How Touchscreen Technology Updates the Brain

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Scientists at the University of Zurich have been studying how the brain is affected by smartphone use.

The results of their research validate the plasticity or changeability of our gray matter as we interact with our environment.

Two aspects of the smartphone made it an ideal tool for this brain research. First, smartphones have touchscreens, and touchscreens have caused people to frequently use their fingertips, especially their thumbs, in new ways. Second, a phone’s easily accessed digital history makes it possible to compare someone’s brain changes with their level of phone use.

“I think first we must appreciate how common personal digital devices are and how densely people use them,” said researcher Arko Ghosh. “What this means for us neuroscientists is that the digital history we carry in our pockets has an enormous amount of information on how we use our fingertips (and more).”

Touchscreens “Touch” the Brain

When compared to research participants that still used older-model cell phones (no touchscreen), areas of the brain associated with the thumb, middle and index fingertips showed heightened EEG activity in the smartphone users. Brain response related to the index finger and thumb rose in direct proportion to the smartphone user’s level of phone activity.

Alteration in neural firing with smartphone use implies that frequent and repetitive hand and finger movements over touchscreen surfaces adjusts the brain’s representation of an individual’s fingertips. It seems the sensory processing in our cortex is being continuously updated by our interaction with digital devices.

Though digital technology stimulates and reveals the malleability of our brain, the scientists also point out that our constant use of them is already causing some users to have neck, shoulder, and arm problems. Still, it is reassuring and motivating to know our brain is responsive and adaptable to our changing daily activity.

Just Wondering

Knowing of our brain’s sensitivity to touchscreens might make us wonder how our preference for keyboards over pen and paper is changing our brain, or cause us to consider the impact that regularly working with our hands has on mental health. It could generate wonder about what neural sparks holding someone’s hand sets off. It is sure to remind us how interrelated our inner and outer experience is, and that the world we live in shapes us.

Source: Science Daily
Photo credit: Highways Agency / flickr creative commons

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