April 11, 2010
Brain drain: computers can cause a digital divide among workers, author says
In less than three decades, technology has transformed the workplace. Computers, BlackBerrys, iPods and cellphones have almost become extensions of us. But what impact have these devices had on the processor and workhorse that’s been around for millennia — the human brain?
Just ask Dr. Gary Small, the co-author of “iBrain: Surviving the Technological Alteration of the Modern Mind.” Small, a psychiatrist who directs the UCLA Center on Aging, is coming to Seattle on April 15 to present the lecture “Technology is Changing Your Brain.”
In “iBrain,” Small divides technology users into two camps: digital natives and digital immigrants. Digital natives grew up with technology, while digital immigrants have had some catching up to do.
That divide can have an impact in the workplace, he says. “Digital natives are very good with the tech skills but not as good with the face-to-face human-contact skills,” Small says. “(With) digital immigrants, it’s the flip side. They’re better at talking to people face to face but are not as good with the tech skills.”
The differences can create a bit of a culture clash at work, but Small says employers can intercede.
Dr. Gary Small presents the lecture “Technology is Changing Your Brain” 7:30 p.m. April 15 at Town Hall Seattle, 1119 Eighth Ave., Seattle. Tickets are $5 through brownpapertickets.com.
“Let’s say you have a team that’s working on a task,” he says. “Maybe pair up people from different generations — somebody younger who has better technology skills and somebody older with better face-to-face communication skills.
“The digital immigrant can help the younger person deal with face-to-face meetings and the digital native can help the older person with the technology. I think the person who will be the most successful will be able to use both approaches most effectively and know when one is better than the other.”
There is plenty of hope for digital immigrants to master tech skills. Small led the study “Your Brain on Google,” which showed that learning a skill such as online searching can quickly alter how the brain processes information.
In the study, large portions of the brains of those naïve to online searching were initially devoted to processing the task. Within a few sessions, the regions of the brain being activated decreased, which suggests improved brain efficiency, Small says. “The brain can adapt very quickly,” he says.
When workers spend too much time adapting to technology, however, we run the risk of techno burnout. “I feel it when I can’t stop with my e-mail,” Small says. “(If) I have too much e-mail and I can’t keep up with it, I get exhausted. I feel lethargic, not concentrating as well as I might.
“What I recommend in ‘iBrain’ is everybody should find some balance — not spend hours and hours with the computer, but get up and stretch, have conversations, try to balance online with offline time.”
Waiting for that next e-mail to pop up can lead to continuous partial attention. “It’s what happens to a lot of us when we’ve got several devices going and we’re kind of waiting for that next vibration or ping or whatever it may be, where something more exciting comes in, where we’re going to drop one task to go to another,” he says.
“I think there is a certain level of stress involved in that, because it keeps us from paying attention to what we’re actually doing. It gets into a little bit of the dopamine system so it can be an addictive state to be waiting for that new, exciting bit of information.”
Those interruptions train the brain “to think in a staccato way,” Small says. “We jump from idea to idea just as we jump from Web site to Web site, and it may have a negative impact on creativity. We don’t sit back and think of new solutions to problems.”
Employers can help mitigate technology’s impact on workers, Small says. “They can make sure that people take time off (and) make sure that there are face-to-face conversations.”
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