On the information alarmageddon

New York Magazine has an article arguing that the concerns about digital technology drastically affecting our minds are just hype. I really wanted to like it but it’s just another poorly researched piece on the psychology of digital technology.

Research has shown that distraction can improve exactly the sorts of skills that the digital doomsayers say will be broken by the high-tech world, but I’ve never seen it mentioned in any of the recent high-profile articles on the predicted digital meltdown.

In fact, there is a fairly sizeable scientific literature on how interruption affects the ability to complete a task, and instant messaging has been specifically studied.

But despite getting lots of opinions from everyone from attention researcher David Meyer to lifehacker Merlin Mann only one single ‘study’ on the distracting effect of technology is mentioned in the New York Magazine article: “people who frequently check their email has tested less intelligent than people who are actually high on marijuana”.

This is quite amazing because not only was the ‘study’ in question not an actual scientific study, it was PR stunt for Hewlett Packard, this isn’t even an accurate description of it (users were interrupted with email during an IQ test and scored worse, big surprise).

The issue actually breaks down into two parts, one is a scientific question: what is the psychological effect of distraction? and the other, a cultural one: have we become a society where high levels of distraction are more acceptable?

As I mentioned, the first question has been very well researched and the general conclusion is that distraction reduces our ability to complete tasks. Essentially, it’s saying that distraction is distracting, which is hardly headline news.

But it also turns out that distraction is most disruptive to stimulus based search tasks, when we are flicking our attention around scanning for bits of information. Perhaps unsurprisingly, when we’re on alert for new and different things, something salient like an instant message grabs our attention and knocks us off course.

More thoughtful tasks involving processing meaning are the least affected. This is interesting because most of the digital doomsayers suggest it is exactly this sort of deep thought that being affected by communication technology.

The other line of argument is that all this distraction makes us less creative because creativity needs focus to flourish.

Although not as well studied, it seems this is unlikely. While we assume that distraction reduces creativity, but lab studies tend to show the reverse.

Distraction has also been found to improve decision making, especially for complex fuzzy decisions – again exactly the sort that the doomsayers say will most be at peril.

These studies find that too much concentration reduces our creative thinking because we’re stuck in one mind-set, deliberately filtering out what we’ve already decided is irrelevant, thereby already discarding counter-intuitive ideas (actually this is something the article does touch on). We can speculate that this may be why a preliminary study found that amphetamine-based concentration drug Adderall reduced creativity.

The cultural issue is perhaps more important, but on an individual level is more easily addressed.

You have control over the technology of distraction. If you can’t concentrate, switch it off. It it is your job to be distracted and it is affecting other essential parts of your role, that is something to take up with your employers.

It’s no different than if you’re being distracted by the sound of traffic and can’t do your job. Maybe you need an office away from the street? If you or your employers can’t do anything about it, maybe that’s just one of the downsides of the job.

What research hasn’t yet shown is that digital technology is having a significant negative influence on our minds or brains. In some cases, it’s showing the reverse.

History has taught us that we worry about widespread new technology and this is usually expressed in society in terms of its negative impact on our minds and social relationships.

If you’re really concerned about cognitive abilities, look after your cardiovascular health (eat well and exercise), cherish your relationships, stay mentally active and experience diverse and interesting things. All of which have been shown to maintain mental function, especially as we age.

Technology has an impact on the mind but it’s a drop in the ocean compared to the influence of your health and your relationships.

I’m constantly surprised that the impact of technology is clearly of such widespread interest to merit headline grabbing articles in international publications, but apparently not interesting enough that journalists will actually use the internet to find the research.

It’s like writing a travel guide without ever visiting the country. I’m just guessing the editors have yet to catch on to the scam.

Link to NYMag article ‘In Defense of Distraction’.

Can’t put the thought genie back into the bottle

Photo by Flickr user kaneda99. Click for sourcePsyBlog has an excellent piece on the counter-intuitive psychology of thought suppression – the deliberate attempt to not think of something that almost invariably backfires.

The article is both fascinating from a scientific point-of-view but also important as a personal mental health resource if you’re one of the many people who intuitively think that the best way of dealing with ‘bad’ thoughts is to try and push them out of the mind.

What psychology research has shown us is that not trying to think of something makes us think of it more frequently (the “don’t think of a pink elephant” phenomenon), and that this counter-productive effect is enhanced for emotion-heavy thoughts and in people with mental illnesses where intrusive thoughts are a problem.

Psychologists often use the metaphor of noisy trains passing through the station. Thought suppression is like standing in the middle of the tracks trying to push the train back. You’re just going to get run over. Instead, people are encouraged to just wait on the platform, observe the train of thought and wait for it to pass.

The ability to act as a ‘detached observer’ to the mind’s distressing thoughts is a useful cognitive skill and one that is cultivated by mindfulness mediation, something that has increasing evidence as a useful treatment for mental health problems.

There’s lots of good research on thought suppression, much of which is covered in PsyBlog article, but this study struck me as particularly inventive:

Wegner and Gold (1995) examined emotional suppression by delving into people’s romantic pasts using a neat comparison between ‘hot flames’ and ‘cold flames’. A ‘hot flame’ is a previous partner who still fires the imagination, while a ‘cold flame’ is a previous partner for whom the thrill is gone. In theory the ‘hot flame’ should produce more intrusive thoughts so people should have more practice suppressing them. Meanwhile because the cold flame doesn’t produce intrusive thoughts, people should have less practice suppressing them.

The results revealed exactly the expected pattern: people found it harder to to suppress thoughts about cold flames presumably because they had less practice.

Link to PsyBlog on ‘Why Thought Suppression is Counter-Productive’.

2009-05-22 Spike activity

Quick links from the past week in mind and brain news:

Neuroanthropology has a great article on identity formation and internet booze show-offs. A neat bit of online anthropology.

Psychopathic traits in children associated with severe deficits in emotional empathy across all ages for males, but not females, finds new study published in Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry.

Scientific American has a short but interesting piece on how hand movements during discussion may aid cognition. I would do the ‘sounds a bit handy wavy’ joke but I suspect I’ve been beaten to the punch.

Actually, I’d just like to apologise for the pun in the line above while I have the chance.

Science Daily reports that intelligence and physical attractiveness are both related to income. Which explains a lot about my current situation, actually.

Doctor saves young lad’s life by drilling into his brain with a power drill, reports the Aussie News site. The embedded video seems to have been made by The Onion though.

PsyBlog rounds up its recent excellent series on functions and dysfunctions of attention in one handy place.

Psychiatrist bemoans the ignorance about the benefits of lithium treatment among junior doctors in The New York Times.

Science News reports another in a long line of studies suggesting the benefits of meditation. In this case, that it’s linked to increased grey matter in key emotion areas.

Lacan’s florid and Byzantine model of the unconscious is covered in two posts by Somatosphere.

The Harvard Gazette reports on ‘super-recognisers‘, people with exceptionally good face recognition abilities. See this 1999 study for a report of a super-over-recogniser.

Musicians have better memory not just for music, but words and pictures too, according to a study expertly covered by Cognitive Daily.

The Economist looks at a recent study that finds that living abroad can increase creativity.

Risk of violence in schizophrenia almost entirely explained by illicit drug use, finds new study reported on by PhysOrg.

Science News reports that people who have a higher alcohol tolerance are more likely to become alcoholic.

The summer fundraiser for Phil Dawdy, the world’s only publicly funded psychiatry-dedicated investigative reporter kicks off on Furious Seasons.

The New York Times has an excellent piece on the ‘super memory club‘, people who live beyond the age of 90 with sharp-as-a-razor cognitive abilities.

A study investigates the typical psychological traits of people who believe in conspiracy theories, which is covered by Science News.

Science Daily reports on a freaky ass robot intended to improve social skills, presumably built by researchers who have spent too much time in the lab.

The excellent Situationst blog has a must-read piece on the controversy over implicit bias, one of the most heavily researched aspects of our unconscious.

To the bunkers! Time magazine reports that replicant Ray Kurzweil is still at large.

On a wing and a prayer

Photo by Flickr user Rickydavid. Click for sourceNPR has an interesting audio series on brain function, spiritual experience and the growing field of neurotheology. It’s takes a fairly broad brush approach and has audio, video, an interactive thingy, and plenty of supporting material.

You might get slightly annoyed at some of the section titles (‘The God Chemical’, ‘The God Spot’) but there are some great little audio vignettes in there where people describe their spiritual experiences, whether they’ve been caused by prayer or even psilocybin – the main active ingredient in magic mushrooms.

The project borders on the edge of being a bit hokey at times but it saved by the commentary and interviews with neuroscientists working in the area.

There’s also a good article in June’s Scientific American entitled ‘Why People Believe Invisible Agents Control the World’ which looks at the origin of belief in angels, demons, spirits and the like.

Link to NPR interactive brain / god thingy.
Link to ‘Why People Believe Invisible Agents Control the World’.

Bolt from the blue triggers bizzare hallucinations

I just found this amazing case study of a female mountaineer who was struck by lighting while climbing the Latemar Peak in the Alps and subsequently experienced a series of unusual symptoms.

She was taken off the mountain by helicopter and was so agitated in hospital she had to be put under for three days. On wakening she was having some remarkably bizarre hallucinations.

On 3 September 2004, a 23-year-old healthy woman was hit by a “bolt from the blue” while climbing on a ridge at 2750 m shortly before reaching the Latemar Peak in the Alps from a southern direction. The accompanying climber was about 50 m from the casualty, and reported that at the time of the incident (about 15:00 Central European Time (CET)), the sky was clear and sunny. He heard cracking thunder and was thrown to the ground by a massive shock wave.

The patient was also thrown to the ground, lost consciousness for a few seconds and was confused afterwards. She had no vision, dazzled by a bright light. On arrival of the air rescue team, her Glasgow Coma Scale was 9. She was hospitalised and because of extreme agitation, set to a drug-induced coma for 3 days. The initial CT scan showed bilateral occipital oedema, but no intracerebral or subarachnoid haemorrhages or skull fractures…

In the evening, still awake and 6 h after extubation, strange phenomena occurred. These exclusively visual sensations consisted of unknown people, animals and objects acting in different scenes, like a movie. None of the persons or scenes was familiar to her and she was severely frightened by their occurrence. For example, an old lady was sitting on a ribbed radiator, then becoming thinner and thinner, and finally vanishing through the slots of the radiator.

Later, on her left side a cowboy riding on a horse came from the distance. As he approached her, he tried to shoot her, making her feel defenceless because she could not move or shout for help. In another scene, two male doctors, one fair and one dark haired, and a woman, all with strange metal glasses and unnatural brownish-red faces, were tanning in front of a sunbed, then having sexual intercourse and afterwards trying to draw blood from her.

These formed hallucinations, partially with delusional character, were in the whole visual field and constantly present for approximately 20 h. At the time of appearance, the patient was not sure whether they were real or unreal, but did not report them for fear that she might be considered insane.

Link to PubMed entry for case study.

Tall people have slower nerves, sensory lag

Frontal Cortex has alerted me to an interesting NPR radio segment on the fact that taller people have longer nerves and so will have slight sensory lag in comparison to shorter people.

It prompted me to look up some of the research in the area and I found an eye-opening study looking at a range of factors that can effect nerve conduction.

The researchers found that, after controlling for sex, age and temperature (it turns out your nerves are quicker when you’re warm), there was a 0.27 m/s decrease in the conduction speed of one of the leg nerves (the sural nerve) for each additional centimetre in height.

This is interesting because it is not only a reduction in time because the same speed signal is travelling a longer distance, but it actually seems that nerve signals travel more slower through longer nerves as well, owing to the fact the nerves get thinner the longer they are.

The radio segment suggests that taller people don’t experience the world as any different, because our brains try to make everything seem ‘in sync’.

In fact, this is a problem for everyone, no matter how tall we are, because we know we can update our actions quicker than the sensory signals can reach the brain.

In one of the most popular theories that attempt to explain this it it thought that we have an internal simulation of our actions that we can use to make fast decisions which is updated as and when sensory information arrives.

However, I tried to find some studies on whether taller people actually have slower reaction times, but I couldn’t find any, so let me know if you do.

Link to NPR ‘The Secret Advantage Of Being Short’.
Link to study on nerve conduction factors.
Link to DOI entry for same.