Are our brains digitally enhanced?

Our brains, stuck somewhere on an evolutionary track between the instincts needed to navigate the forest and flipping burgers while thumbing through iPhone apps, have been yielding surprising results to researchers watching our adaptation to technology.

Our brains

Our brains

Our brains, stuck somewhere on an evolutionary track between the instincts needed to navigate the forest and flipping burgers while thumbing through iPhone apps, have been yielding surprising results to researchers watching our adaptation to technology.

One of the better illustrations came with a 2008 study from Japanese researchers who compared the ability of students to navigate on foot using either a GPS device or a traditional paper map.

Toru Ishikawa, a specialist in spatial-information science at the University of Tokyo, has spent a number of years studying the “maps that people carry in their heads,” noting a great deal of variation in how well people keep track of where they are.

Ishikawa and his colleagues found that GPS users who navigated urban routes made more stops, walked farther and more slowly than another group using paper maps. They also demonstrated poorer knowledge of terrain, topography and the routes they took when asked to draw a map after the walk.

But members of a third group — shown the route by a researcher before being asked to follow it on their own — outdid both digital- and paper-map followers in finding the way.

Ishikawa, in earlier studies, has found that having another person show you a path is superior to any sort of map. Other studies have demonstrated that drivers using GPS tend to find their way better than those using paper maps or following oral directions.

The Japanese scientist is one of many researchers — from psychologists to traffic engineers — who are wondering how digital tools affect our innate sense of direction, along with other senses.

Some, like UCLA psychiatrist Gary Small, argue that a generation whose social life is more digital than in-person may be losing touch with human sensibilities to facial expressions, body language — even verbal cues in the tone and pace of conversation.

Others worry that digital reading, Net surfing and quick bursts of content may ultimately impair people’s ability to read and process information at deeper levels. Studies on everything from Internet use to computer gaming have yielded mixed results on benefits — some show boosts in short-term memory, others have found no long-term gains.

Still, most brain experts agree that for humans to really learn and remember something, we need to focus on that topic with as few distractions as possible.

Of course, it’s been well-demonstrated that most of us do worse at driving, remembering things or doing math while talking on a cell phone. However, a recent study at the University of Utah found there are a small group of “supertaskers” out there — about 2.5 percent of a 200-person study group — who apparently really can multitask effectively.

Surveys of teens and young adults have found that many think they can readily multitask, but research shows that memory and learning suffer from multitasking even among the generation “born digital.”

The Utah researchers are now attempting to look for any differences in brain structure or function between identified supertaskers and the rest of us, and to see if the gift is genetic or somehow can be acquired. They also are studying a group of fighter pilots to see how many readily handle dual tasks.

University of Minnesota social-science professor Paul Rosenblatt suggests in a June article published in Family Science Review that the same factors that make driving while talking on the phone dangerous can also make for “distracted talking” that could put relationships in jeopardy.

Aside from the basic issues of poor service and garbled words, Rosenblatt said the divided attention is likely to cause a driver to talk more slowly, erratically or say things he doesn’t intend, wrecking a relationship even if he doesn’t wreck the car.

For instance, if a driver delays responding to something a loved one says because of a road distraction, “the person on the other end of the conversation may interpret the delayed reaction as an indicator of ambivalence, of not having a ready answer or hiding something,” Rosenblatt said.