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Intelligence in the Age of Smartphones

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At a local IHOP family restaurant in Bloomfield, New Jersey, a 4-year-old cries after dropping his mother's smartphone, interrupting his main source of amusement. His mother instinctively retrieves the phone from the ground, quickly returns it to him and resumes her conversation with his father. The crying immediately stops.

Whether a young child or an elderly person, technology has developed to have a much greater impact on our lives than previously imagined. Today, computer-based or assisted learning is much more common in the earliest stages of formal education. Employers recruit young adults who have a LinkedIn profile and boast proficiency in the latest Microsoft Office suite. In our private lives, we socialize through Facebook, share our immediate thoughts with the world through Twitter and use Blackberry Messenger to exercise freedom of assembly. Even the elderly have witnessed changes, notably additional healthcare solutions and innovative assisted-living technology developed in Japan. To be sure, we have benefited from adapting to and embracing technological progress, but we could also benefit from more research on the long-term effects of greater interaction and heightened dependency on technology.

Most of us living in developed economies carry one or more devices around each day. Any combination of a phone, digital music player, electronic reader or laptop is quite common. Consumer Electronics Association, a Virginia-based trade group, recently reported that the average American household of 2.6 people now has around 24 gadgets. With more gadgets in our homes, we are also watching more TV, movies and both our Internet and data usage through wireless networks are at an all-time high.

Across the Atlantic, a Ugandan girl in a rural town is gaining access to educational content via a solar-powered UNICEF-developed Digital Drum computer kiosk for the first time and the number of individuals with access to the Internet around the world is increasing rapidly. In its 2011 world report, International Telecommunications Union (ITU), a United Nations agency, reports that 35% of the world's population is now online, up from 18% in 2006, and of those online, Internet users from developing countries represent 62% in 2011 as compared to only 44% in 2006.

Today, 11% of the world's Internet users are from developing countries other than China and India. Of course economic and social development will result from greater access to information, but what does a world where everyone has Internet access suggest for the evolution of our species and how does heightened Internet usage affect our brains? Some researchers are exploring this topic.

A study published this year in a UK journal, Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, by Professor Geraint Rees of UCL Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience and his team, aimed to understand how social networks impact our lives and found a strong link between the number of Facebook friends a person has and the amount of gray matter in certain areas of their brain by observing 3-D brain scans of over 100 university students. Although the team has yet to establish cause and effect, their work gives us a sense of the importance of monitoring and understanding the Internet's impact on the human mind. This is not the first study along these lines. You may recall UCLA-affiliated, American psychiatrist Dr. Gary Small's works, which suggest that our brains are rapidly being rewired through Internet usage.

Dr. Small says, "The average young person spends 11.5 hours each day with technology (computers, smart phones, etc.). That may have a negative effect on important mental skills involving face-to-face communication."

Nicholas Carr, author of the 2011 Pulitzer Prize-nominated book, The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains, has researched and lectured extensively on the effects of data overload on human beings and what impact this will have on society. "If you're constantly distracted, constantly interrupted and you don't attend to information closely, you never consolidate that information in your long-term memory and you never create the wealth of internal connections that give richness to your thought," says Carr.

While some researchers focus on understanding the Internet's effects on our mind, trends suggest that we should also be looking at the leading global technology, mobile phones. ITU reports 5.9 billion mobile cellular subscriptions in 2011, a global penetration rate of 87% and an impressive 79% in the developing world. In 2001, the global penetration rate of mobile subscriptions was only 15% and a mere 8% in developing countries. In a world of seven billion people and almost six billion cellular subscriptions, how are we engaging with this technology and what does it mean for human evolution? In terms of behavior, on a daily basis, we constantly interact with our phone. We take it everywhere with us, sharing with it our most intimate secrets. We even purchase colorful sleeves to protect it from physical damage. For a while, we have used voice commands with these devices, but now, our phones have "intelligence." Should we be concerned?

Martin Lindstrom, brand consultant and author of Brandwashed, earlier this year conducted a neuro-scientific study in collaboration with the California-based firm MindSign Neuromarketing. The study involved the exposure of 16 individuals, between 18 and 25 years of age, to audio and to video content of a ringing and vibrating phone. The results not only included synesthesia or the activation of both the audio and visual cortices of the brain despite exposure to one form of content at a time, but also included significant activity in the part of the brain associated with love and empathy.

"The subjects' brains responded to the sound of their phones as they would respond to the presence or proximity of a girlfriend, boyfriend or family member," says Lindstrom.

Some accuse marketing for any unhealthy interaction humans may have with technology, but there is also concern that our ability to personally interact with others has been affected as well. As you read this, a 60-year-old electrical engineer is explaining to his teenage son that responding to a young lady's tweet is no way to ask her out on a date. Some researchers, however, have found evidence to counter the idea that our ability to interact face-to-face is worsening.

A national survey entitled "Social Networking Sites and Our Lives," led by Professor Keith Hampton at the University of Pennsylvania in collaboration with Pew Internet Project, was published in mid-2011. It examined how the use of social networking sites by adults is related to people's overall social networks. Their findings refute the idea that in using social networking sites, we "experience smaller social networks, less closeness, or are exposed to less diversity." Whether our social lives are greatly impacted or not, it is safe to say that dinner with a blackberry addict can be quite annoying.

As for education, gadgets have certainly changed how we learn. What sweet joy a student experiences after a quick fact check during a lecture when a professor states something that does not sound quite right, for example. Even more exciting is the availability of apps, lectures and educational podcasts on a wide array of topics, showcasing the art of programming and evidencing demand for greater access to knowledge at our fingertips.

Several major universities have partnered with Apple, providing educational content free of charge through iTunes University. Oxford University in the United Kingdom reports 1,800 items downloaded from their iTunes University portal approximately 130,000 times a week, allowing global reach to 185 countries. Today, the United States, United Kingdom and China account for 85% of Oxford University's downloaded educational content, but the continued sharing of this database of knowledge is an incredible proposal for improved access to education beyond the developed world.

International organizations are riding the technological wave as well, embracing simulation gaming in their leadership training programs. The World Bank Institute released an RFP this year for the creation of two more "serious games" focused on urban development and procurement reform. The United Nations International Strategy for Disaster Reduction also partnered with Playerthree, a London-based creative production studio, to create a disaster simulation game available online.

If we continue to trade depth of knowledge for breadth and greater efficiency, social interaction and life experiences for social networking and simulated education, will this have a negative impact on human development and intellectual capacity in the long run?

Some argue that the moment the first human picked up a stick, the course was decided. We
design and have been designing tools ever since. Now, we need to be sure we still control
the tools.

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