Science and Tech
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Are smartphones making us stupid?
China Daily/ANN
| HongKong | 01 March, 2016
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Representational image (Photo: Getty Images)

Could being hooked to digital devices turn a human being into a vegetable?

Or has the bogey of digital dementia been blown out of proportion. Wang Yuke reports.

If you spend up to seven hours a day on digital devices and experience short-term forgetfulness, your doctor may tell you that you have got "digital dementia". Scientists coined the term to describe diminished cognitive functions that some believe results from heavy reliance on digital devices.

The alarm has already gone off in Hong Kong, and people who live by their digital devices fear they may turn into cabbages.

The global nutrition company Herbalife did a survey of Hong Kong workers in their 30s and 40sto find out if green leafy masses were indeed proliferating in the cerebellums of young people.

Among the respondents 63 per cent reported memory loss in their daily lives, while 48 per cent experienced forgetfulness in the workplace. Almost 45 percent of those surveyed spent eight hours or more on digital devices a day, which meets the standard defined by the survey as "excessive use". The conclusion drawn from the findings was that "overuse of new technology can lead to 'digital dementia' (impaired memory and attention)".

The term "digital dementia" was used originally in 2007 by South Korean physicians who studied the effects of overuse of digital devices on the brain. The study produced findings similar to the more recent Herbalife study, the findings of which were published in October2015. A fifth of the respondents said their forgetfulness could be traced to an over-reliance on smart phones to remember things, instead of putting the faculty of natural recall to use.

Scientists say memory functions of people heavily dependent on smartphones and computers to store detailed information have decreased dramatically.

Manfred Spitzer, a German neurologist who published the book Digital Dementia in 2012, admits that the smartphone has conquered the globe faster than any other invention in history. But he warns overuse of digital media could wreak immense havoc on individual development and the society as a whole.

Spitzer says most of us today just press buttons in passive response to electronic tools, telling us to do this and pay attention to that. It's a marked departure from earlier times when the pursuit of food and knowledge required deliberate action, and children grew up engaging constantly in social interaction. "If you routinely act in such a passive manner, you won't develop a fully functioning brain, just as your muscles can't develop properly if you don't use them," Spitzer told China Daily.

Doctors from South Korea said they observed asymmetrical brain development in teenagers who were overly dependent on digital devices, similar to what was recognized in adult obsessive users of digital devices. They reasoned that the right side of the brain responsible for memory, concentration and emotional control is stunted at the expense of the left side that deals with logic and reasoning which gets over-stimulated by constant exposure to digital devices.

The theory, however, is not uncontested.

No causal link

Chen Jianmin, a researcher at the Herrup Laboratory at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology (HKUST), dismisses the claim as too empirical.

Chen, whose work at the Herrup Lab focuses on diseases, associated with dementia, said, "Data produced by current research cannot consistently show the causal relationship between overuse of digital devices and imbalanced brain development."

Not long after the idea of "digital dementia" emerged, many researchers began to examine the term "dementia", suspecting forgetfulness alone does not imply one is progressing to dementia.

"It (dementia) is a descriptive term for loss of cognitive function, which includes memory loss but is not only memory loss. Loss of language, loss of knowledge about objects and familiar faces and loss of ability to organize could also happen," said Brendan Weekes, chair professor in communication science at the University of Hong Kong who specializes in cognitive impairment, especially dementia. Memory loss is not synonymous with dementia. It is a prominent symptom of dementia, explained Weekes. That is to say, memory loss alone does not mean you have dementia.

Chen Jianmin cautions "dementia" applies only to cognitive impairments that are so severe that independent living is disrupted.

Michael Madeja, a German neuroscientist, said in an interview that the brain constantly adapts, in line with the ever-changing circumstances. Talking in 2014 to Alumni portal Deutschland, asocial network, Madeja said brain functions are enhanced to make the adaptation possible. For example, smartphones and computers have augmented memory for storing information, making it unnecessary to recall certain information details. As a result, the mind will adapt by expanding its capacity for information search and retrieval of information, while downsizing its memory capacity. Madeja has openly disagreed with the applicability of the term digital dementia.

If spending "excessive time" on digital devices was correlated to developing digital dementia, one's ability to use search engines would have diminished. But the reality is that people glued to their digital devices usually get better at searching for information on the Internet, said Weekes.

He says scientific studies offer proof that playing electronic games and even the use of software increases brain size in general and makes for better brain development. "The left and right side of the brain would both benefit. Any activity including using devices that can promote cognitive processing is more likely to delay rather than accelerate dementia."

Even though the brain capacity does change, Chen assured, "the change is considered natural, harmless, and likely reversible, only leading to permanent damage in extreme cases or over time."

Although it has met with many raised eyebrows, the term "digital dementia" remains popular with companies keen to take your money to reverse the effects of digital dementia, or prevent it. News writers like the topic as "it is highly negative and has a thrill that can cause a panic or fascination among the public", said Markus Appel, professor of University of Koblenz-Landau in Germany specializing in communication psychology. "It also 'feels right'. It has a kind of 'truthiness' in spite of the lack of evidence," Appel said.

Sales pitch

Steve Bruce, managing director of local marketing consultancy SB Consulting, said, "Marketing or advertising is all about discovering a problem, creating a need and promoting products as the solution."

"Digital dementia" sounds frightening. The prospect of developing such a condition could trigger hysteric reactions, said Bruce.

"Most people are motivated by two things. One is moving toward pleasure; the other is moving away from pain," remarked Bruce. People are more likely to buy into products marketed as being effective in getting rid of a looming problem.

In the absence of reliable evidence, one way or another, people are cautioned to "use their heads", "flex their brain muscles" as the best safeguard to any types of dementia, including the digital variety, if such a condition actually exists.

"Several hundred interruptions per day caused by your smart phones and digital devices will ruin your capability to 'do your thing', such as conceive and focus, and will also dampen your will power to achieve goals," Spitzer maintained. "Mental capacity comes about by using it," he said.

He added that the better the mind has been trained beginning in childhood, the more resistant it will be to malfunction in old age.

-- By Wang Yuke

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