Will digital technology really weaken cognitive abilities?

Will digital technology really weaken cognitive abilities?

The article you are viewing is composed of words that were criticized by the ancient Greek philosopher Socrates more than 2,400 years ago.

This wise man once believed that the advent of words meant that people “will stop exercising their memory, because they will depend on what is written.”

Facts have proved that human memory is not wasteful because of words, but because of the existence of words, we can get a glimpse of the wisdom of the sages and the brilliance of human civilization.

In the long history of human civilization, similar arguments will always surface from time to time. Even today, our anxiety about technological innovation has never stopped: whether it is radio, television, mobile phone, Internet or video games, they have all been more or less. It is rarely considered to “affect mental development . 

So, what is the long-term impact of digital technology-driven technological progress on people’s cognitive abilities? Is it true that as those widely circulated claims describe, the reason why you can’t remember the phone number is because of the existence of the mobile phone address book?

Will digital technology really weaken cognitive abilities?

Recently, three researchers Lorenzo Cecutti, Anthony Chemero and Spike WS Lee from the University of Toronto in Canada and the University of Cincinnati in the United States published their opinion articles in the sub-Journal Nature·Human Behavior, giving an important preliminary judge.

They believe that the existing evidence is not enough to prove that digital technology will cause long-term negative effects on people’s cognitive abilities. More effects are temporary and affect cognitive motivation rather than cognitive ability. People should further study the long-term impact of digital technology and technological progress on cognitive ability.

“We critically reviewed the relevant findings, and also proposed how digital technology may change people’s main cognitive styles and possible research directions.” This article reads like this.

1. Will digital technology weaken cognitive ability?

“Digital technology will have a negative impact on cognitive ability.”

This widely circulated statement depends on two hypotheses: one is that this influence is aimed at long-term ability; the other is that this influence is essentially aimed at cognitive ability.

After a critical examination of the existing evidence, the researchers believe that even if there is an impact, it is temporary rather than long-term. At the same time, the nature of the impact is not clear. What may be affected is not “ability”, but “cognitive process” or “intrinsic motivation that drives cognition”. In layman’s terms, it is – do you want to use cognitive abilities.

A typical experiment is a memory test, which aims to examine whether people tend to regard digital technology as an external memory model and rely on it.

For participants, if they know that they can get information from the computer in the future, it may be more difficult for them to remember the content. But instead, they remembered where (which website or folder) they could find it.

From this, the experimenter concluded that people’s long-term memory or other cognitive functions have been destroyed by digital technology.

But it is worth noting that these effects are often temporary and only appear when people know that they can access the information stored in them through digital technologies (such as mobile phones and computers) . If people know that they cannot access this information again, the impact will be minimal.

Therefore, it must be clear that “depending on available external tools” is different from “losing a certain cognitive ability (such as memory) when necessary “. The two cannot be equal.

In addition, there are also research results that show that the use of digital technology will not blindly reduce memory, but will change the way people remember things . As mentioned earlier, people will remember which website or folder to go to to find the corresponding information. Therefore, people remember is “Where (the WHERE) “, rather than “what (the What) .”

As I said at the beginning, Socrates rejected words and worried that people would stop exercising memory, but today after 2000, we still have memory and we exercise it in a way that is different from the past and adapted to our goals and circumstances. .

In fact, in cognitive science, a basic idea is that “the cognitive process will operate according to our goals and circumstances”, that is, cognition is motivated, and the value of motivation affects the possibility and intensity of people’s participation.

From this point of view, on the one hand, ubiquitous digital technology may weaken the relative motivational value of specific cognitive tasks, thereby weakening people’s participation. For example, when people know that they can store contact information on their mobile phones, the value of memorizing the phone number decreases and their willingness also decreases.

On the other hand, this does not mean that people’s ability to participate in and perform cognitive tasks is impaired.

For example, experiments have found that mobile phone notifications of new messages, and even the presence of mobile phones, will continue to impair subjects’ performance on intellectual tasks such as maintaining attention and working memory.

For participants, these tasks are cumbersome and irrelevant. They are not as valuable as activities on mobile phones and bring less fun. Therefore, digital devices actually reduce the relative participation of experimental tasks.

Such experimental results describe the impact of digital technology on motivation, not on cognitive ability: whether digital technology will hinder cognitive performance depends on how high the value of the cognitive task is relative to the motivation provided by digital technology.

Of course, there is also experimental evidence that the more people use digital technology in daily life, the worse their performance on certain cognitive tasks, such as multitasking and task switching, episodic memory, and attention shifts.

But it must be emphasized that these effects are still related (correlational) , not causal (causal) , and are affected by other variables. Once other variables are controlled more stably in the experimental design, the negative effects of digital technology (smart devices) will become insignificant.

All in all, the researchers believe that at this stage, the assertion that “digital technology will have a long-term negative impact on cognitive ability” still lacks convincing evidence.

“May or not, we have not yet found a scientific answer.”

2. How might digital technology change perception?

Given that the human brain has a strong plasticity, technology and cognition are bound to affect each other, so the researchers also put forward a speculative idea: technology may be changing people’s main cognitive style, but it may not make it worse. .

“Although our argument is speculative, it is based on cognitive conceptualization, because it operates in a complex ecological environment and is a dynamic interaction between internal processes and external tools.” The researchers said.

The continuous flow of information between people and the environment is one of the basic elements that constitute cognition.

Many of our daily activities involve outputting information and calculation processes to external tools, and then reloading the information and calculation results back into the brain. For example, take notes on paper (output) for later reading (reload) , set calendar reminders to receive notifications at specific times, and calculate and query calculation results on a spreadsheet.

For the brain, the internal process of completing cognitive tasks is still necessary, but it weakens the storage and calculation of information, and strengthens the conversion, output and reloading of information. In this process, cognitive ability needs to convert the “thoughts in the mind” into specific formats, such as text on paper, numbers and formulas in spreadsheets, and manage the entire output and loading process.

From this perspective, we don’t have to regard digital technology as a competitor for the cognitive resources of the brain. On the contrary, it can be used as a supplement and part of the cognitive process, dealing with tasks that are difficult to complete with only internal (cognitive) processes. For example, rote memorization, complex calculations and long-term prospective memory.

3. The challenge of digital technology is probably your self-control

Existing research on the behavioral impact of digital technology focuses on how it causes temporary damage, especially the damage to low-level cognitive processes, such as attention and memory. As behavioral scientists, researchers hope that more colleagues can broaden the general theory and research.

They said that in the process of research, behavioral scientists should realize that cognitive processes are motivated. Whether they adopt theoretical or empirical methods, they should distinguish whether digital technology affects the relative motivational value of cognitive tasks or the performance of tasks. ability.

“When we do this, we must avoid making unnecessary inferences between the temporary and long-term effects of digital technology,” the researchers emphasized. “Methodologically, the value of motivation and participation should be through statistical analysis and research design. Or both to control.”

In the paper, the researchers put forward a series of outstanding questions from a dynamic perspective, hoping to guide the direction of future research, such as:

  • If digital technology is not necessarily harmful to cognition, what specific internal (cognitive) processes does it enhance ? What new cognitive activities does it make possible?
  • In terms of personal growth, are there sensitive periods when exposure to digital technology is particularly beneficial or harmful to children’s cognitive abilities?
  • Will different digital technology platforms (smart watches, smartphones, tablets) systematically exert different cognitive effects because they provide different types of activities?

In addition, by improving the performance of external tools, people’s ability to use them to complete work will also increase, and digital technology may reduce people ‘s reliance on internal processes (cognitive capabilities) .

Therefore, the researchers predicted the possible changes in cognitive abilities:

1. Complexity : For tasks that are too complex and cannot be handled independently by internal processes, such as statistical analysis, data visualization, and financial accounting, digital technology may improve the effectiveness and efficiency of their execution.

2. Reliance and Skill : Due to the advantages of digital technology in dealing with complex tasks, people may rely more and more on digital technology to perform computationally demanding tasks, and become more and more adept at information conversion, and constantly Repeated tasks between external tools and internal processes, such as programming and interpreting results. These skills are very popular now.

3. External access → Freed capacity (External access → Freed capacity) : Digital technology may be changing where and how people find information. For example, when people use personalized search or GPS navigation, the computing power of the brain is released to perform other cognitive tasks.

4. Flexibility (Flexibility) : people have the flexibility and ability to process information, such as what information is worth remembering (important person’s phone number) , which is enough information with external tools (unimportant person’s phone number ) .

5. Self-insights and Self-control : People may need to improve self -insights and self-control . The first point is that people should be clear about which cognitive activities should be given to tools, which activities should use cognitive abilities, and deliberately retain and train important cognitive abilities (such as the ability to remember the main points of the conversation) . The second point is that people should restrain their inertia and avoid the reward threshold being raised too high.

It can be seen that these changes are not all disadvantages. More broadly, these predictions have operational scientific significance and can lead more scientists to conduct in-depth research.

Among these problems, the last one about self-control is the most noticeable.

Digital technologies that rely on mobile phones, computers, and Internet platforms often have strong motivational capabilities and can give people a variety of stimuli. For example, with the support of powerful algorithms, the short video platform can provide a continuous stream of new stimuli and has a high user stickiness.

More importantly, these specially tailored stimuli are passively obtained, which can be obtained by just sitting there and moving their fingers, which can easily push up people’s reward threshold. In contrast, tasks that are relatively scarce in rewards and require active and active acquisition of cognitive functions, such as reading and imagination, may become less attractive.

In this way, even if digital technology does not cause the degradation of cognitive ability, people who lack self-control will no longer have the motivation to participate in cognitive challenges, which is the so-called “too lazy to do something.”

Researchers said that they are “extraordinarily worried about the younger generation” because their “self-control and skills are still developing”, but they are facing increasing temptations and risks that require continuous rewards and stimulation.

Therefore, they called for more research to clarify the impact of digital technology on self-control, and strive to find conclusive scientific evidence and effective cognitive behavior strategies, so as to promote it among students and children, and let the younger generation understand how to control digital Technology instead of letting digital technology control them.

“We believe that the development of effective measures and tests for the dynamic interaction between internal cognitive processes and external tools may be an important step forward.

What we need to find is a way to make ourselves smarter with smart devices and artificial intelligence, rather than being controlled by them. “

Reference:

https://www.nature.com/articles/s41562-021-01162-0

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