How does your smartphone impact your brain?

The smartphone has become ubiquitous. But what psychological impact does it have on your brain? This is one of the questions that Mary Aiken sets out to explore in her book The Cyber Effect (Amazon UKUS). Aiken is one of the world’s leading experts in cyberpsychology – the study of the impact of emerging technologies on human behaviour.

She is not anti-technology, but does speak with a cautionary tone, identifying potential complications associated with apparently addictive technologies like the smartphone, and urges us to think about what might be done now to mitigate future potential damage before it is too late.

With an intervention [the internet] of this magnitude that had the potential to impact so many aspects of human beings on the deepest and most profound levels – from visual acuity, bonding, and childhood development to identity formation, intimacy and socialisation – I wondered what the blind spots or unforeseen outcomes might be. The unknown unknowns.

The psychology behind smartphone use

From the online disinhibition effect (think again before you send that naked selfie) to online escalation (pause for thought before you hit send on that impulsive inflammatory email), or online syndication (why it’s easier, and far more likely, for sex offenders to meet online than in unconnected small towns spread across the globe) and the escalating instances and array of fetishitic disorders (we’ve all heard the statistic that the internet is one third pornography), the internet has given rise to a range of effects that simply could not exist just a few decades ago.

Aiken dives deeper into the psychology of why humans and technology collide, drawing on the work of neuroscientist Jaak Panksepp. Through laboratory experiments on rats he discovered the ‘seeking’ system, something that drives both humans and animals to seek information that will help them survive. Dopamine energised, this mesolimbic (the brain’s reward pathway) seeking system encourages foraging, exploration, investigation, curiosity, craving and expectancy: dopamine fires each time the rat (or human) explores its environment. In Darwinian terms, Panksepp is essentially arguing that a number of instincts such as as seeking, play, anger, lust, panic, grief and fear are embedded in ancient regions of the human brain or are, as he describes them evolutionary memories “built into the nervous system at a fundamental level.”

The drive to seek and explore has kept the human race alive and fed for centuries. But it’s Panksepp’s work that provides us with a biochemical explanation: the dopamine rewards of seeking and foraging have probably made humans highly adaptable to new environments. We are rewarded for exploring. One could easily argue that the same reward system has made human beings more adaptable to the new environment we are still discovering online.

Human’s seeking system also underpins addiction, which Panksepp considers an excessive form of seeking. Whether the addict is seeking a hit from cocaine, alcohol, or a Google search, “dopamine is firing, keeping the human being in a constant state of alert expectation.”

Hard to resist. That’s how many of us find the internet. It’s always delivering a wild surprise, pulsing with breaking news, statistics, personal messages, and entertainment.. The overwhelming evidence points towards this: a combination of fast delivery, exploring opportunities, unexpected information, and intermittent rewards creates a medium that is enticing exciting, and for some individuals totally irresistible. Now let’s add in the design aspects of the apps, ads, games, and social networking sites – the alerts, push notifications, lights, and other visual triggers that signal us like primitive mating calls.

Enter the related stimuli effect of digital devices; or the flashing lights and other alerts and notifications that come with each new email or text or Facebook Like. Just as substance addicts are constantly fighting urges provoked by related stimuli, the alerts and notifications on a smartphone can cause its user to have an uncontrollable urge to check their device.

Related stimuli are cues or situations that an addict associates with their addiction. One famous addiction study found that related stimuli associated with drinking alcohol or taking drugs could induce craving, explaining how the sight of a liquor bottle can cause a person to feel the urge to drink… In the past, antidrug campaigns often used drug paraphernalia in their posters – all designed to shock the world into total abstinence. But paradoxically the visual stimuli actually drove some addicts to relapse and led to a fundamental redesign of antidrug campaigns.

Behavioral and evolutionary scientists have identified another effect called signaling theory. Originating in the study of animal behavior (for example, why peahens choose to mate with peacocks with the biggest tails), it helps us to understand the irresistibility of our smartphone.

There are several types of signal cues that communicate and attract – visual, acoustic, chemical and tactile. The visual signals are limited and require a line of site. A predatory female firefly lures in males with her flashing body light, and then preys upon them, just like the blinking and flashing of your mobile phone. Vervet monkeys have a language of distinct calls representing different types of threats, not unlike the ringtones of your early morning alarm. The waggle dance of the honey bee is a tactile cue to secure social bonds. Next time your phone vibrates in your pocket, you’ll feel its need to bond with you.

The future of smartphone use

Aiken is convinced that the conundrum of connectivity is only bound to escalate as the number of smartphones sold each year increases, along with time spent on them and our uses for them. Her concern is that “we aren’t just learning how to use new apps, and new interfaces. We are learning how to live in a totally new environment – cyberspace”.


If you enjoyed this, you might like:

My widely read post on the impact of technology on babies and young children.