Brains and Information Technology

Among the studies summarized by Gary Small, a cognitive scientist who works at the University of California Los Angeles, and his coauthor Gigi Vorgan in the 2008 book iBrain: Surviving the Technological Modification of the Modern Mind, were several documenting the effects of technologies on human brains. They described research in which scientists measured a larger portion of the brain controlling the right hand in expert violin players compared to other expert musicians, and research that observed London taxi cab drivers have a greater part of their brain dedicated to controlling spatial visualization than control subjects.

Small and Vorgan (2008) even summarize Small’s own research in which he created images of subjects’ brains while they were performing ICT-based information tasks. The researchers compared the images made of experienced ICT users’ brains to images made of non-experienced ICT users’ brains. In the images from the tech-savvy group, the dorsallateral prefrontal cortex was more active than other parts of the brain. In the non-tech savvy individuals the dorsallateral prefrontal cortex was not active beyond what was observed in other parts of the brain. After the initial images were made, the non-tech savvy individuals were exposed to five hours of training and practice in using ICT-based information. Both groups then performed the ICT-based information task again, and the brain images of both groups showed elevated activity in the dorsallateral prefrontal cortex. This suggests that as little as five hours of exposure to digital media can cause a measurable change in how the brain functions.

Another factor arising from the ICT-rich 21st century that influences human brains is continuous partial attention (CPA) which is the term used to describe the condition that arises when one uses information technology (such as a smartphone) that provides access to multiple messaging systems on a single device and the individual pays attention to all of them simultaneously. These devices are commonly found in the pockets of students in public schools, and CPA arising from those devices can interfere with attention to instructional tasks. Continuously sensing the vibrations (or similar signals of arriving messages) can draw individuals’ attention from other tasks and contribute to cortisol-releasing stress. CPA has been associated with a decreased sense of control and with decreased levels of self-esteem (Ratey 2008). These effects have been associated with changes in the way the hippocampus, the part of the mid-brain associated with memory formation, functions.


Ratey, John. 2008. Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain. New York: Little, Brown and Company.

Small, Gary, and Gigi Vorgan. 2008. iBrain: Surviving the Technological Alteration of the Modern Mind. New York: Collins Living.