Mike the Psych's Blog

What if psychologists ruled the world? In real life?


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Should we dumb down our smartphones to stop us becoming more stupid?

Last September I asked on my other blog: Have we finally realised we need to unplug ourselves from endless apps and social media connections?

aansyq1I described the Light Phone and the fact that the old Nokia 3310 from 2000 was selling well on the internet. Now it’s been announced that the Nokia will be sold again with a larger colour screen but with only basic call and text facilities for around £49 in the UK.

It seems that the smartphone idea was being dumbed-down. Is that a bad idea?

Well in the Times Body & Soul section last weekend they asked “is your smartphone making you stupid?.

41-epxoutyl-_sx309_bo1204203200_They thought it was – if you count a fleeting attention span, a poorer memory, and a more passive intellect as signs of increasing stupidity.

Arianna Huffington‘s book “Thrive: The third metric to redefining success and creating a happier life” made similar points referring to the downside of online life as poor sleep, low attention span, diminishing empathy, not to mention wasted time.

And in Adam Alter‘s new book “Irresistible. The rise of addictive technology and the business of keeping us hooked” or in the UK edition “Why we can’t stop checking, scrolling, clicking and watching” the author , an associate professor of marketing at New York University’s school of business, describes how the internet changes your brain.

41xdmdoe5wl-_sx336_bo1204203200_Or as he says “Once your cucumber brain is pickled it can never go back to being a cucumber”. Tech companies manipulate you in all sorts of ways using random reinforcement methods (like slot machines), where the unexpected win increases the level of the pleasure chemical dopamine in the brain e.g. using “likes” – you have to check your post because you’re not sure how it will be received.

A company designed an app, Lovematically, that automatically liked everything you posted . It was banned within two hours. Instagram (owned by Facebook) wanted to remain the dealer not have the “online crack” given away for free.

And he’s not the only one writing about this. Nicholas Carr’s book “The Shallows: what the internet is doing to your brain” was listed for a Pulitzer prize in 2011 so he’s been making his points for a few years now.

41gwbs8qckl-_sx327_bo1204203200_He thinks “We’ve never had a technology so intrusive into our moment by moment thinking, perception and attention. … it hijacks our attention faculty. Instead of choosing what we focus on we begin to focus the newest thing on our smartphone, whether it’s important or not”.

He points out that our short-term memory has a limited capacity but the contents can be transferred to our long-term memory through making associations and connections. He says “everyone who has a smartphone and is honest with themselves knows that it is shaping their consciousness and the way they think or don’t think

He cites research at Stanford University which found that media multi-taskers (never a good idea) i.e. those who jump from one social media app to another, browsing or posting, had a weakened anterior cingulate cortex, that part of the brain area involved in high level information and emotion processing. They had smaller grey matter density and decreased cognitive control. 

So  a shrunken brain, more impulsive, and less empathetic?

Larry Rosen, a professor in psychology at California State University, agrees about the effect of smartphones and says “We don’t process information as deeply any more. Our brains are wired to process it just enough to get it through the moment, knowing full well that if we need it, we know where to find it again because we have this great external memory called Mr Google“.

41qm9rez-wl-_ac_us218_ 41r7ybyxnjl-_ac_us218_Author of “iDisorder: Understanding our obsession with technology and overcoming its hold on us”  and co-author of “Distracted Minds: Ancient Brains in a high tech world“, he believes the short attention span we now have is linked to smartphone technology.

The smartphone “stimulated this concept of ‘do it and get out’. We’re very task driven and categorise every action as a task.”

Now that we don’t have to rely on our recall as much we’ll see less of the taxi-driver effect where their hippcampuses, the part of the brain associated with long-term memory and spatial awareness, became more developed than normal because of learning “the knowledge.

Tech companies like to promote intelligence based on the idea that the more information we take in the smarter we get. Carr believes the opposite is true. “We don’t get smart, we don’t become knowledgeable through the speed with which we take in information, but through our ability to synthesise information into context, into some broader understanding of the world”.

He argues that feeding us information like feeding babies milk makes us more dependent, lazier and more accepting. We become less able to apply intellectual or critical analyses to the information.

Acquiring true knowledge takes time and “requires us to think without interruption or distraction. All higher forms of thought, reasoning, critical thinking, require control over our attention; require the ability to turn off the flow of information and think deeply and over an extended period of time about things.

To develop common sense we need to think for ourselves says Richard Graham, a psychiatrist and technology addiction specialist in London. “Otherwise we become passive recipients of all sorts of information – one would file fake news into that category. One absolutely needs to have that mental agility and critical thinking to not become passive to information and judgement”.

So not looking good is it? And there’s more. What about its impact on our creativity? Well smartphones and social media might enable collaboration but being “always on” doesn’t allow much time for daydreaming which, according to neuroscientists at the University of California, leads to the brain engaging in a default mode of neural processing linked to “positive mental health  and cognitive abilities like reading, comprehension, and divergent thinking“.

While bouncing ideas off people can lead to creativity “original individual thinking does require an ability to be contemplative and reflective and introspective. None of these things can happen when you’re completely bombarded with information” says Carr.

And talking of collaboration, social media users might believe that they’re being thoughtful sending messages to their “friends” but it’s a fairly shallow and primitive method. Is sending someone a text message as meaningful as writing a letter or sending a card? “Online empathy is weak empathy and not as good as real-world empathy”. 

Sending a text message is often an emotional response without any thought going into it because it’s too easy. That lack of time for reflection makes us less human. No matter how many friends you think you have online the sad truth is that most of them aren’t real friends.

And part of this is due to the fact that we hate being bored. Students would rather give themselves electric shocks than sit quietly in a room for 15 minutes (University of Virginia). It seems we’d rather play mindless games that reward us with flashing lights or different levels than sit and reflect.

Have you noticed that when you watch a TV series on Amazon or a film on Netflix it automatically moves to the next episode? Its default setting is opting in not out and given our predilection for generally not changing things (Brexit being a rare counter example) its easy to see how viewers get sucked in.

Alter says silicon valley leaders are hypocrites who know the damage they are doing to people’s lives. Steve Jobs banned his kids from having iPads and many restrict screen time. He says games designers avoid playing World of Warcraft because they’ve seen how immersive socially interactive games can turn intelligent but lonely young men into overweight college dropouts.

The designer of Flappy Bird actually took the game app down because he feared the effect it was having on people.

So what’s to be done if we are not to succumb to smartphone induced mediocrity? Alter suggests the usual such as parental restraints, stopping programmes before the end so you can resist the next instalment (bloody annoying if you ask me) , or punishing yourself.

One tech entrepreneur apparently hired a woman from Craigslist to slap him across the face ever time he opened his Facebook account. You can use a program called WastenoTime which blocks you accessing youTube or Facebook between certain hours. Or if you use your smartphone more than an agreed number of hours you can pledge to donate to a cause you hate.

Or you can just leave your phone at home and go out for some fresh air.

I’ve posted before about nomophobia and trying to overcome anxiety from FOMO or FOBO? Research shows that half of smartphone owners are spending two to four  hours on our phones every day and say they couldn’t live without it, and a quarter of them more than that.

If you’re in denial about how much time you spend on your phone you can get an app called Moment which tracks how much time you spend on it. Try it, it might be a wake-up call to get a life! 

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Dolphins not so smart after all?

CNV00005_14We’ve been told that dolphins are the smartest creature after humans.

Apparently it’s not true! We’ve been conned by the dolphin’s smile and stories of its social and sometimes helpful behaviour.

That’s according to Justin Gregg, a biologist and researcher with the Dolphin Communication Project, who has just written a book “Are dolphins really smart?” in which he challenges previous scientific research.

Dolphins show many complex behaviours such as living in large groups, showing empathy and communicating with their peers but such behaviours are also found in other animals such as chickens, pigs, and bears.

So dolphins are not so special after all it seems and furthermore have a propensity to be violent towards their fellow cetaceans such as porpoises.

The book comes out at a time when some academics are calling for more protection and moral rights for dolphins based on their brain power. Only last year scientists called for them to be classed as non-human persons.

The idea that dolphins were special dates back to the 1950s when neuroscientist John Lilly wondered why they had such large brains and experimented on them convinced they were trying to communicate with him in dolphinese.  The television series Flipper contributed to their popularity in the 1960s. And in the past both American and Russian navies have used trained dolphins for marine warfare purposes.

Gregg thinks that in some respects they are less sophisticated than chickens having no distress or food calls.  And bottle-nosed dolphins have been recorded killing harbour porpoises, seemingly for the fun of it as they don’t eat them. In Australia groups of male dolphins have been observed isolating females and forcibly mating with them.

My only experience of dolphins, swimming with them in Cuba, was a painful experience when one of them (pictured) thrashed my leg with it’s tail giving me a dead-leg in the water. Very painful but I put it down to the young creature’s mischievousness and went back in for a second session. Looking back I’m not so sure!


Prohibition signs don’t always work

In fact they can have the opposite effect.

Research among smokers in New England showed that when smokers saw “non-smoking” signs they thought about wanting to smoke as the idea was put into their heads – even though they may not have consciously noticed the sign.

This is not news for anybody who has been told “don’t think of a purple elephant” who then of course has that image in their head.

It seems the brain has to process what it is you are not supposed to be doing and doesn’t seem very efficient about handling negative statements. (So parents don’t tell your kids what they shouldn’t be doing but what they should, and managers give your staff objectives which are positive not negative).

A researcher from Oxford University makes the point that many Public Health campaigns are telling people what they shouldn’t be doing and this may have the opposite effect.

Source: BPS Annual Conference.


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Dogs smarter than cats?

So dogs have got bigger brains than cats. And scientists say that’s because they socialise more.

Dogs are well known to be social pack animals, which is why owners have to be the alpha dog to keep the them from wrecking the house and chewing your shoes. Cats on the other hand are considered more aloof – doing you a favour coming home at night and that kind of approach.

Now scientists say that cats have paid the price for being aloof and have lost ground to dogs in terms of brainpower because of it. In a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, they charted the evolution of the brain for over 500 species, living and fossilised, over the course of 60 million years. They found that the groups of mammals with relatively bigger brains tended to live in stable social groups.

The brains that grew most over this time  were monkeys, followed by horses, dolphins, camels and dogs. The brains of more solitary animals like cats, deer, and rhinos, grew much more slowly. It appears that interaction is good for the brain which is probably why humans, who are the more social than monkeys and apes, have dominated the planet. Cooperation and coordination requires more brainpower so brains have evolved to cope with those challenges.

Not everyone agrees. The dog supporters say that cats do what they want whereas dogs think about how they can get other people to do it for them and can build relationships with different species. Cat supporters say cats choose to live alongside man to exploit the rodent population while still enjoying their independence.

Truly the world can be divided into dog people and cat people. And where do well-known social creatures like ants and bees fit into this? Not to mention pigeons!