What Technology is Doing to Our Hearts

 
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For decades, the dominant scientific view held that sometime after early childhood, a person’s brain cells could no longer increase in number. Other types of cells such as skin and muscles could reproduce themselves, but not brain cells. Fortunately, this view has been overturned in the past 20 years by new research on the brain.

As it turns out, the wiring in our brains is not permanently fixed at some young age after all. Study after study has shown that our brains can actually change over the course of an entire lifetime, a dynamic that’s called “neuroplasticity.” These changes can include both the number of neurons (brain cells) we have and the ways in which they’re bundled together.

In one study on neuroplasticity, a team of German neuroscientists examined the brains of medical students before and after an intense period of studying. MRIs were conducted three months prior to a major exam and again at the time of the exam. After the students had been studying intensely for three months, the scans showed that significant changes had occurred: the hippocampus in their brains had increased in size. This corroborates other research showing that the brain itself actually changes physically in response to the ways it’s used.

Neuroplasticity works in another way too. The parts of our brains that are not used very much can shrink. Think of a broken arm in a cast—the unused arm muscles atrophy from not being exercised during the healing time. The same thing happens to our brains. This has been shown in experiments on people who’ve gone blind. When a person’s eyes stop working, the part of the brain used for sight shrinks. At the same time the part used for hearing, which now experiences extra demand, increases in size. Neurons that were used for seeing are rebundled with the parts of the brain used for hearing. The structure of the brain has changed.

 

The internet

Our brains are also rewired by the ways in which we use the internet. In one study, the brain activity of experienced web users was compared to that of novices. Scans showed that when doing Google searches, the experienced web users had extensive front left brain activity while the novices had little or no activity in this region of the brain. For the next five days, the novice web users spent at least an hour a day online doing Google searches. On the sixth day, their brains were scanned again while they were using the internet. Remarkably, the front left brains of the novice web users now showed the same widespread activity as seen in the experienced web users’ brains. The physical patterns in the brain had changed dramatically in just five days.

Texting, checking Facebook and scrolling through Twitter give our brains repeated practise in the following ways:

  • Scanning massive amounts of information when doing research through a database can involve searching through a hundred or more search results.
  • Distinguishing between what’s important, such as information about the topic being investigated, and what’s peripheral, such as popup advertisements.
  • Analysing the content, such as whether a particular page will help in setting up a wireless home printer network, or whether more searching is needed.
  • Making quick decisions such as whether to read a page (or pages) or click the next link.

The neurons and synapses used for this type of thinking grow bigger and as a result, this sort of thinking becomes easier. Then, because our brains like to do what they’re good at, they crave more of that kind of use. The activities we choose and the mapping of our brains are parts of a mutually reinforcing cycle.

The ways in which we use our brains in relation to the internet can have numerous benefits. People can experience the strengthening of those parts of their brains used for fast-paced problem-solving and they can undergo a slight expansion of their brains’ working memory capacity. Studies also show that internet usage may help older people to keep their minds sharper. And it has been shown to strengthen visual-spatial skills.

But surfing the internet can also have negative effects on our brains. Skimming media-rich web pages exposes us to large quantities of information and visuals, but the brain’s ability to actually learn is diminished and understanding is weakened. We become less able to engage in undistracted, deep thinking.

A study conducted by Ziming Liu, a professor at San José State University, showed that because of the internet, people are spending more time reading, but the kind of reading “is characterised by browsing and scanning, keyword spotting, one-time reading [and] non-linear reading . . . while less time is spent on in-depth concentrated reading.” Thus, the neurons and synapses used for this latter type of reading are being exercised less.

As a result, it becomes physiologically more difficult to follow an extended line of thinking regarding, for example, poverty reduction, to take in a nuanced description of a political conflict or to meditate on the words and ways of God. It’s like trying to run a marathon when you’ve mainly been using your legs to walk from the couch to the refrigerator. You may be able to cover the distance, but you’d find it much easier if you’d been using your legs to run daily for months.

 

The internet and compassion

And, perhaps surprisingly, these negative aspects of internet usage extend to our ability to feel compassion. In a study conducted at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Helen Weng and her colleagues wanted to find out if people could increase their levels of compassion through training and if brain changes brought about by the training could be correlated to increased compassion. 

At the start of the experiment, all participants were given MRI scans. Then one group was given compassion training for two weeks while a second group was given training that focused on reducing their negative emotions in response to a stressful event. At the end of the two-week period, participants again underwent MRI scans, this time while viewing images of suffering. The MRI results of the group who underwent compassion training showed increased levels of neural activity in parts of the brain associated with empathy and emotion regulation. The changes in neural activity showed that compassion training resulted in physical changes to the brain.

Then the researchers went on to a second part of the study where they found that those with higher activity in certain parts of their brains were more generous and acted more compassionately. The researchers concluded that something of a virtuous cycle exists: compassion training can change our brains and as a result of these brain changes, we’re more likely to act compassionately.

Brain research has revealed something else related to compassion: our brains are slow to feel it. In a University of Southern California study, Mary Helen Immordino-Yang and her colleagues compared how the brain reacts when a person witnesses a variety of scenarios designed to elicit compassion. 

The study showed that brain activity peaks the quickest in response to witnessing physical pain. So, for example, neural pathways are activated the quickest when we see a child get hurt on the playground or when we see a YouTube video of a person getting beaten up. Brain activity associated with compassion for physical pain peaks at about six seconds after the stimulus.

Compassion for emotional or psychological pain takes longer to register in our brains. When presented with a situation such as a refugee suffering deep emotional pain from the death of a loved one or a person suffering from the loss of a job, the brain’s response peaks at about 12 seconds.

While the response rate to emotional suffering is longer than the response rate to physical suffering, both responses are relatively slow. The brain responds in a fraction of a second when a person is frightened by a crashing noise or if they accidentally touch a hot stove. In comparison, the 6 to 12 seconds it takes for our brains to fully engage the neural pathways related to compassion is a glacial pace.

Now consider how this relates to the way we check Google news several times a day. We click on the shortcut in our browser, the web page comes up and we scan the list of headlines. A quick glance tells us dozens of people died from a suicide bombing or that multiple families lost their homes in a tornado. Think about how this relates to the brain research on compassion. While we may retain a snippet of factual data about the story, the research shows that we have not given our brains sufficient time to respond with compassion. If we want to set ourselves up to be more compassionate, we must find ways and times to slow down—for the sake of our brains and in the interest of others.

As the lead researcher Immordino-Yang observed, “If things are happening too fast, you may not ever fully experience emotions about other people’s psychological states, and that would have implications for your morality.” That’s a problem for us as Christians. It’s a problem to which we must attend.

 

Biblical compassion 

In his letter to the Christians in Colossae, the apostle Paul instructed them to “clothe [themselves] with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience” (Colossians 3:12). If we want to become more compassionate, we need to occasionally slow down the ways we process information in this digital age. That might involve reading a lengthy article rather than just a headline, or it might require creating other spaces in time to obtain more time for reflection.

One example of this is the Sabbath, where one day a week is set aside to disconnect from the activities of everyday life so that we can connect with friends, family and ourselves, and especially a day to rest in which to contemplate God.

The use of digital technology does not foster the kind of thinking that develops the brain circuits needed for contemplation, undistracted prayer and other such dimensions of spiritual growth. I’m not suggesting that we should never use the internet or cut out texting completely. I am suggesting, however, that we need to set these technologies aside at times in order to develop that spiritual growth. A Sabbath rhythm of life invites us into at least one day each week when we can think in ways that use these different parts of our brains. 


Edited extract from The Sabbath Experiment, by Rob Muthiah (Eugene, Oregon: Cascade Books, 2015).