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Bruno Dubuc, Patrick Robert, Denis Paquet, and Al Daigen

Thursday, 18 June 2020
Our brains have not evolved to handle so many electronic inputs

For almost all of our long evolutionary history, we human beings have lived in calm, quiet natural settings such as the African savannah in the photo below. From time to time, our attention might have been caught by a slight movement in the distant grass, or by an unusual sound such as the cracking of a branch, because either one might have signified an animal that we could hunt for dinner, or one that was hunting us for its own dinner. To survive, we had to pay immediate attention to such unexpected stimuli. Those of us who didn’t because we were just a bit too relaxed didn’t survive long enough to pass our genes on to descendants.

As a result, all of the human beings who are alive today are descended from those individuals who were the most sensitive to such sudden stimuli from the outside world. Our brains are “wired” to pay attention to these stimuli. But the problem is that the world that we have been living in for the past decade or two, with the constant flood of incoming information from the Internet, e-mail and social media, is completely different from the one that shaped the brains that we must use to respond to it. This explains the problems of attention control that I’ll be discussing in a moment.

But first, I’d like to make a comparison to give you some sense of the length of time over which our brains evolved. Ironically, such long periods are hard for our brains to grasp precisely because they evolved so as to be comfortable with the human lifespan of a few decades, not with spans measured in millions of years. So here’s the comparison: suppose that every millennium of the Earth’s history had lasted just one second. This would mean that the first vertebrates (primitive fish) appeared just slightly more than 5 days ago, the first primates about 21 hours ago, the human genus Homo about 41 minutes and 40 seconds ago, and our human species Homo sapiens about 3 minutes and 20 seconds ago. The entire recorded history of humanity would have occurred in the last 5 to 6 seconds, out of the 5 days since vertebrate life began. And the advent of social networks on the Internet? A hundredth of a second ago, out of those same 5 days! No wonder then that our brains, which evolved in the calm of the African savannah, get a bit overexcited when they are being bombarded with “Likes” and text messages every 10 seconds.

Another aspect of this disconnect between brain evolution and modern life is the dependency that we develop on this constant stream of instantaneous rewards. For tens of millions of years, our brains have evolved so that if a given behaviour provides them with a reward, we tend to repeat that behaviour. Psychologists call this mechanism operant conditioning. It is a very old one, phylogenetically speaking, and in general, the older a mechanism is in evolutionary terms, the more powerful it is. When our brains first evolved, we might receive such rewards once or twice a day—for example, when we saw a certain colour of leaves that told us there were berries nearby that we could pick and eat. So it is terribly addicting to our brains when we can get a reward whenever we like, by using a simple one-finger “pull-to-refresh” gesture on our touchscreens to see whether we have received any new Facebook statuses, Likes, or other notifications in the past few seconds.

In an earlier post in French, I discussed a book that French cognitive neuroscientist Jean-Philippe Lachaux has written about how the human brain’s attention is constantly torn between things that help it to perform a task at hand and distractions in the outside world . In a post on Deric’s Mindblog, Professor Deric Bownds describes how he struggles with the specifically digital temptations that constantly distract him from more productive work. In this regard, Bownds refers to the concept of “continuous partial attention”—the mental state in which you are always thinking about all the various kinds of electronic attention-grabbers that you might be missing. Whenever you stop to glance at one, you are losing not only the time that it takes to do so, but also the several seconds that you will spend afterward trying to remember what task you had been working on. Also, mobile phones make you feel as if you have to be available to respond to such stimuli all the time, wherever you are, so that you have the vague feeling of no longer belonging to yourself, that you can never concentrate on anything 100%—not even the beauty of the trees as you walk through a park.

The experience of being fully available to complete a task, or to notice what is going on around you, or simply to think your own thoughts, feels great to anyone who rediscovers it. It is probably also part of what makes us feel so good on vacation, when we can slow our pace and adopt a different rhythm, often one more connected with nature (a feeling all too quickly lost after a few weeks back at work). One group of neuroscientists actually investigated this effect by going “cold-turkey” and heading off together on a week-long rafting trip without their cell phones or computers. And guess what? They found that they did indeed quickly feel more contemplative and capable of holding and exploring an idea in their minds for longer than when they also had to be answering 100 e-mails per day.

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