[acb-hsp] Hooked on Gadgets, and Paying a Price
paltschul at centurytel.net
Tue Jun 8 12:33:57 GMT 2010
New York Times
June 6, 2010
Hooked on Gadgets, and Paying a Mental Price
By MATT RICHTEL
SAN FRANCISCO -- When one of the most important e-mail messages
of his life
landed in his in-box a few years ago, Kord Campbell overlooked
Not just for a day or two, but 12 days. He finally saw it
while sifting through
old messages: a big company wanted to buy his Internet start-up.
"I stood up from my desk and said, `Oh my God, oh my God, oh my
Campbell said. "It's kind of hard to miss an e-mail like that,
but I did."
The message had slipped by him amid an electronic flood: two
alive with e-mail, instant messages, online chats, a Web browser
computer code he was writing.
While he managed to salvage the $1.3 million deal after
apologizing to his
suitor, Mr. Campbell continues to struggle with the effects of
the deluge of
data. Even after he unplugs, he craves the stimulation he gets
electronic gadgets. He forgets things like dinner plans, and he
focusing on his family.
His wife, Brenda, complains, "It seems like he can no longer be
fully in the
This is your brain on computers.
Scientists say juggling e-mail, phone calls and other incoming
change how people think and behave. They say our ability to
focus is being
undermined by bursts of information.
These play to a primitive impulse to respond to immediate
threats. The stimulation provokes excitement -- a dopamine
squirt -- that
researchers say can be addictive. In its absence, people feel
The resulting distractions can have deadly consequences, as
cellphone-wielding drivers and train engineers cause wrecks. And
for millions of
people like Mr. Campbell, these urges can inflict nicks and cuts
and deep thought, interrupting work and family life.
While many people say multitasking makes them more productive,
otherwise. Heavy multitaskers actually have more trouble
focusing and shutting
out irrelevant information, scientists say, and they experience
And scientists are discovering that even after the multitasking
thinking and lack of focus persist. In other words, this is also
your brain off
"The technology is rewiring our brains," said Nora Volkow,
director of the
National Institute of Drug Abuse and one of the world's leading
scientists. She and other researchers compare the lure of
less to that of drugs and alcohol than to food and sex, which are
counterproductive in excess.
Technology use can benefit the brain in some ways, researchers
studies show the brains of Internet users become more efficient
information. And players of some video games develop better
More broadly, cellphones and computers have transformed life.
They let people
escape their cubicles and work anywhere. They shrink distances
countless mundane tasks, freeing up time for more exciting
For better or worse, the consumption of media, as varied as
e-mail and TV, has
exploded. In 2008, people consumed three times as much
information each day as
they did in 1960. And they are constantly shifting their
users at work change windows or check e-mail or other programs
nearly 37 times
an hour, new research shows.
The nonstop interactivity is one of the most significant shifts
ever in the
human environment, said Adam Gazzaley, a neuroscientist at the
California, San Francisco.
"We are exposing our brains to an environment and asking them
to do things we
weren't necessarily evolved to do," he said. "We know already
Mr. Campbell, 43, came of age with the personal computer, and
he is a heavier
user of technology than most. But researchers say the habits and
Mr. Campbell and his family typify what many experience -- and
what many more
will, if trends continue.
For him, the tensions feel increasingly acute, and the effects
harder to shake.
The Campbells recently moved to California from Oklahoma to
start a software
venture. Mr. Campbell's life revolves around computers.
He goes to sleep with a laptop or iPhone on his chest, and when
he wakes, he
goes online. He and Mrs. Campbell, 39, head to the tidy kitchen
four-bedroom hillside rental in Orinda, an affluent suburb of San
where she makes breakfast and watches a TV news feed in the
corner of the
computer screen while he uses the rest of the monitor to check
Major spats have arisen because Mr. Campbell escapes into
video games during
tough emotional stretches. On family vacations, he has trouble
putting down his
devices. When he rides the subway to San Francisco, he knows he
will be offline
221 seconds as the train goes through a tunnel.
Their 16-year-old son, Connor, tall and polite like his father,
received his first Cbs, which his family blames on distraction
from his gadgets.
Their 8-year-old daughter, Lily, like her mother, playfully
tells her father
that he favors technology over family.
"I would love for him to totally unplug, to be totally
engaged," says Mrs.
Campbell, who adds that he becomes bcrotchety until he gets his
fix." But she
would not try to force a change.
"He loves it. Technology is part of the fabric of who he is,"
she says. "If I
hated technology, I'd be hating him, and a part of who my son is
Mr. Campbell, whose given name is Thomas, had an early start
with technology in
Oklahoma City. When he was in third grade, his parents bought
him Pong, a video
game. Then came a string of game consoles and PC's, which he
learned to program.
In high school, he balanced computers, basketball and a romance
with Brenda, a
cheerleader with a gorgeous singing voice. He studied too, with
uninterrupted by e-mail. "I did my homework because I needed to
get it done," he
said. "I didn't have anything else to do."
He left college to help with a family business, then set up a
service. At night he would read, play video games, hang out with
Brenda and, as
she remembers it, "talk a lot more."
In 1996, he started a successful Internet provider. Then he
built the start-up
that he sold for $1.3 million in 2003 to LookSmart, a search
Mr. Campbell loves the rush of modern life and keeping up with
information. "I want to be the first to hear when the aliens
land," he said,
laughing. But other times, he fantasizes about living in pioneer
things moved more slowly: "I can't keep everything in my head."
No wonder. As he came of age, so did a new era of data and
At home, people consume 12 hours of media a day on average,
when an hour spent
with, say, the Internet and TV simultaneously counts as two
hours. That compares
with five hours in 1960, say researchers at the University of
Diego. Computer users visit an average of 40 Web sites a day,
research by RescueTime, which offers time-management tools.
As computers have changed, so has the understanding of the
human brain. Until 15
years ago, scientists thought the brain stopped developing after
they understand that its neural networks continue to develop,
things like learning skills.
So not long after Eyal Ophir arrived at Stanford in 2004, he
heavy multitasking might be leading to changes in a
characteristic of the brain
long thought immutable: that humans can process only a single
information at a time.
Going back a half-century, tests had shown that the brain could
two streams, and could not simultaneously make decisions about
them. But Mr.
Ophir, a student-turned-researcher, thought multitaskers might
themselves to handle the load.
His passion was personal. He had spent seven years in Israeli
being weeded out of the air force -- partly, he felt, because he
was not a good
multitasker. Could his brain be retrained?
Mr. Ophir, like others around the country studying how
technology bent the
brain, was startled by what he discovered.
The Myth of Multitasking
The test subjects were divided into two groups: those classified
multitaskers based on their answers to questions about how they
and those who were not.
In a test created by Mr. Ophir and his colleagues, subjects at
a computer were
briefly shown an image of red rectangles. Then they saw a
similar image and were
asked whether any of the rectangles had moved. It was a simple
task until the
addition of a twist: blue rectangles were added, and the subjects
were told to
ignore them. (Play a game testing how well you filter out
The multitaskers then did a significantly worse job than the
recognizing whether red rectangles had changed position. In
other words, they
had trouble filtering out the blue ones -- the irrelevant
So, too, the multitaskers took longer than non-multitaskers to
tasks, like differentiating vowels from consonants and then odd
numbers. The multitaskers were shown to be less efficient at
(Play a game testing how well you switch between tasks.)
Other tests at Stanford, an important center for research in this
field, showed multitaskers tended to search for new information
accept a reward for putting older, more valuable information to
Researchers say these findings point to an interesting dynamic:
seem more sensitive than non-multitaskers to incoming
The results also illustrate an age-old conflict in the brain,
technology may be intensifying. A portion of the brain acts as a
helping a person focus and set priorities. More primitive parts
of the brain,
like those that process sight and sound, demand that it pay
attention to new
information, bombarding the control tower when they are
Researchers say there is an evolutionary rationale for the
pressure this barrage
puts on the brain. The lower-brain functions alert humans to
danger, like a
nearby lion, overriding goals like building a hut. In the modern
chime of incoming e-mail can override the goal of writing a
business plan or
playing catch with the children.
"Throughout evolutionary history, a big surprise would get
thinking," said Clifford Nass, a communications professor at
we've got a large and growing group of people who think the
slightest hint that
something interesting might be going on is like catnip. They
can't ignore it."
Mr. Nass says the Stanford studies are important because they
multitasking's lingering effects: "The scary part for guys like
Kord is, they
can't shut off their multitasking tendencies when they're not
Melina Uncapher, a neurobiologist on the Stanford team, said
she and other
researchers were unsure whether the muddied multitaskers were
simply prone to
distraction and would have had trouble focusing in any era. But
she added that
the idea that information overload causes distraction was
supported by more and
A study at the University of California, Irvine, found that
by e-mail reported significantly increased stress compared with
those left to
focus. Stress hormones have been shown to reduce short-term
memory, said Gary
Small, a psychiatrist at the University of California, Los
Preliminary research shows some people can more easily juggle
information streams. These "supertaskers" represent less than 3
percent of the
population, according to scientists at the University of Utah.
Other research shows computer use has neurological advantages.
studies, Dr. Small observed that Internet users showed greater
than nonusers, suggesting they were growing their neural
At the University of Rochester, researchers found that players
fast-paced video games can track the movement of a third more
objects on a
screen than nonplayers. They say the games can improve reaction
and the ability
to pick out details amid clutter.
"In a sense, those games have a very strong both rehabilitative
power," said the lead researcher, Daphne Bavelier, who is working
with others in
the field to channel these changes into real-world benefits like
There is a vibrant debate among scientists over whether
on behavior and the brain is good or bad, and how significant it
"The bottom line is, the brain is wired to adapt," said Steven
professor of brain sciences at Johns Hopkins University.
"There's no question
that rewiring goes on all the time," he added. But he said it
was too early to
say whether the changes caused by technology were materially
others in the past.
Mr. Ophir is loath to call the cognitive changes bad or good,
though the impact
on analysis and creativity worries him.
He is not just worried about other people. Shortly after he
came to Stanford, a
professor thanked him for being the one student in class paying
and not using a computer or phone. But he recently began using
an iPhone and
noticed a change; he felt its pull, even when playing with his
"The media is changing me," he said. "I hear this internal
ping that says: check
e-mail and voice mail." "I have to work to suppress it."
Kord Campbell does not bother to suppress it, or no longer can.
Interrupted by a Corpse
It is a Wednesday in April, and in 10 minutes, Mr. Campbell has
conference call that could determine the fate of his new venture,
It makes software that helps companies understand the clicking
patterns of their online customers.
Mr. Campbell and his colleagues, each working from a home
frantically trying to set up a program that will let them share
executives at their prospective partner.
But at the moment when Mr. Campbell most needs to focus on
that urgent task,
something else competes for his attention: "Man Found Dead Inside
That is the tweet that appears on the left-most of Mr.
Campbell's array of
monitors, which he has expanded to three screens, at times adding
a laptop and
On the left screen, Mr. Campbell follows the tweets of 1,100
people, along with
instant messages and group chats. The middle monitor displays a
filled with computer code, along with Skype, a service that
allows Mr. Campbell
to talk to his colleagues, sometimes using video. The monitor on
the right keeps
e-mail, a calendar, a Web browser and a music player.
Even with the meeting fast approaching, Mr. Campbell cannot
resist the tweet
about the corpse. He clicks on the link in it, glances at the
dismisses it. "It's some article about something somewhere," he
says, annoyed by
the ads for jeans popping up.
The program gets fixed, and the meeting turns out to be
fruitful: the partners
>every ready to do business. A colleague says via instant
Other times, Mr. Campbell's information juggling has taken a
more serious toll.
A few weeks earlier, he once again overlooked an e-mail message
prospective investor. Another time, Mr. Campbell signed the
company up for the
wrong type of business account on Amazonddcom, costing $300 a
month for six
months before he got around to correcting it. He has burned
hamburgers on the
grill, forgotten to pick up the children and lingered in the
video games on an iPhone.
Mr. Campbell can be unaware of his own habits. In a
two-and-a-half hour stretch
one recent morning, he switched rapidly between e-mail and
programs, according to data from RescueTime, which monitored his
with his permission. But when asked later what he was doing in
that period, Mr.
Campbell said he had been on a long Skype call, and "may have
pulled up an
e-mail or two."
The kind of disconnection Mr. Campbell experiences is not an
problem, of course. As they did in earlier eras, people can
become so lost in
work, hobbies or TV that they fail to pay attention to family.
Mr. Campbell concedes that, even without technology, he may
work or play
obsessively, just as his father immersed himself in crossword
puzzles. But he
says this era is different because he can multitask anyplace,
"Itbs a mixed blessing," he said. "If you're not careful, your
marriage can fall
apart or your kids can be ready to play and you'll get
The Toll on Children
Father and son sit in armchairs. Controllers in hand, they
engage in a fierce
video game battle, displayed on the nearby flat-panel TV, as Lily
They are playing Super Smash Bros. Brawl, a cartoonish
animated fight between
characters that battle using anvils, explosives and other
"Kill him, Dad," Lily screams. To no avail. Connor regularly
beats his father,
prompting expletives and, once, a thrown pillow. But there is
bonding and mutual
"He's a lot more tactical," says Connor. "But I'm really good
Screens big and small are central to the Campbell family's
leisure time. Connor
and his mother relax while watching TV shows like "Heroes." Lily
has an iPod
Touch, a portable DVD player and her own laptop, which she uses
to watch videos,
listen to music and play games.
Lily, a second-grader, is allowed only an hour a day of
unstructured time, which
she often spends with her devices. The laptop can consume her.
"When she's on it, you can holler her name all day and she
won't hear," Mrs.
Researchers worry that constant digital stimulation like this
problems for children with brains that are still developing, who
struggle to set priorities and resist impulses.
Connor's troubles started late last year. He could not focus
on homework. No
wonder, perhaps. On his bedroom desk sit two monitors, one with
collection, one with Facebook and Reddit, a social site with news
links that he
and his father love. His iPhone availed him to relentless
texting with his
When he studied, "a little voice would be saying, `Look upb at
the computer, and
I'd look up," Connor said. "Normally, I'd say I want to only
read for a few
minutes, but I'd search every corner of Reddit and then check
His Web browsing informs him. "He's a fact hound," Mr. Campbell
is, other than programming, extremely technical. He's 100
But the parents worry too. "Connor is obsessed," his mother
said. "Kord says we
have to teach him balance."
So in January, they held a family meeting. Study time now
takes place in a group
setting at the dinner table after everyone has finished eating.
It feels, Mr.
Campbell says, like togetherness.
For spring break, the family rented a cottage in Carmel, Calif.
hoped everyone would unplug.
But the day before they left, the iPad from Apple came out, and
snapped one up. The next night, their first on vacation, "We
didn't go out to
dinner," Mrs. Campbell mourned. "We just sat there on our
She rallied the troops the next day to the aquarium. Her
husband joined them for
a bit but then begged out to do e-mail on his phone.
Later she found him playing video games.
The trip came as Mr. Campbell was trying to raise several
million dollars for
his new venture, a goal that he achieved. Brenda said she
understood that his
pursuit required intensity but was less understanding of the
in video game.
His behavior brought about a discussion between them. Mrs.
Campbell said he told
her that he was capable of logging off, citing a trip to Hawaii
ago that they called their second honeymoon.
"What trip are you thinking about?" she said she asked him.
She recalled that he
had spent two hours a day online in the hotel's business center.
On Thursday, their fourth day in Carmel, Mr. Campbell spent
the day at the beach
with his family. They flew a kite and played whiffle ball.
Connor unplugged too. "It changes the mood of everything when
present," Mrs. Campbell said.
The next day, the family drove home, and Mr. Campbell
disappeared into his
Technology use is growing for Mrs. Campbell as well. She
divides her time
between keeping the books of her husband's company, homemaking
and working at
the school library. She checks e-mail 25 times a day, sends
texts and uses
Recently, she was baking peanut butter cookies for Teacher
Appreciation Day when
her phone chimed in the living room. She answered a text, then
became lost in
Facebook, forgot about the cookies and burned them. She started
a new batch, but
heard the phone again, got lost in messaging, and burned those
too. Out of
ingredients and shamed, she bought cookies at the store.
She feels less focused and has trouble completing projects.
Some days, she
promises herself she will ignore her device. "It's like a diet
-- you have good
intentions in the morning and then you're like, `There went
that,`" she said.
Mr. Nass at Stanford thinks the ultimate risk of heavy
technology use is that it
diminishes empathy by limiting how much people engage with one
another, even in
the same room.
"The way we become more human is by paying attention to each
other," he said.
"It shows how much you care."
That empathy, Mr. Nass said, is essential to the human
condition. "We are at an
inflection point," he said. "A significant fraction of people's
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