COUNSELLING

COGNITIVE AND LEARNING IMPAIRMENT

THERE IS A GROWING BODY OF EVIDENCE THAT INDICATES THAT EXCESSIVE USE OF MANY DIGITAL ACTIVITIES IMPAIRS THE ABILITY TO CONCENTRATE, THINK AND CONTROL IMPULSES.

These cognitive changes increase the likelihood of addictions. Children are especially susceptible to decreased reading skills and attention deficits. Many adults complain they are no longer able to read a book or engage in tasks that require concentration.

FOOD FOR THOUGHT

What we feed our brain, shapes our brain.

The fundamental mantra of neurobiology is “brain cells that fire together, wire together.” Recently, the brain has been shown to be “plastic.” That means that how we use our brain shapes the structure and pathways of our top organ. Our brain is most plastic when we are under six years-old. The greatest growth in our brain networks occurs at ages 12-20. Our brains continue to reconfigure after age 25, but what happens in those two critical developmental stages (early childhood, teens) sets the boundaries for how the brain is wired.

Between ages 12-25, the number of neural connections grows. At the same time, the brain eliminates connections that are not being used. If you use your mind for lots of different activities, a rich network matures. If you don’t read, ponder, think critically, challenge yourself socially, then the networks responsible for those functions down-size and your abilities to concentrate, pay attention, weigh evidence and control impulses decline.

Everyone knows that early childhood is a critical stage for personal and cognitive development. This is when language skills, attention function and imagination are fundamentally shaped. We know that talking and reading to your child and providing ample unstructured play time are crucial for cognitive development. A child may be occupied by a screen, but without a parent there to point and read and approve, learning is passive. And the child is not engaged in exploring its world, an essential activity in childhood social and cognitive development.

JUNK FOOD FOR THE BRAIN

We are not going to weigh you down with details of the anatomical changes caused in the brain by excessive screen use. The summary we present is based on research trials that either tested groups for cognitive functioning or used sophisticated brain imaging to measure the volume of grey matter and white matter, and levels of activation in parts of the brain.

The impacts on brain structure and chemistry from excessive gaming are the easiest to understand, and violent first-person shooter games easiest of all. In these games, the player is presented with a stream of threats and success in the game depends on the speed of the player’s reactions and the accuracy of manipulation of the controls.. This repetitive behaviour strengthens cognitive skills related to hand-eye coordination, reflex response and the processing of visual clues. These are relatively primitive skills that use the mid-brain and an area of the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex and the striatum, which coordinate rapid decisions with voluntary physical reactions: recognise and act. It is ironic that the use of modern technology is enhancing the types of skills that were needed in a world where survival depended on seeing the lion before it saw you. We should also point out this activity arouses the fight or flight brain-body systems, keeping you in a state of anxiety.

Almost all of the recreational uses of digital media, when excessive, cause changes in our cognitive brain circuits and functions. Stimuli presented in everything from information surfing to text messaging are repetitive, intense, interactive and addictive. As Nicolas Carr puts it, “[The Net] also turns us into lab rats constantly pressing levers to get tiny pellets of social or intellectual nourishment.”

The internet, or rather how its systems and apps are designed, promote shallow reading, cursory and fragmented learning, and most of all distraction. The internet is a distraction machine. At any time, there are a half-dozen or more apps vying for your attention. More subtly, when you read from a screen or information surf, your concentration is continuously interrupted by the need to make decisions about which hyperlink to engage. The result is effort and energy are siphoned off to making decisions about which link to click on. The momentary distraction interferes with absorbing meaning.

When we are “reading” on the web, our attention is powerfully distracted by personal messages, social media alerts, calendar reminders, ads tailored to our cyber-profile and the lure of many windows.

As a consequence of the distractions and rewards seeking, our brains operate in a relatively shallow level of meaning. Retention is poor. Our ability to sustain attention diminishes. It becomes difficult to read in the undistracted, absorbed mode that occurs when reading a book or linear text on a uni-medium platform (Kindle without hyperlinks). Studies show that the ability to read in the traditional fashion diminishes. The digital industry knows our attention spans are decreasing. A few years ago, website designers’ rule of thumb was the average viewer will spend 15 seconds on a page. In 2018, the standard is about 3-7 seconds. Not long ago, the rule was a promotional video should be no longer than 60 seconds. The standard is now 30 seconds. And, in that 30 seconds, there better be at least 15 different segments, or it is too slow and boring. Typically, there is no linear or story-telling order to segments. There is no time to connect a segment to your world of meaning. The pace is a numbing flash of images that, the theory goes, are registering in emotional centres of the mid-brain. And the pace keeps getting faster as our attention spans shorten–a classic negative reinforcement cycle. We are training our minds to skip like a stone or else sink.

Another effect of high-speed, low cognitive-calorie screen interaction is a reduction in impulse control. When we try to concentrate and read slowly enough to fit meaning into our mental frameworks and process it for intellectual nutrition, we discover our ability to focus is reduced. Another reinforcement cycle.

Internet gaming, pornography and texting/social media have similar cognitive repercussions, along with their specific physical, mental and social side effects.

Your brain is very active when you are info surfing, gaming and working your social media channels. It takes brain power and energy to do these activities. These are tiring activities. In our Screenality section we show how excessive activity may cause stress, exhaust your attention capabilities and make you irritable.

RECOMMENDED DIET

RECOMMEND YOUR DIET CONTAIN AT LEAST 60% DEEP READING AND PONDERING

How much time do you spend reading print publications? Or reading on a screen in absorbed, linear fashion? How much time do you spend thinking and reflecting on the puzzles of the universe or your own life?

The value in those activities is they strengthen your ability to think, making you truly knowledgeable, as opposed to a skimmer of knowledge and facts. They make you better at your job and more interesting at social gatherings. They restore the equilibrium in your brain and enrich your soul.

If you find it difficult to read a book or a magazine, it may be that the neural networks you use to concentrate and ponder are out of shape. There may be other reasons, such as attention deficit disorder. Attention disorders are exacerbated by high speed, short attention digital activity.

Fortunately, where attention or other cognitive disorders are absent (most of us), cognitive reconditioning will pump up your critical thinking and concentration pathways. Many computer activities utilize thinking power. When you use your computer for school or office work, there is a good chance you are reading/researching and writing in a cognitive mode that builds critical thinking, intuition and disciplined mental pathways. It is how you use digital media that matters. Flitting makes our thinking quick and shallow; focussing makes it ponder-ous and deep.

Individuals who have read little and surfed lots for an extended period will likely find reading difficult. There will be exceptions. Perhaps you are not doing absorbed reading, put you play chess or work regularly with spreadsheets that require precision. Any activity that requires you to concentrate and preserve attention strengthens your cognitive abilities.

For those who find reading or watching an instructional video difficult, the cure is analogous to returning to the gym after an absence. Start with light activity that you enjoy and work your way up. Read for five minutes about something that really interests you. Set a “work out” schedule beginning with 3 repetitions of 5-minute reads every day. As you find it easier, increase the repetitions by 5-minute increments.Your goal: able to sit in a comfortable chair and read a book or magazine for half an hour without distraction. Keep a diary of your reading times. Additionally, 15 or 30 minutes after your work out, spend a couple of minutes recalling everything you can about what you read. What/who was it about? What were the main themes, ideas or events.

Any exercise of your intellectual faculties will work to restore them. Some examples are board games, card games, writing a letter or story, completing your tax return. Set yourself up where there are few distractions and NO screens. It will only hurt for a little while. No pain, no gain.Our counsellors will assist you to return to cognitive fitness. It is about diet and exercise.

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