Despite evidence that technology is competitively impacting our attention spans, a scholarly paper released this past July challenges the idea that it’s making us less intelligent. Cognitive offloading into digital spaces frees up the brain to focus on the endless stream of information coming to us; but if that only frees up mental energy to switch to the next technological stimulus, is the tech changing how our brains work?
Professor Chemero from the University of Cincinnati argues that you don’t need to worry about the use of a smartphone impacting your cognitive abilities—he and his team of colleagues believe it’s actually helping enrich our cognitive potential.
The impetus to solve math problems by hand as we once did, or to use a compass and a map to build a route, has been replaced by digital technology like calculators or GPS systems. These fundamental skills have been a part of human life for the generations that have gone before us, so now that we’ve become accustomed to letting these skills get rusty, are we losing our smarts? While that viewpoint is an easy one to make, because as we know practice makes perfect, Chemero believes that it’s not taking into consideration the way it’s changed our brains’ behavior for the better.
Instead of focusing on the loss of rudimentary skills, Chemero offers that we’re actually capable of doing much more complex processes because our brains aren’t bogged down with the minute details. With smart tech, we can build further out and extrapolate past just simple tasks. Rather than just using all our brain power to build that route with a map and compass, we can use higher cognitive thinking to go past it: real time traffic information gives us more choice to find the most direct route or even to try new routes in a split second that would have taken much longer to map out ourselves.
The expansive nature of smart technology is enabling us to have different types of skillsets than those upon which we once relied. Perhaps that new route pushes you out of your comfort zone and leads to new connections to people or places, creating a new network which is full of possibilities you might not have decided to otherwise try. Helping us make split-second decisions that can lead to greater possibilities is one way the calculations and computations of smart tech can make us better than before.
Of course, smart tech can only go so far, if your phone battery runs out while you’re taking a new route. So, pack a back up map (or skillset), and don’t forget the basics, because the greatest computer you can access anywhere, anytime is still your very own brain.
Lorenzo Cecutti, Anthony Chemero, Spike W. S. Lee. Technology may change cognition without necessarily harming it. Nature Human Behaviour, 2021; DOI: 10.1038/s41562-021-01162-0