SAN FRANCISCO — It’s 1 p.m. on a Thursday and Dianne Bates, 40,
juggles three screens. She listens to a few songs on her iPod, then taps out a
quick e-mail on her iPhone and turns her attention to the high-definition
Just another day at the gym.
As Ms. Bates multitasks, she is also churning her legs in fast loops on an
elliptical machine in a downtown fitness center. She is in good company. In gyms
and elsewhere, people use phones and other electronic devices to get work done —
and as a reliable antidote to boredom.
Cellphones, which in the last few years have become full-fledged computers with
high-speed Internet connections, let people relieve the tedium of exercising,
the grocery store line, stoplights or lulls in the dinner conversation.
The technology makes the tiniest windows of time entertaining, and potentially
productive. But scientists point to an unanticipated side effect: when people
keep their brains busy with digital input, they are forfeiting downtime that
could allow them to better learn and remember information, or come up with new
Ms. Bates, for example, might be clearer-headed if she went for a run outside,
away from her devices, research suggests.
At the University of California, San Francisco, scientists have found that when
rats have a new experience, like exploring an unfamiliar area, their brains show
new patterns of activity. But only when the rats take a break from their
exploration do they process those patterns in a way that seems to create a
persistent memory of the experience.
The researchers suspect that the findings also apply to how humans learn.
“Almost certainly, downtime lets the brain go over experiences it’s had,
solidify them and turn them into permanent long-term memories,” said Loren
Frank, assistant professor in the department of physiology at the university,
where he specializes in learning and memory. He said he believed that when the
brain was constantly stimulated, “you prevent this learning process.”
At the University of Michigan, a study found that people learned significantly
better after a walk in nature than after a walk in a dense urban environment,
suggesting that processing a barrage of information leaves people fatigued.
Even though people feel entertained, even relaxed, when they multitask while
exercising, or pass a moment at the bus stop by catching a quick video clip,
they might be taxing their brains, scientists say.
“People think they’re refreshing themselves, but they’re fatiguing themselves,”
said Marc Berman, a University of Michigan neuroscientist.
Regardless, there is now a whole industry of mobile software developers
competing to help people scratch the entertainment itch. Flurry, a company that
tracks the use of apps, has found that mobile games are typically played for 6.3
minutes, but that many are played for much shorter intervals. One popular game
that involves stacking blocks gets played for 2.2 minutes on average.
Today’s game makers are trying to fill small bits of free time, said Sebastien
de Halleux, a co-founder of PlayFish, a game company owned by the industry giant
“Instead of having long relaxing breaks, like taking two hours for lunch, we
have a lot of these micro-moments,” he said. Game makers like Electronic Arts,
he added, “have reinvented the game experience to fit into micro-moments.”
Many business people, of course, have good reason to be constantly checking
their phones. But this can take a mental toll. Henry Chen, 26, a self-employed
auto mechanic in San Francisco, has mixed feelings about his BlackBerry habits.
“I check it a lot, whenever there is downtime,” Mr. Chen said. Moments earlier,
he was texting with a friend while he stood in line at a bagel shop; he stopped
only when the woman behind the counter interrupted him to ask for his order.
Mr. Chen, who recently started his business, doesn’t want to miss a potential
customer. Yet he says that since he upgraded his phone a year ago to a
feature-rich BlackBerry, he can feel stressed out by what he described as
internal pressure to constantly stay in contact.
“It’s become a demand. Not necessarily a demand of the customer, but a demand of
my head,” he said. “I told my girlfriend that I’m more tired since I got this
In the parking lot outside the bagel shop, others were filling up moments with
their phones. While Eddie Umadhay, 59, a construction inspector, sat in his car
waiting for his wife to grocery shop, he deleted old e-mail while listening to
news on the radio. On a bench outside a coffee house, Ossie Gabriel, 44, a nurse
practitioner, waited for a friend and checked e-mail “to kill time.”
Crossing the street from the grocery store to his car, David Alvarado pushed his
2-year-old daughter in a cart filled with shopping bags, his phone pressed to
He was talking to a colleague about work scheduling, noting that he wanted to
steal a moment to make the call between paying for the groceries and driving.
“I wanted to take advantage of the little gap,” said Mr. Alvarado, 30, a
facilities manager at a community center.
For many such people, the little digital asides come on top of heavy use of
computers during the day. Take Ms. Bates, the exercising multitasker at the
expansive Bakar Fitness and Recreation Center. She wakes up and peeks at her
iPhone before she gets out of bed. At her job in advertising, she spends all day
in front of her laptop.
But, far from wanting a break from screens when she exercises, she says she
couldn’t possibly spend 55 minutes on the elliptical machine without “lots of
things to do.” This includes relentless channel surfing.
“I switch constantly,” she said. “I can’t stand commercials. I have to flip
around unless I’m watching ‘Project Runway’ or something I’m really into.”
Some researchers say that whatever downside there is to not resting the brain,
it pales in comparison to the benefits technology can bring in motivating people
“Exercise needs to be part of our lives in the sedentary world we’re immersed
in. Anything that helps us move is beneficial,” said John J. Ratey, associate
clinical professor of psychiatry at the Harvard Medical School and author of
“Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain.”
But all things being equal, Mr. Ratey said, he would prefer to see people do
their workouts away from their devices: “There is more bang for your buck doing
it outside, for your mood and working memory.”
Of the 70 cardio machines on the main floor at Bakar Fitness, 67 have
televisions attached. Most of them also have iPod docks and displays showing
workout performance, and a few have games, like a rope-climbing machine that
shows an animated character climbing the rope while the live human does so too.
A few months ago, the cable TV went out and some patrons were apoplectic. “It
was an uproar. People said: ‘That’s what we’re paying for,’ ” said Leeane
Jensen, 28, the fitness manager.
At least one exerciser has a different take. Two stories up from the main floor,
Peter Colley, 23, churns away on one of the several dozen elliptical machines
without a TV. Instead, they are bathed in sunlight, looking out onto the pool
and palm trees.
“I look at the wind on the trees. I watch the swimmers go back and forth,” Mr.
Colley said. “I usually come here to clear my head.”
CANBERRA (Reuters) - The Internet is not just changing the way
people live but altering the way our brains work with a neuroscientist arguing
this is an evolutionary change which will put the tech-savvy at the top of the
new social order.
Gary Small, a neuroscientist at UCLA in California who specializes in brain
function, has found through studies that Internet searching and text messaging
has made brains more adept at filtering information and making snap decisions.
But while technology can accelerate learning and boost creativity it can have
drawbacks as it can create Internet addicts whose only friends are virtual and
has sparked a dramatic rise in Attention Deficit Disorder diagnoses.
Small, however, argues that the people who will come out on top in the next
generation will be those with a mixture of technological and social skills.
"We're seeing an evolutionary change. The people in the next generation who are
really going to have the edge are the ones who master the technological skills
and also face-to-face skills," Small told Reuters in a telephone interview.
"They will know when the best response to an email or Instant Message is to talk
rather than sit and continue to email."
In his newly released fourth book "iBrain: Surviving the Technological
Alteration of the Modern Mind," Small looks at how technology has altered the
way young minds develop, function and interpret information.
Small, the director of the Memory & Aging Research Center at the Semel Institute
for Neuroscience & Human Behavior and the Center on Aging at UCLA, said the
brain was very sensitive to the changes in the environment such as those brought
He said a study of 24 adults as they used the Web found that experienced
Internet users showed double the activity in areas of the brain that control
decision-making and complex reasoning as Internet beginners.
"The brain is very specialized in its circuitry and if you repeat mental tasks
over and over it will strengthen certain neural circuits and ignore others,"
"We are changing the environment. The average young person now spends nine hours
a day exposing their brain to technology. Evolution is an advancement from
moment to moment and what we are seeing is technology affecting our evolution."
Small said this multi-tasking could cause problems.
He said the tech-savvy generation, whom he calls "digital natives," are always
scanning for the next bit of new information which can create stress and even
damage neural networks.
"There is also the big problem of neglecting human contact skills and losing the
ability to read emotional expressions and body language," he said.
"But you can take steps to address this. It means taking time to cut back on
technology, like having a family dinner, to find a balance. It is important to
understand how technology is affecting our lives and our brains and take control
They are eerie sensations, more common than one might
think: A man describes feeling a shadowy figure standing behind him, then
turning around to find no one there. A woman feels herself leaving her body and
floating in space, looking down on her corporeal self.
Such experiences are often attributed by those who have them to paranormal
But according to recent work by neuroscientists, they can be induced by
delivering mild electric current to specific spots in the brain. In one woman,
for example, a zap to a brain region called the angular gyrus resulted in a
sensation that she was hanging from the ceiling, looking down at her body. In
another woman, electrical current delivered to the angular gyrus produced an
uncanny feeling that someone was behind her, intent on interfering with her
The two women were being evaluated for epilepsy surgery at University Hospital
in Geneva, where doctors implanted dozens of electrodes into their brains to
pinpoint the abnormal tissue causing the seizures and to identify adjacent areas
involved in language, hearing or other essential functions that should be
avoided in the surgery. As each electrode was activated, stimulating a different
patch of brain tissue, the patient was asked to say what she was experiencing.
Dr. Olaf Blanke, a neurologist at the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne
in Switzerland who carried out the procedures, said that the women had normal
psychiatric histories and that they were stunned by the bizarre nature of their
The Sept. 21 issue of Nature magazine includes an account by Dr. Blanke and his
colleagues of the woman who sensed a shadow person behind her. They described
the out-of-body experiences in the February 2004 issue of the journal Brain.
There is nothing mystical about these ghostly experiences, said Peter Brugger, a
neuroscientist at University Hospital in Zurich, who was not involved in the
experiments but is an expert on phantom limbs, the sensation of still feeling a
limb that has been amputated, and other mind-bending phenomena.
“The research shows that the self can be detached from the body and can live a
phantom existence on its own, as in an out-of-body experience, or it can be felt
outside of personal space, as in a sense of a presence,” Dr. Brugger said.
Scientists have gained new understanding of these odd bodily sensations as they
have learned more about how the brain works, Dr. Blanke said. For example,
researchers have discovered that some areas of the brain combine information
from several senses. Vision, hearing and touch are initially processed in the
primary sensory regions. But then they flow together, like tributaries into a
river, to create the wholeness of a person’s perceptions. A dog is visually
recognized far more quickly if it is simultaneously accompanied by the sound of
These multisensory processing regions also build up perceptions of the body as
it moves through the world, Dr. Blanke said. Sensors in the skin provide
information about pressure, pain, heat, cold and similar sensations. Sensors in
the joints, tendons and bones tell the brain where the body is positioned in
space. Sensors in the ears track the sense of balance. And sensors in the
internal organs, including the heart, liver and intestines, provide a readout of
a person’s emotional state.
Real-time information from the body, the space around the body and the
subjective feelings from the body are also represented in multisensory regions,
Dr. Blanke said. And if these regions are directly simulated by an electric
current, as in the cases of the two women he studied, the integrity of the sense
of body can be altered.
As an example, Dr. Blanke described the case of a 22-year-old student who had
electrodes implanted into the left side of her brain in 2004.
“We were checking language areas,” Dr. Blanke said, when the woman turned her
head to the right. That made no sense, he said, because the electrode was
nowhere near areas involved in the control of movement. Instead, the current was
stimulating a multisensory area called the angular gyrus.
Dr. Blanke applied the current again. Again, the woman turned her head to the
right. “Why are you doing this?” he asked.
The woman replied that she had a weird sensation that another person was lying
beneath her on the bed. The figure, she said, felt like a “shadow” that did not
speak or move; it was young, more like a man than a woman, and it wanted to
interfere with her.
When Dr. Blanke turned off the current, the woman stopped looking to the right,
and said the strange presence had gone away. Each time he reapplied the current,
she once again turned her head to try to see the shadow figure.
When the woman sat up, leaned forward and hugged her knees, she said that she
felt as if the shadow man was also sitting and that he was clasping her in his
arms. She said it felt unpleasant. When she held a card in her right hand, she
reported that the shadow figure tried to take it from her. “He doesn’t want me
to read,” she said.
Because the presence closely mimicked the patient’s body posture and position,
Dr. Blanke concluded that the patient was experiencing an unusual perception of
her own body, as a double. But for reasons that scientists have not been able to
explain, he said, she did not recognize that it was her own body she was
The feeling of a shadowy presence can occur without electrical stimulation to
the brain, Dr. Brugger said. It has been described by people who undergo sensory
deprivation, as in mountaineers trekking at high altitude or sailors crossing
the ocean alone, and by people who have suffered minor strokes or other
disruptions in blood flow to the brain.
Six years ago, another of Dr. Blanke’s patients underwent brain stimulation to a
different multisensory area, the angular gyrus, which blends vision with the
body sense. The patient experienced a complete out-of-body experience.
When the current flowed, she said: “I am at the ceiling. I am looking down at my
When the current ceased, she said: “I’m back on the table now. What happened?”
Further applications of the current returned the woman to the ceiling, causing
her to feel as if she were outside of her body, floating, her legs dangling
below her. When she closed her eyes, she had the sensation of doing sit-ups,
with her upper body approaching her legs.
Because the woman’s felt position in space and her actual position in space did
not match, her mind cast about for the best way to turn her confusion into a
coherent experience, Dr. Blanke said. She concluded that she must be floating up
and away while looking downward.
Some schizophrenics, Dr. Blanke said, experience paranoid delusions and the
sense that someone is following them. They also sometimes confuse their own
actions with the actions of other people. While the cause of these symptoms is
not known, he said, multisensory processing areas may be involved.
When otherwise normal people experience bodily delusions, Dr. Blanke said, they
are often flummoxed. The felt sensation of the body is so seamless, so familiar,
that people do not realize it is a creation of the brain, even when something
goes wrong and the brain is perturbed.
Yet the sense of body integrity is rather easily duped, Dr. Blanke said.
And while it may be tempting to invoke the supernatural when this body sense
goes awry, he said the true explanation is a very natural one, the brain’s
attempt to make sense of conflicting information.