Study: The Acute and Chronic Impact
of Technology on our Brain

Study: The Acute and Chronic Impact of Technology on our Brain


David Ziegler, Jyoti Mishra, Adam Gazzaley

Date: 2015



This was a good review of both the positive and negative effects of technology on the brain. It helped fill in details into my mental model of what causes information overwhelm.


New tools bring on new forms of information overwhelm:

  1. Distraction from our goals (focus on bottom-up attention control mechanisms)
  2. Greater cognitive demand on our neural systems

Effects are felt in a few ways:

  1. Constant stress trigger
  2. Smaller divide between personal and professional (technologically and culturally)


  • TV
  • Smartwatch
  • Mobile phone
  • Laptop


  • Internet
  • Email
  • Messaging
  • Social Media Inboxes
  • Video Games

Attention Capture

  • External Environment (distractions)
    • Browser windows open
    • New message display
    • Infinite scrolling
    • Advertisements
    • Newsfeed
  • Notifications (interruptions)
  • Impulses


With each new wave of technological advancement, we are faced with new streams of sensory inputs from myriad modalities that challenge our brains and require us to adapt to an ever‐changing information landscape. This burgeoning set of new information brings with it novel forms of irrelevant distractions and interference, which can disrupt performance on goal‐directed activities. Further, this information overload imposes greater cognitive demands on our neural systems to selectively attend to sensory inputs that are relevant to our immediate goals, while ignoring the interfering sources.

Over the past decade, research in our laboratory has focused on unraveling the neural mechanisms underlying our capacity to selectively attend to goals in the face of interference (Clapp, Rubens, Sabharwal, & Gazzaley, 2011; Gazzaley et al., 2008; Gazzaley, Cooney, Rissman, & D’Esposito, 2005; Zanto, Rubens, Bollinger, & Gazzaley, 2010). In this chapter, we will review what is known about how our brains cope with technologies such as television, Internet, email, digital and social media, video games, and mobile devices, how multitasking with multiple technological devices affects neural processing, and will consider the possibilities for harnessing new technologies for personal cognitive benefit.
There is increasing evidence that such forms of communication are a primary source of chronic stress in our lives (Barley, Meyerson, & Grodal, 2010), ultimately leading to increased workload and a widespread sense of overload (Boswell & Olson‐Buchanan, 2007).

Tools are addictive because of variable reward

Converging evidence suggests that the unpredictable nature of email and text messaging via mobile devices leads to a highly rewarding reinforcement schedule that engages the dopaminergic reward systems of our brains (Berridge & Robinson, 1998; Small & Vorgan, 2008). Indeed, a recent study that used an ecologically valid experience sampling method determined that the desire to use various forms of media (e.g., social networking, checking email, or surfing the web) were among the hardest urges for people to resist (Hofmann, Vohs, & Baumeister, 2012). Given that email and Internet access are inexpensive and virtually omnipresent, self‐control failures in regulating one’s media consumption have the potential to escalate into pathological media abuse (LaRose, 2010; Song, LaRose, Eastin, & Lin, 2004), a condition sometimes referred to as “Internet Addiction Disorder” (Ng & Wiemer‐Hastings, 2005).

Interesting Stats

73% of college students reporting that they feel unable to study effectively without some form of technology accompanying this activity (Kessler, 2011).

The Love/Hate Paradox

Self‐reported attitudes toward technology are overwhelmingly positive among teens and young adults, with the vast majority feeling that tech improves the quality of their lives (Rosen et al., 2013). An interesting paradox emerges, however, when such attitudes are juxtaposed against repeated observations of negative correlations between academic performance and time spent using tech and social media (Kirschner & Karpinski, 2010; Rosen et al., 2013). Other research suggests that many of the negative effects of media use stem from multitasking or task‐switching costs that come as technologies compete for limited attentional and cognitive resources (Junco & Cotten, 2012; Sana, Weston, & Cepeda, 2013; Wood et al., 2012), although one study found a positive relationship between media multitasking and multisensory integration (Lui & Wong, 2012).

Challenges Unique To Old Age

Simultaneous interactions with multiple streams of media are often not second nature for people in this age group, and in some cases the onslaught of new technology can leave older adults feeling discouraged, out of touch, and overwhelmed. An additional challenge for older adults is the fact that media multitasking tends to rely on similar neural networks and cognitive functions that have been shown to decline with age (Hasher, Zacks, & May, 1999; Healey, Campbell, & Hasher, 2008; Waterston, 2011). A decreased ability to suppress distracting inputs (Gazzaley et al., 2005, 2008) and to multitask (Clapp et al., 2011) may create a hurdle for those older adults who would otherwise enthusiastically embrace multiple new technologies


Research On Media Multi-Tasking

Much research has attempted to elucidate the acute and chronic effects of media multitasking on a variety of cognitive functions, including learning, memory, and attention (Kirschner & Karpinski, 2010; Lin, 2009; Lui & Wong, 2012; Ophir, Nass, & Wagner, 2009),

Multi-Tasking Leads Brain Becoming Worse At Filtering

In other words, high media multitaskers had difficulty filtering out irrelevant information, and instead distributed their attention almost equally to both relevant and irrelevant items (Ophir et al., 2009). This finding suggests that these individuals, relative to low media multitaskers, tend to rely more on a breadth‐biased form of cognitive control or bottom‐up attention processes (i.e., attention driven by salient events in the environment instead of voluntarily set top‐down goals; Cain & Mitroff, 2011; Lin, 2009). When bottom‐up attention mechanisms dominate, distractibility increases, translating into a decreased ability to maintain selective attention and impairments in goal‐directed activities (Kanai, Dong, Bahrami, & Rees, 2011).
This study also found that the tendency to engage in media multitasking was most strongly associated with personality traits of impulsivity and sensation seeking, and was inversely related to measures of executive control. Similarly, Minear, Brasher, McCurdy, Lewis, and Younggren (2013) found that high media multitaskers reported being more impulsive than low media multitaskers, and exhibited lower levels of fluid intelligence. At the same time, they found no experimental evidence that high media multitaskers were deficient in their ability to suppress task‐irrelevant information (Minear et al., 2013)
It is important to note, however, that such results remain correlational and do not speak to the issue of causality. That is, media multitasking may not necessarily lead to detrimental changes in cognitive control, but rather could reflect a propensity for those individuals with a better capacity for distributing attention to be more likely to engage in media multitasking behaviors (Sanbonmatsu et al., 2013).

Rich Stimulus Environments

In a rich stimulus environment with a constant stream of visual, auditory, and audio‐visual stimuli, we found that the ability to discriminate stimuli is enhanced when attention is distributed across the auditory and visual modalities, in contrast to when attention is focused onto one or the other modality. Further, this ability to distribute attention onto multisensory inputs was found to be associated with greater efficiency in the neural processing of sensory signals in both visual and auditory cortex. This ability to distribute attention across the auditory and visual senses was also found to be preserved to a large extent in older adults (Mishra & Gazzaley, 2013). Putting these results in context with those of Lui and Wong (2012), the brains of high media multitaskers may perform more efficient processing and generate superior performance under multisensory rather than unisensory (visual or auditory alone) settings.

Harnessing Technology For The Good


It is unquestionable that innovations in technology and media will continue at a lightning pace, resulting in new methods for interacting with our worlds and bringing with them new sources of distractions, as well as potential avenues for enhancing our lives. As can be seen from the studies reviewed in this chapter, the question of how such technologies affect our brains acutely and chronically is complicated and often controversial. While a cursory view of the literature seems to paint media multitasking and early life technology exposure in a negative light, a more nuanced exploration shows some profoundly promising aspects of how new technologies might be harnessed to enhance cognition in at‐risk populations, leading to better lives. Thus, it is essential that we continue to pursue research in this domain.