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The Big Questions

Your Smartphone Is Changing the Human Race in Surprising Ways

Family of four using mobile phones at yard

Having an Internet-connected computer on our person at all times is affecting our lives in profound ways. Maskot / Getty Images/Maskot

Will someone born in 2017 ever unfold a map to determine the best driving route from New York City to a small town in Massachusetts? Will they memorize a phone number other than their own? Will they grow up to be smarter because their mind is no longer cluttered with mundane facts and the processes technology can do for us?

Psychologists and neuroscientists don't know these answers yet. But they're beginning to understand how spending every waking moment within reach of Internet-connected devices is affecting our lives.

"We've never had a technology that we use so intensively for so many different things," says Nicholas Carr, author of "The Glass Cage: How Computers Are Changing Us."

Related: AI Chatbots Are Shaking Up the Workforce in Unexpected Ways

We keep our brains in a constant state of overload, always distracted by new bits of information. It's human nature to want to take it all in because at one point in history knowing everything that was going on in the environment literally helped humans survive, Carr explains.

Now, constant connection to the Internet via smartphones and laptops has changed long-established rhythms of human thinking. There used to be times when we were socializing and learning from the people and the world around us and times when we were alone with our thoughts.

"But it becomes much much harder to practice the attentive types of thinking — contemplative thought, reflective thought, introspective thought," Carr says. "That means it's very hard to translate information into rich, highly connected memories that ultimately make us smart and intelligent."

Tech is Changing How We Empathize With Others

Our relationship with technology affects how we communicate. But it also affects the deeper ways we interact and connect with people, according to Dr. Sherry Turkle, professor of the social studies of science and technology at MIT and author of "Reclaiming Conversation."

Now we can always be heard, we never need to be alone, and we never worry about being bored thanks to the constant feeds of information.

"If you can't be alone with your own thoughts [ever], you can't really hear what others have to say because you need them to support your fragile sense of self," Turkle told NBC MACH in an email. "True empathy requires the capacity for solitude."

Even if we think we're bored, the brain is working hard to process information we've taken in to replenish itself, Turkle explains. Just like Carr and others are concerned that this stream of distractions prevents deep thinking, Turkle's concern is that those distractions also prevent the deep feeling that lets us connect emotionally with others.

Distracted by technology
"We need to reclaim face-to-face conversation," MIT professor Sherry Turkle said. Getty Images

One 2014 study followed 51 kids who spent five days at an outdoors camp — no phones or laptops allowed. After time away from technology, the children were better able to read facial expressions and identify the emotions of actors in videos they were shown, compared with a control group of kids who didn't attend the camp.

Less interaction with technology allows us to focus on conversations and interactions with others instead of trying to fulfill cravings for finding new information via smartphones and other devices.

"We need to reclaim face-to-face conversation," Turkle said. "Never have we needed to talk to each other and understand each other more."

Tech is Expanding Our Worldviews and Social Circles

Others aren't as pessimistic. Dr. Keith Hampton of Michigan State University believes technology is expanding our worldviews, access to information, and opportunities to maintain relationships.

We used to cut social ties in predictable patterns — when we transitioned from high school to college, when we moved neighborhoods or changed jobs — and then form new relationships in the new setting, he says. "Now those ties stick with us."

The persistence of those relationships affects everything, from determining which people we rely on for emotional support to what activities we become involved in, where we travel, and how we form political opinions. "You're gaining a more diverse social network," Hampton says.

The belief that online social activity diminishes in-person social interactions is a myth, Hampton adds. Research actually shows the opposite: Those you maintain contact with most frequently using mobile devices are the people you confide in and who you see most frequently in person.

A 2011 survey by PewResearch backs this up, suggesting people who communicate using social media and mobile phones have more close friends than those who don't. But the long-term effects of technology use on our social networks are still unknown, Hampton says.

Tech is Changing the Way We Learn

"Environmental factors are always changing us and are always changing the way we think," says Dr. Benjamin Storm, associate professor of psychology at University of California Santa Cruz.

But in the same way that advances in tech are outpacing our understanding of what it's doing to our behaviors and relationships, those changes are also outpacing our understanding of how it's affecting learning and thinking, says Storm, who studies human memory and cognition.

In a recent study, Storm and his colleagues found that offloading one piece of information — even the simple act of saving a computer file — actually made it easier to learn an unrelated piece of information.

Related: Algorithms Learn From Us, And We Can Be Better Teachers

In that way, our digital devices have become a memory partner — you can make more room for new information in your brain when you store and access other information digitally.

The concern, however, is that too much "digital offloading" means we might miss out on the mental connections that make us more creative and intelligent, Storm explains — "and that offloading may prevent us from developing the same sort of expertise as we would otherwise."

A study published last month in Nature Communications found that certain parts of the brain actually switch off or become less active when drivers used GPS to navigate the streets of London compared to those who relied on memory.

London - colorful lights at night
Vehicle lights blur on London's busy streets. New research suggests that using a GPS navigation system to get to your destination "switches off" parts of the brain that would otherwise be used to simulate different routes. Dennis Fischer Photography / Getty Images

When we lean on GPS, we're no longer using certain parts of our brain the way we have over millennia, says Dr. Hugo Spiers, the study's author and reader in neuroscience in the Department of Experimental Psychology at University College London. "This may not be good for us, but we can't currently tell."

Meanwhile, Spiers is working on a project to better understand how neuroscience and tech can interact to build smarter cities that improve human wellbeing. He's optimistic about our capacity to become smarter using technology, he says. "There is much untapped learning potential in tech."

There are plenty of unanswered questions about how new forms of technology affect our thinking and behavior or if they harm our intelligence and creativity, Storm says, and there's a danger in deciding whether the changes are good or bad — "It's never that simple."

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