Every day Americans navigate a torrent of data. We field a barrage of work and personal emails. We update our status and check on our friends. We surf across dozens of websites. Most of us are now expert multitaskers, but some worry we’re creating a generation unable to focus on specific tasks. We speak with a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, who is exploring whether technology is rewiring our brains.


  • Matt Richtel Technology Reporter, New York Times


  • 12:06:43

    MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. It's Tech Tuesday. This is your brain on computers. Over the course of this broadcast, if the research is correct, you will check your e-mail or switch windows on your computer 37 times. You'll receive a few phone calls or send a text or two. You may update your status on Twitter or post pictures on Flickr. You may even find it hard to focus on our conversation. Don't worry, we're not offended. It's a simple fact we live in a multitasking world and we, the digital citizens, are bombarded by a torrent of data every day, hour by hour, minute by minute.

  • 12:07:36

    MR. KOJO NNAMDISo if this is your brain on computers, what about your brain when you cut the cord? You might find yourself compulsively checking your e-mail before you go to bed or you might get bored just sitting and doing one thing like reading a book or watching TV. Researchers believe technology is rewiring our brains in profound and subtle ways. Joining us to discuss whether this is indeed taking place is Matt Richel -- Richtel. He is a technology reporter with The New York Times. He's been exploring the effect of communications technology on the brain in an ongoing series. Matt Richtel won the Pulitzer Prize for his series "Driven to Distraction," an emerging science on the hazards of cell phones, driving and multitasking. He joins us from the studios of KQED in San Francisco. Matt Richtel, thank you for joining us.

  • 12:08:27

    MR. MATT RICHTELWell, thank you for having me.

  • 12:08:29

    NNAMDIWe've all heard the complaints. We are overloaded with e-mail, text, phone calls. We can't get away anymore. We're constantly distracted by our devices. Is there any way to quantify these complaints? What do we know about how we use technology today?

  • 12:08:44

    RICHTELYeah, there are ways to quantify them. And let me just say, your opening was fantastic. I will be asking you to edit some pieces of mine in the future. (laugh) (unintelligible)

  • 12:08:55

    NNAMDIThanks. I've got help from my producer, Brendan Sweeney, too.

  • 12:08:58

    RICHTEL(laugh) I must be distracted when I'm writing. Yeah. Just -- here's some numbers. You actually highlighted the one I would most have highlighted, which is that one research company looked at how often we switch our attention when we're sitting at a computer over the course of an hour, and it's 37 times. That's the number that I would have come to most quickly. But I'll also tell you the researchers at the University of San Diego say that we are consuming three times the amount of data that we did in the 1960s. So once -- and the nature of that information is much different. It once was predominantly radio and television. Well, now, the nature of our technology is both interactive and it's ubiquitous. It is with us all the time. It's in our pockets. It's with us when we're standing in line at the grocery store. It's with us -- you know, who you are -- even in the bathroom.

  • 12:09:53

    NNAMDIWell, I was in college in the 1960s, so I forgotten some of what I consumed. But most of us are not neuroscientists...

  • 12:09:59

    RICHTELThat word has a lot of meaning in 1960s, (laugh) in consume.

  • 12:10:03

    NNAMDIIt certainly does. Most of us are not neuroscientists. We never thought to try and measure our attention spans or how many times we switched from website to website. But we noticed something. We feel like we're suffering from some sort of information overload. We get tired of constantly checking e-mail, we notice that we're doing it in an almost impulsive way, sometimes I even feel like technology is making me slower. How would you go about measuring something like that if you're a neuroscientist?

  • 12:10:33

    RICHTELYeah. You're asking, really, actually a handful of very good questions. Let me try to break them down. And let me begin by telling you a little bit of science out of Stanford University that goes to the question of what is happening to our performance when we multitask? This is a little bit different than what is happening to your brain, a little bit different, but let me just begin with it. Scientists there asked the question, well, when we have people who are heavy media multitaskers, meaning people that are accustomed to regularly switching among tasks using their devices, self-selected, how does their performance compare to people who tend to focus on one task at a time?

  • 12:11:16

    RICHTELThis is science that's been done over a few years down in Palo Alto. And what they -- your listeners may have heard this by now. Even still, it may be surprising the extent to which they found that heavy multitaskers are actually less good, if you will, at multitasking. They are less good at filtering irrelevant from relevant information. They are less good at switching between tasks quickly. And separately, they are less good at creative -- doing creative tasks over a period of time.

  • 12:11:49

    RICHTELNow, one question that may be coming to mind for your listeners, it's certainly came to mind for me and for the researchers themselves is, is this correlation or is it causation? In other words, are people who are heavy multitaskers simply less focused by definition that's why they multitask and therefore, that's why performance tests show them performing less well? Or is the multitasking actually leading to fractured attention? Let me ask you, before I continue, what do you think? What's your guess?

  • 12:12:22

    NNAMDIIt's the chicken-egg question. My guess is that it's the multitasking that's leading to further distraction.

  • 12:12:30

    RICHTELAll right. So but let me put you on the spot and say, what's your impulse there before I tell you some of the science?

  • 12:12:37

    NNAMDIWell, my impulse there is because I noticed in myself that I used to be able to sit and just watch television. Now, I sit and watch television with an iPad in my hand. And while I'm watching television, I'm either reading a book on the iPad or I'm constantly checking my e-mail both at home and at work. And I never used to be like that. And I think it's adversely affected my ability to properly focus.

  • 12:13:04

    RICHTELOne of these -- I mean, your dead on. And I'll tell you some of the science behind it, but first, a very quick anecdote. One of the scientists was named Eyal Ophir and he had been -- he had come to Stanford after being in the Israeli intelligence, and prior to that, being in the Israeli air force. And when he was in the air force, he got weeded out of being a pilot, and he thought, well, I've been weeded out because I'm not good at multitasking in a cockpit. Pilots are, as you might imagine, it's demanded of them that they do numerous things at once.

  • 12:13:34


  • 12:13:34

    RICHTELWhen he got to Stanford and he joined this multitasking research team, he thought I'm gonna learn the secrets to multitasking. I'm gonna break the code. Well, because he said I tend to focus on one thing at a time, you now know what the research showed. Here's his personal anecdote. He said before I got an iPhone, I used to sit with my toddler daughter on the floor and be in the moment. After I got my iPhone, I felt this yearning to check in my pocket. I even felt a yearning, he said, when the phone was in the other room and it wasn’t ringing. I felt, if you will, of phantom pain. What is that about? Let me tell you a few -- one of the most, I think, interesting bits of science that informed not only this series we did this year but the one you mentioned last year on distracted driving. And it goes to the question: What is the lure of our devices? Two words. Dopamine squirt.

  • 12:14:29


  • 12:14:29

    RICHTELWhat the research -- (laugh) whoa.

  • 12:14:31

    NNAMDII'm back in the 1960s again. (laugh)

  • 12:14:34

    RICHTELYou are, and you're -- we're probably each having -- you're probably having a dopamine squirt when I said that, and I got one when you said whoa. So we could all enjoy it together...

  • 12:14:44


  • 12:14:44

    RICHTEL...around a hookah. The researchers say that there is early science to suggest that when you hear the ping of your device, when you check it, when your phone goes off, you get a dopamine squirt. You get a little rush of neurochemicals that affects the pleasure center of your brains. Now, again, this is one of those things, borrowing kind of language from you earlier, you almost don't need to be a neuroscientist to know this.

  • 12:15:09

    RICHTELWhen you check your device, you know you get that little pleasure rush. Well, what the researchers say is that we become habituated to getting that little rush, infinitesimal as it might be, and then we become addicted to it. So we get a rush. We get a rush. We get a rush. Then in its absence, we feel bored. What do we do? We check our device. That's an actual physiological kind of lure that led Nora Volkow, one of the preeminent scientists in the world, the head of the National Institute for Drug Abuse, to tell me that that this kind of behavior is -- has the same properties as physiological addiction.

  • 12:15:53

    RICHTELLet me just set that aside for a second 'cause I wanna qualify that addiction statement in a bit, but I want to tell you one thing about the physiological -- I mean, sorry, the psychological components of addiction -- just make sure I'm not being too long winded. Is it okay to move to that?

  • 12:16:10

    NNAMDIAllow me to invite our listeners to join the conversation first. You can call us at 800-433-8850. It's Tech Tuesday. We're talking with Matt Richtel. He's a technology reporter with The New York Times, who's been exploring the effect of communications technology on the brain in an ongoing series. How do you manage the pressures of e-mail, phone calls, text messages and tweets? Do you think you're becoming addicted? You can call us, 800-433-8850, or go to our website, kojoshow.org, and join this Tech Tuesday conversation there. Please continue, Matt.

  • 12:16:41

    RICHTELSo I was going to move to the psychologically addictive aspects of our devices that keep us so connected. But before I do, I wanna -- I will qualify that physiological addiction part.

  • 12:16:51


  • 12:16:51

    RICHTELWhat Nora Volkow and other researchers said to me is, look, this is not addiction like heroin or drugs. It's more addiction like food addiction, meaning we need food to survive. We need our technology to survive. But when you have -- when food addiction becomes severe, when someone becomes obese or eats at the expense of doing other things or their own health, that is a kind of use of a positive attribute gone haywire.

  • 12:17:23


  • 12:17:23

    RICHTELThat's what she's referring to in this case. Let me tell you also -- or let me ask if I might, can I tell you about the psychologically addictive nature of our devices?

  • 12:17:34

    NNAMDIPlease do.

  • 12:17:35

    RICHTELSo here's what researchers say. Now, I want you to picture -- I'm gonna give you a crass image but -- or at least, as I'm about -- it's crass when I start to compare it to you, meaning you writ large our listeners.

  • 12:17:48


  • 12:17:48

    RICHTELPicture a rat in a cage.

  • 12:17:50


  • 12:17:50

    RICHTELAnd the rat is -- there's a pellet dispenser, and the rat doesn't know when the dispenser will deliver food. So the rat feels compelled to check all the time. Well, researchers tell me that our devices are not in some ways unlike that scenario, and with us as the proverbial rat, where we never know when a message is going to come. And more importantly than that, we never know when an interesting, compelling, valuable message is gonna come. We never know which of the thousand messages of the day is going to be the proverbial lottery ticket and which ones are spam. And so we feel compelled to check all the time. This is called intermittent reinforcement, and it's one of the most powerful addictive forces in psychology. That's another reason we feel compelled to check all the time.

  • 12:18:38

    NNAMDIDoes the presence of all of this technology affect your ability to focus when you're offline? Call us at 800-433-8850. Matt Richtel, as we speak, we're in the midst of holiday season, and people might becoming face to face with a familiar feeling. On our first day off, we have trouble delinking and relaxing. On our second day, things start to get a little easier. Then something happens on the next day. Neuroscientists talk about something called the three-day effect. Please explain.

  • 12:19:06

    RICHTELI had the privilege to go on a really remarkable trip -- I supposed it was April or May. I can't remember exactly -- with five lead neuroscientists who went to the southern edge of Utah, where they got onto the San Juan River for an experiment -- experiment small E, unofficial, if you will. They went to disconnect from their devices. As they traveled down the San Juan, they got to a place where cell phone coverage no longer worked and the Internet no longer worked. One of them yelled it's the end of civilization, referring to the departure from Internet access. And then over the course of about five days, these neuroscientists watched what happened to their own behavior and their own brains as a way of looking at what happens to all of us as we disconnect from technology.

  • 12:19:54

    RICHTELNow, not surprisingly, they got a little bit quieter. They got a little bit more reflective. They become -- became less habituated to this fast-twitch reaction time. None of that, I suppose, surprises any of us these days.

  • 12:20:11

    RICHTELWhat was -- I don't know if I called it surprising, but what was very interesting is for them, this is the basis of ongoing and future neuroscience, where they're trying to actually measure and quantify what one of them refers to as the three-day or the third day effect. When we get away from our devices, how are our brains changing such that these are -- these changes are not something we merely observe in ourselves but are actually neurochemical measurable events that change how we see the world and experience it?

  • 12:20:44

    NNAMDIAllow me to go to the telephones, starting with Francine in Rockville, Md. Francine, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:20:52

    FRANCINEHi. How are you, Kojo?

  • 12:20:53

    NNAMDII'm well.

  • 12:20:54

    FRANCINEGood. I just wanted to say that I actually work for a company and at one point it got really, really slow. And I will go between my computer, checking my e-mail and my Facebook and my text messages every second literally, and I would get so antsy and so nervous. And that was my comment about the new technology. But the one thing that I find different about myself now, than maybe five or 10 years ago, is that I write less in handwriting. So I was wondering if maybe your guest had something to say about handwriting. I find my handwriting is actually getting worse and my spell check is actually horrible because I can't really write anymore without the computer.

  • 12:21:34

    NNAMDIWell, before we get to that, why were you getting so antsy when you were on your job and flipping back and forth from your e-mail to your cell phone?

  • 12:21:44

    FRANCINEI don't know. I kind of became dependent on these things on like a slow day. Like I'm going, you know, I'm checking my e-mail, you know, you got all your Facebook accounts and all of your texts. And then if it gets really slow and I have like nothing to do, I'm actually depending on these things as a way or form of, I don't know, I guess just being almost. I can't be without these things anymore. I can't be out without Yahoo. I can't be out without my phone. I can't be without text messaging.

  • 12:22:12


  • 12:22:12

    FRANCINEAnd if the phone goes out on the train, I will go insane before I get home to plug it back in. It's -- I don't know. I'm pretty sure I'm not the only person like that.

  • 12:22:22

    NNAMDIWell, Francine, we've got to take a short break right now, but I'm gonna ask you to continue to listen because when we come back, I'm gonna ask Matt Richtel to talk about the importance of boredom. How about that?

  • 12:22:33

    FRANCINE(laugh) All right.

  • 12:22:34

    NNAMDI(laugh) Okay. You too can call us, 800-433-8850. It's Tech Tuesday. We're talking about your brain on computers. You can also send e-mail to kojo@wamu.org. Send us a tweet, @kojoshow. Or go to our website, kojoshow.org. Join the conversation there. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

  • 12:24:55

    NNAMDIIt's a Tech Tuesday conversation about your brain on computers. We're talking with Matt Richtel. He's a technology reporter with The New York Times. He's been exploring the effect of communications technology on the brain in an ongoing series, "Your Brain on Computers," for The New York Times. You can find the link to that series at our website, kojoshow.org. Before we took that break, Matt, Francine was talking about what she does when she's bored. And most of us, you know, do -- if we have a few down moments, we play with our cell phones, our laptops, check our e-mail because we tend to think of boredom as a bad thing. Why can boredom be a good thing, Matt?

  • 12:25:34

    RICHTELMay I bring back in the rats?

  • 12:25:36

    NNAMDIYes, please.

  • 12:25:37

    RICHTELOkay. So here are two interesting brain studies that go just to that question. One done at the University of California at San Francisco, and they looked at the electrical activity in the brains of rats. And when they rat would have a new experience, say, walking onto a table it hadn't been on before, it generates neurologic -- sorry. It generates activity in a part of the brain called the hippocampus. It's the gateway to memory. Well, only when the brain has downtime of the rat did that electrical activity disseminate out into the rest of the brain, where it effectively became memory in learning. If the rat didn't have downtime, the information never made it to the rest of the brain. Set that aside in category one. Category two is...

  • 12:26:20


  • 12:26:21

    RICHTEL...some imaging studies down of actual humans, if you feel more comfortable with this, human listeners out there. They looked at what happened to the brains of people who were in our MRI machines, imaging machines. And they found that when there was downtime, whole parts of the brain lit up -- to the surprise of researchers -- whole parts of the brain known as the default network. They can be involved with synthesizing information, creativity, even establishing the sense of self relative to other things. The culmination of these studies and others, researchers tell me, indicate that downtime is an essential part of synthesizing information, remembering and learning. And absent of that time, we could be forfeiting really important periods of creativity analysis.

  • 12:27:13

    RICHTELWell, what is happening in day-to-day life? You -- I learned doing the series, I learned watching my own behavior and talking to lots of people that many of us are giving up little tiny moments of downtime, whether it's at the gym when we're multi-tasking or whether it's when were in line at the grocery store -- I mentioned the bathroom before -- any of these moments. Now, in any given one of them, it may not be that bad to give up your downtime. But in the aggregate, you maybe forfeiting something. Michael Rich, who’s the Center for Media and Child Health, associated with Harvard University were he is a pediatrician, said to me, the headline is bring back boredom. Downtime is to the brain what sleep is to the body. I could cite lots of other research for you here, but that is the essence of it. And I think if we all notice ourselves, we have become so able to escape downtime and boredom through the ubiquity of our devices, that maybe we're missing out on those moments that once let us to synthesize.

  • 12:28:14


  • 12:28:17


  • 12:28:17

    NNAMDILearn to enjoy your boredom.

  • 12:28:20

    FRANCINEI cannot do that, probably, no, no.

  • 12:28:23

    NNAMDIWe've never -- (laugh) everything Matt has said...

  • 12:28:27

    RICHTELWell, Francis, then at least there are a lot of media companies that are very happy.

  • 12:28:31

    NNAMDII'm sure they are. Francine, thank you very much for your call. We move on to John in Rockville, Md. John, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:28:39

    JOHNHey. What about people who have tons of creditors or cranky spouses and people with negative reinforcement every time they open an e-mail or answer the phone? Are they gonna avoid that and have better concentration?

  • 12:28:55

    NNAMDIAvoidance, Matt Richtel.

  • 12:28:58

    RICHTELSo, I'm sorry. Just to elaborate on the question. Are you asking if you get mad, are you better off or worse of?

  • 12:29:05

    JOHNNo. I was saying, what if you don't wanna answer the phone because every time you're going somewhere...

  • 12:29:09

    RICHTELI see. Yes.

  • 12:29:11

    NNAMDI'Cause it's so much bad news.

  • 12:29:14

    RICHTELYeah. That's a great question. Let me -- we touched on that last this year than we did last year with distracted driving. But I can give you from distracted -- our driving distracted driving series I can give you a little insight into it, which is studies -- poll showed, why were so people so connected that they would even text or answer the phone when they were traveling at high speeds. And a large number of people said that they felt compelled to answer their devices because that had become the social norm, and they were letting somebody down so much so that they would do it in a dangerous driving situation. I think you asked a really good question. What is the social norm here? I've talked to people who have tried to establish boundaries in various ways like, for instance, having an automated e-mail that goes out that says, I will get to your message within 48 hours or some such thing. But you're right. We have kind of collectively created this social norm.

  • 12:30:12

    RICHTELI wanna also add one bit of science to this. Scientists say another psychological reason that our devices so powerfully lure us is that one of the most powerful psychological pressures in the world is to respond to another human being. If you got a tap on your shoulder while you are in the jungle, millennia ago, (laugh) you immediately – yeah – you immediately turned around and the reason was probably several fold or the reasons. One was you wanted to see if it was a treat. You wanted to see if it was an opportunity. But also, we organize ourselves very socially around safety and fear. Well, imagine your device as that tap but all the time wherever you are, there's no point at which someone can't tap you on the shoulder, and you are almost primitively conditioned to respond to that. So, was the caller's name, John?

  • 12:31:07

    NNAMDIYes, indeed.

  • 12:31:08

    RICHTELJohn, you're dealing with wonderful technology that's become very effective at reaching you and some deep primitive pressures. Good luck.

  • 12:31:17

    NNAMDIIndeed. In this undermined era, Matt, what counts as being truly urgent? How soon will people need to respond to information? Do we have a false sense of urgency when it comes to digital communication?

  • 12:31:31

    RICHTELI -- this again -- this is one of the questions that the scientists ask when we traveled in Utah, and I'll tell you a personal anecdote along these lines. I've got a 2-year-old-son or he was nearly two then and at that point a pregnant wife. I had not been away from them at all. And you might imagine, it worried me to be away. I hope everyone's health would be fine. And even though there was no technology allowed on the trip, I cheated. I got them to agree to bring a satellite phone so I could check in with my pregnant wife. Yes, I am -- it was me. I was the one.

  • 12:32:04

    NNAMDIDon't know a journalist who doesn't find an excuse to get a satellite phone.

  • 12:32:09

    RICHTELAlso, I need to check sports scores. No. And so -- but I noticed that over after the second or third day, my sense of urgency to call them began to wane. It wasn't that I didn't wanna check in with them. It's that this pressing notion that I had created inside my head about what -- that they needed to hear from me or I need to hear them began to evaporate. It made me really wonder about the answer to the question about urgency. I have not look at it scientifically and per se over the course of this series, but the neuroscientists mentioned the same thing to me. They said, they noticed their sense of urgency beginning to change. And I do think, based on their experiences and simply my own personal ones, that that is something that has been very markedly affected, our sense of urgency and maybe some falsity. Is that a word, falsity?

  • 12:33:07

    NNAMDIFalse, falseness -- I don't know.

  • 12:33:09


  • 12:33:12

    RICHTELBe creative. I'm -- I feel...

  • 12:33:13

    NNAMDILet's make up some words.

  • 12:33:14

    RICHTELI feel I must urgently look up that word.

  • 12:33:17

    NNAMDI800-433-8850, if you look up and decide you wanna join this conversation, that's the number to call. How do you manage the pressures of e-mail, phone call, text messages and tweets? 800-433-8850. Here is Larry in Manassas, Va. Larry, your turn.

  • 12:33:36

    LARRYYeah. Hi. What you've been reporting on is really fascinating. I looked at something similar in graduate school, when we were looking at the EEG correlates of hypnotic susceptibility. And generally, what we found is that people scored high in divided attention. In other the words, the multitaskers really cannot be all that receptive to hypnotic construction. And also, just reading the part about the diminishing of urgency -- well, if you're going back to a learning theory idea -- I mean, when you stop reinforcing something, the behaviors slowly goes away over the time. But when the time when it's -- in the time that's immediately no longer reinforce, the subject experiences some anxiety, all the things you were discussing. So it might be a simple reason for that diminishment of that sense of urgency.

  • 12:34:46

    NNAMDILet me hear what Matt Richtel has to say.

  • 12:34:48

    RICHTELWell, I think it was Larry. And you said -- you mentioned something about learning there and the habituation of this fast-twitch experience. That's really interesting and insightful. And I'd like -- may I just touch on a bit of science about this?

  • 12:35:03

    NNAMDIPlease do.

  • 12:35:04

    RICHTELOur latest series -- oh, excuse me. Our latest story in the series was about a high school in Silicon Valley, Woodside High School.

  • 12:35:10


  • 12:35:12

    RICHTELAnd we looked there at a student in a handful of students as windows into what's happening to the brain of young learners. And I'll tell you the specifics about some of those kids in the second -- well, actually, I'll do that now. There's a young woman who text, sends and receives 27,000 texts a month. The main character in that story, a young man named Vishal Singh, is a very technologically proficient and very bright, according to his teachers, and well-spoken, but he can't seem to stay focus on his homework. He talks about fleeting from task to task to task as you might imagine, you know, imagine all of us when we're 17 with a device at our fingertips that allows us instant entertainment.

  • 12:36:02

    RICHTELWell, what researchers told me is that while they are experiencing many of the things that we, as adults, are experiencing, there maybe an aspect of it that is more profound and even more troubling. Because as the brain is developing, it not only gets habituated, as Larry suggests here to the fast-twitch experience, but it actually maybe wired differently. Now, this research is very early on. But here's how it gets built basically, the brain develops, this is not controversial, in response to its environment, much as muscles, say, get built in response to exercise. And when the brain is developing, if the parts of the brain that are called on to switch tasks all the time are constantly challenged and constantly pushed, those will get develop more so...

  • 12:36:58


  • 12:36:58

    RICHTEL...and the parts of the brain that are involved in focus will get developed less so at the expense of the fast twitch. Now, we can argue about whether that's good or bad. But at least what -- I mean, you and I can argue, the non-scientists, what some other researchers tell me is, we think this is bad. We think that we are not only challenging the ability of young people to focus in the moment but conceivably over the long term, because their brains are developing such that they are not able to focus as much. Now, I mentioned Michael Rich, this gentleman from Harvard, earlier. I said to him, "Dr. Rich, can you prove to me that the brains of young people are being wired differently?"

  • 12:37:44

    RICHTELAnd he said, "Can I prove it to you?" He said, "Well, I suppose, if you put it that way, I can't draw you a picture like that. No, I can't." But he said, "No, Matt. Neither can I prove to you in that, say, the way you mean it, that smoking causes lung cancer. We deduced this from lots of scientific information." He said, "I'm comfortable as a pediatrician at this point and a head of this institute to tell parents, disconnect yourself, get your kids to disconnect, because there is ample enough evidence that this affects the way your kids learn now and tomorrow, that it's worth their time to be focusing on focusing and not on task switching."

  • 12:38:22

    NNAMDII'm glad you said that in response to Larry, because I was wondering why kids' so-called digital native seem so much more drawn to technology. We got this e-mail from Ayisha from Burkittsville, who says, "I'm hoping to hear your guest comment on the importance of this discussion with relation to early childhood brain development. My young son is in the Waldorf School, where there's a very strong stance on keeping children away from technology until they are older, not only no TV, but no computers or smart phones, et cetera. I've also read about the importance of boredom for young children in particular. Is there a concern that what creates this dependence on technology in adults can actually adversely affect the brain development of young children, whose brains are still being wired, so to speak?"

  • 12:39:12

    RICHTELYeah. I mean that's very well asked. And I think I hit on some of it...

  • 12:39:17


  • 12:39:17

    RICHTEL...and I'm gonna be a little counterintuitive here and give you -- because it is worth noting the other side of the story, if you will, which is that students are also learning great technological proficiency. I mentioned the main character in the story, Vishal Singh. His grades have suffered. He is having trouble focusing on traditional learning. He is also a talented digital filmmaker, who can sit in his computer for hours and use sophisticated editing software. Now, you might say, well, that sounds like he's focusing. And he absolutely is. What he is doing in when he is focusing on his editing software is he is constantly clicking with his mouth -- mouse, clicking and switching, clicking and switching, the screen changes. He gets immediate gratification. What he described to me is I can learn on something that I'm interested in, but I also like learning in a forum with a medium that gives me instant feedback and immediate gratification.

  • 12:40:14

    RICHTELSo, just to answer the letter writer's question, I did so, in part, previously by saying, yes, there is evidence it harms brain development. There's also evidence, anecdotal and otherwise, the technological proficiency thrives. And young people will tell you, look, don’t be a curmudgeon. I can make this technology work for me. I can be creative in a way you were with pen and pencil with this new technology. And that is a balance that educators are very much trying to draw. May I just throw out one other bit of...

  • 12:40:47


  • 12:40:47

    RICHTEL...pertinent research? I don't wanna be too long-winded here.

  • 12:40:51

    NNAMDIYes, please go ahead.

  • 12:40:52

    RICHTELOkay. So, just one other thing -- one other bit of research along these lines with regard to kids: Researchers at Duke and actually in Romania as well did studies that showed similar results with regard to what happens to grades when kids get computers in the home. Specifically in the Duke study, they looked at low-income kids over the course of about three years, I think in North Carolina -- don't quote me on that. But you can find the study -- I think Jacob Vigdor was the scientist. And they found the grades dropped, interestingly enough over a several year period, when low-income kids got computers.

  • 12:41:31

    RICHTELNow, the operative thing here that the researchers told me was not that the kids were low-income, it was that oftentimes that correlated with the parents having to work and not being around and not monitoring how the computer were used. And what it turned out was that the computer was used largely for entertainment and not for learning. And so, the computer itself seems to be neither good nor bad, but how it gets used can be very good or very bad depending on how you look at the world in terms of creating grades, learning, analytical skills, creativity, or the reverse, you know, mindlessness.

  • 12:42:09

    NNAMDIAnd Larry, thank you very much for your call. We're gonna take a short break. But before we do, we got this e-mail from Anne who said, "I think it's comical that in prior years all you had to do for us to contact you was give you a phone number. Now, before every break you give a phone number, an e-mail address, a Twitter and Facebook link. How much time are we all wasting on listing all these ways of communication?"

  • 12:42:31

    NNAMDIAllow me tell you a story about the sportscaster who was criticized by his boss because he spent too much time telling you about what happened in all the basketball games. And so, the boss said, why don't you just give out the scores. And at the end of -- during his sportscast he simply said, okay, here are the NBA scores tonight, 78-54, 94-73, 83-74. No, we give out all these things, Anne, because frankly people don’t only use the telephone to communicate anymore. So here it is, you can send us an e-mail to kojo@wamu.org, send us a tweet @kojoshow. Join the conversation at our website, kojoshow.org, and just for you Anne, call us at 800-433-8850. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

  • 12:45:08

    NNAMDIIt's Tech Tuesday. We're discussing your "Brain on Computers" from the series by the same name in The New York Times by technology reporter Matt Richtel. He joins us from the studios of KQED in San Francisco. You can find a link to that series at our website kojoshow.org. It explores the effect of communications technology on the brain. And Matt joins us for the rest of this hour. Matt, before I get back to the telephones, when it comes to digital media and the brain, not all the versions are created equal. You cite an interesting study from Germany about video games and TV. Can you talk about what researchers at German Sports University in Cologne found out?

  • 12:45:47

    RICHTELYeah, yeah. Really interesting stuff. They looked at 12- to 14-year-old boys and they looked at -- each night, they had the boys spend on alternate nights an hour playing video games after they did their homework. And then on the other nights, they had them watch a movie, an exciting movie like "Harry Potter." And they studied two things in these boys to compare what was happening with regard to the different media. One was sleep patterns, and the other was how well they remembered their homework. And what they found was in both cases that the users of video games -- in the case of video games -- were less good at sleeping than kids -- sorry, they had -- they showed worse in sleep patterns than kids who watched the exciting movie or kids who did nothing. And they showed less ability to remember vocabulary words in the homework that they done.

  • 12:46:40

    RICHTELNow, the researchers said to me, we can't be sure that the deficit in homework was caused by either the lower sleep patterns because, as you may intuitively know, you sleep less well, you remember less well, or whether it was caused by the video games per se. But the researcher, who's now at Harvard, speculated to me, I have reason to believe that the heavy, interactive, intense nature of the video games effectively overrode the memory learning that had been done in the homework just prior. And that dovetails with some of the research that I mentioned earlier. Can I just -- Kojo, can I mention one thing about the woman who wrote, Ann? And I loved your answer about the sport scores.

  • 12:47:25

    NNAMDIYes, you can.

  • 12:47:25

    RICHTELI just bet on the eight -- I had bet on the 87-78 game, and now I have no idea whether I won or lost. But I -- that wasn't my comment. My comment is, you know, it's interesting how, as individuals, we're fighting this. But also, as a society, we're all very much complicit in kind of creating this ultra connectivity. I mean, as a business, you know, albeit a non-profit, which the...

  • 12:47:52


  • 12:47:52

    RICHTEL...the radio station is, it feels compelled to connect with its viewers, let them -- let's look at the altruistic version -- give them many ways to connect. But on a more selfish way, you wanna brand yourself and get out to everyone. I know this myself because I've got another novel coming out in the spring, and my publisher is gonna want me to tweet and get on Facebook and do all these social media things that I know, for my own mental health, often very much strain me, I know from my research strains me. But I also know I have a very selfish interest in getting -- becoming part of the maelstrom so as not to be left behind. And you can see where...

  • 12:48:34


  • 12:48:34

    RICHTEL...as individuals we're struggling with this. As businesses and as individuals, we are also straining to rise above the fray and get our attention...

  • 12:48:44


  • 12:48:44

    RICHTEL...that we believe we deserve as first-borns, let's say.

  • 12:48:49

    NNAMDIThat's exactly right. Matt Richtel is also a science fiction writer. Your new book got a name yet?

  • 12:48:55

    RICHTELNew -- "Devil's Plaything," a thriller, actually, and...

  • 12:48:59


  • 12:48:59

    RICHTEL...follows on my book "Hooked" out this May.

  • 12:49:01

    NNAMDI"Devil's Plaything." Can't wait for it to come out. Let's go now to Trisha in Washington, D.C. Trisha, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:49:10

    TRISHAOkay. I'm gonna try and stop eating 'cause I'm trying to multitask. I'm on my way to a meeting. But anyway...

  • 12:49:16

    NNAMDIMeeting, eating, calling. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:49:18

    TRISHAOkay. I've got three things, okay?

  • 12:49:21


  • 12:49:21

    TRISHAOne is my colleague, Professor Griffin (sp?) , said, there is no such thing as multitasking. He said what happens is, it happens in quick succession, so you don't notice it as much. Then, I said to myself last night, well, what would Einstein say? Well, I'm reading a book -- I just -- I'm in the middle of reading a book called "Einstein" by Walter Isaacson. It's a very good book. And, you know, he talks about quantum theory in great detail because that was one of Einstein's main pet peeve.

  • 12:49:53


  • 12:49:54

    TRISHAHere's the next thing.

  • 12:49:56

    NNAMDIWell, before you get to the next thing, I don't know what Einstein would say. But here's what Plato said. We got this e-mail from Patrick in Washington, who says, "I doubt whether boredom is good. But according to Plato, leisure, from which we get school, is the highest good. And since the purpose of this leisure is contemplation, maybe Plato intends by it what your guest intends by downtime, a time for consolidating and organizing thought."

  • 12:50:22

    RICHTELYes. And before you go to points two and three, I love how organized your call is. Thank you for that.

  • 12:50:26

    NNAMDIOh, yeah. (laugh)

  • 12:50:27

    RICHTELLet me just say yes. There -- you're absolutely right. There is a myth of multitasking. We do not multitask. The brain process is a single stream of information at a time. And here's the simple test researchers gave me. If you wanna test this yourself, go to a cocktail party, talk to -- try to listen to the conversation you're in the middle of while also listening to the conversation behind you. The best you can do is switch rapidly back and forth. If you wanna try this at home, watch TV and try to read a book. You can only do one or the other. With regard to Einstein, people have actually brought up to me and said, you know, he took these long walks on the river or wherever when he was working on his theories of relativity. He was letting his mind wander.

  • 12:51:07

    TRISHAYes, he was, because the mind does need a break. Now here's the next thing. Goldman, who is into quantum healing -- he calls his idea quantum leaping -- he says there exist several universes and we can jump from one to the next simultaneously, meaning things happening at the same time. So the word that popped into my head was matrix. Matrix, a very complicated...

  • 12:51:42

    NNAMDIGoldman, quantum healing, matrix -- does this say anything to you?

  • 12:51:45

    RICHTELWell, you know what? I can -- could I -- it -- I can -- I actually -- the matrix is an interesting image, and I will hit on -- is it okay if I hit on this caller?

  • 12:51:53

    NNAMDIYes, you can hit on this caller. Well, you can speak to this caller. You can't exactly hit on the caller.

  • 12:51:57

    RICHTELCan I speak -- (laugh) may I speak to the caller?

  • 12:51:59

    NNAMDIYou're married. You have children. You can't be hitting on callers. But go ahead, please.

  • 12:52:03

    RICHTELThe matrix is a very interesting way to see this. For those who haven't seen the movie, in "The Matrix," there's this image of a lot of ones and zeroes appearing. That is how -- that is the language of computers, binary language. Well, think now of lots of ones and zeroes coming at us all the time. That is one way I've actually kind of perceived, as I've thought about this series, what's happening. More so than ever, researchers tell me, we've got more information coming at us. More ones than zeroes that our brains are trying to absorb. Parallel universes, I don't know, but lots of ones and zeroes, yes.

  • 12:52:43

    NNAMDIThank you very much for your call, Trisha. We go onto J.D. in Kensington, Md. J.D., you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:52:52

    J.D.Hi, guys. Great show. I was calling because I have a very personal take on this. I'm 40 years old, married, two kids and last year I was diagnosed with ADD. But my -- I had already learned about the way my mind works. Twenty years prior, I was in college and had a lot of work to do, and I had to shut off the TV. I just couldn't take it. My mind got overwhelmed. And so, I learned way back then that I have to make some pretty hard choices about what kind of inputs I want going into my brain if I wanna maintain any focus. So my focus is more fragile than other people's. And it happened again a couple years ago. I have two little kids and realize that e-mail was overwhelming me in a rather significant way, which made it very difficult because people send very important information over e-mail, but sometimes I fail to follow through. That was hard.

  • 12:53:41

    J.D.And the point I wanted to make is that I think for the conversation you guys are having that I'm sort of a canary in a coal mine, because what's overwhelming me now, because I'm -- have a more fragile disposition regarding information and focus, is almost certainly gonna end up overwhelming people in the future, not that -- I'm not trying to say despair or anything like that, but that given our open system, all these companies and computer programs and TV, everything is getting more and more involved, more detailed, more explosive. And I think that if -- you know, your show is an indication to me that this is a point of contention. People are wondering if this is a big deal or not a big deal. I think it will become a big deal for everybody. What overwhelmed me since it keeps growing and growing and growing and getting more and more intense, and it can overwhelm everybody eventually.

  • 12:54:28

    NNAMDIWell, let's talk about this -- let's talk about it over a longer period of time, Matt Richtel, because we know that the brain develops in relation to our environment, but that is not quite the same thing as evolution, which happens over millennia. So what is happening with our brains? Some researchers have come to realize that the brain has something called plasticity. What does that mean?

  • 12:54:51

    RICHTELYeah. Until probably -- maybe a decade or two ago, researchers thought the brain was basically static. It developed in, you know, through your teens and early 20's and then it was done. Well, now, they understand that it continues to change with regard to your environment. There's lots of science now that makes that unequivocal. But that is different than evolution as you described. Evolution might be, you know, you have two hippocampi that make this -- make up your hippocampus. Evolution would be if there were, you know, a third or if the two lobes of the brain became three. That's evolution.

  • 12:55:34

    RICHTELPlasticity is -- are different parts of the brain being reinforced at the expense of other parts not to an irrelevant degree, but not to the degree where some new lobe develops. That's what they mean by plasticity. And that's what they believe is happening, not just with regard to technology, but to lots of aspects of our environment. And I find little doubt among -- a little controversy as, it was the word your caller used, about whether the brain is plastic. There is a pretty heavy debate going on now about how heavily technology bends that plastic. And that's what we're amidst now. I think a growing body of research says the bending is at least measurable, and that's a far cry from what we thought even five years ago.

  • 12:56:25

    NNAMDIWell, J.D.'s call seems to suggest that A, not only is he the canary in the coal mine, but that what his signals are giving off is that we are heading for a point where they'll be no more plasticity and the thing, our brain, will just break.

  • 12:56:42

    RICHTELWell, I see no evidence of that. I hesitated there, which is the first time I've caught my breath all day because (laugh) I know I can just ramble on...

  • 12:56:54

    NNAMDINo, it's not been rambled.

  • 12:56:54

    RICHTEL...but I hesitated because I'm not sure I know the answer to that or what break exactly means. But I would -- what his question struck in me was something I thought was very...

  • 12:57:07

    NNAMDIAnd we only have about 30 seconds left, Matt.

  • 12:57:10

    RICHTELThirty seconds left. I'll give you this little story. I heard one -- at one time, you know, it used to be considered very trendy to be tan. The rich people had time to get tan, and so they sat out in the fields. And then it switch -- sorry -- a long time ago, if you were tan, you were poor. You work in the fields. Then rich people got tan and then they realized being out in the sun wasn't good for them. I'm starting to wonder if having all these devices might seem really cool now, but over time, it might be the people who showed discipline or have the wherewithal somehow to disconnect who might be considered cooler than those who are on all the time. Maybe that will switch culturally as well.

  • 12:57:45

    NNAMDIFinally, we got this e-mail from Melanie in D.C. "When I sat down to listen at noon, I told myself that I took your comments about us not being able to last the hour without touching some technology as a challenge. Well, I lasted about 28 minutes. I switched from listening on my radio (laugh) to streaming from the NPR app on my iPhone and responded to three or four e-mails in the past 15 minutes." And I'm afraid that's all the time we have, except we got this from Andrew, Matt. "Falsity is a word. It means the quality or condition of being false." (laugh) So you were correct. Matt Richtel, thank you so much for joining us.

  • 12:58:16

    RICHTELThank you.

  • 12:58:17

    NNAMDIMatt is a technology reporter with The New York Times, who's been working on the series "Your Brain on Computers." You can find a link to it at our website, kojoshow.org. Thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

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