You always have to be careful with correlations. There was also a major economic crisis and the bank collapse in 2008. For me, however, that with the smartphone is a very convincing correlation.

So is our brains going downhill?

I'm not that pessimistic about that. It's not the fault of digital media that we feel overloaded with information, it's about the way we use it. With any technology, it takes time to get used to the technical conditions.

To person

Martin Korte (54) is a professor in the Cellular Neurobiology Department at the Technical University in Braunschweig, Lower Saxony. He examines the cellular basis of learning, memory and forgetting. The neuroscientist advises school authorities on issues relating to digital media.