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Is technology changing the neuropsychology of our brains?

Updated on July 6, 2016

Smartphones function as cameras at big events, but can also keep you from paying attention to others around you if you become too self absorbed

Sometimes recording the event become more important than being present at it.
Sometimes recording the event become more important than being present at it. | Source

Tablets and smartphones are a great way to capture moments as long as they do not become the focal point while excluding everything else around you.

How often do you spend time on technology devices like cell phones, tablets and computers?

Quick! How many electronic devices do you own? When you go on vacation or overnight trips do you have to carry a separate bag for all your devices, battery backups, chargers and storage cards? How often do you check your cell phone or tablet each day? Do you play one or more computer games, go to chat rooms, have a Facebook, SnapChat or Twitter account? If so, then you are one of billions who are most likely mildly or grossly "addicted" to technology and it may actually be changing the neurochemistry of your brain!

Research shows that the average teenager spends eight hours or more a day on their cell phone!

A recent report by CNN stated that the average teen spends nine hours a day on their cell phone and that they check social media sites up to 100 times a day. Other studies show that adults spend nearly half that amount of time on their phones and over a quarter say they look at their phones within five minutes of waking up in the morning with texting being high on the list of "must-dos" for adults and keeping track of what is going on around them being second.

For many people, updating their status is a bit like being a reality TV star. The more people that follow them, the more addictive it is to post photos and updates of what they are doing and who they are with. There is a real sense of feeling left out if they cannot connect with their friends, even friends they have only met online and not in person.

A few years ago, upon exiting the funeral of a young man who had died of an overdose, I was alarmed to see the number of attendees, mostly in their late teens and early twenties, queuing up on the side of the building to shakily light up cigarettes and reach for their cell phones as if the one hour they had spent inside where neither was socially acceptable to use, had taxed their addictions to the maximum length of endurance.

Mind you, it had been a moving experience with someone that young and that popular who had just gotten out of rehab to die so suddenly, but it seemed like something other than grief of loss was at play here. These young people were mentally if not physically addicted to nicotine as well as technology. They felt cut off from the world when they were not able to use their phones. Many of them tied their self worth and self importance to how many friends liked their posts or replied to comments and a vast majority of young girls posted provocative pictures of themselves, some literally asking if others thought they were pretty and others downright stating it themselves. I can honestly say I have never posted a picture of myself with the words, "aren't I gorgeous?" or "look at my six pack abs" not even in jest, but I have longed for someone to take a flattering picture of me at a social outing or event so they could post it, not to make others jealous, but to make me feel as if I actually had a life that wasn't so boring it would make most people feel sorry to be me.

The average adult spends about half as much time as teens on smartphones

In the spring of 2015, the Pew Research Center discovered that over 2/3s of adults owned smartphones and the vast majority used those phones to connect to the internet, especially low income phone owners who could not afford a home computer or internet connection outside school, work or the library:

Lower-income Americans also rely heavily on smartphones for going online – 13% of U.S. adults with an annual household income of less than $30,000 are smartphone-dependent, compared with 1% of those whose family household income is $75,000 or more.

Those percentages were rather interesting as one would think that the more money you had, the more likely you were to own and use a smartphone, but research shows the opposite to be true, but of course we all know people who have a good deal of money who are just as addicted to their phones as those who are on limited income.

Not surprisingly, younger adults are more likely to use smartphones than older adults, many of whom have old style flip phones they use for emergencies only, but more active adults who are still in the workplace often find life to be much easier with a smart phone where they can look up news, weather, traffic alerts, contact their children or parents and check emails while away from the desk.

Using a cell or smart phone as an asset to make life easier does not necessarily constitute an addiction to technology, but some adults ranging from mid-twenties and upward have actually begun to change behaviorally and prefer spending more time texting than talking to people, even those who are closest to them, which researchers are now discovering can lead to a breakup in marriages and actually change the neural activity of the brain which can lead to behaviors that mimic autism, Attention Deficit Disorder and even hyperactivity and depression.

Technology can prevent neurons from connecting and forming new relationships with people

Christina Leggett and Dr. Pieter Rossouw from the University of Queensland looked at how smart phone use interfered with couples bonding. The research looked at how focusing on technology, specifically personal technology like cell phones and tablets, caused a disconnect which prevented engagement in face-to-face interactions. They specifically looked at the neuropsychology of the brain and compared this disconnection with studies done with orphans and abandoned animals which had little to no contact with loving parents or caregivers and did not develop a trust bond.

A sample of 21 couples were asked to record their sense of safety, control, and attachment. Research previous to theirs showed that use of technology together as a couple (both looking at the same screen or playing a video game together) was linked to positive associations with a spouse, but when one spouse focused on a laptop to the exclusion of the other, it caused negative associations or a disconnect between the two. So while technology in itself is not a bad thing for relationships, technology that isolates and prevents meaningful face-to-face interactions is.

Leggett, C., & Rossouw, P. J. (2014). The impact of technology use on couple relationships: A neuropsychological perspective. International Journal of Neuropsychotherapy, 2(1), 44–99. doi: 10.12744/ijnpt.2014.0044-0099

The researchers pointed out that from the time we are born, we associate with other beings like us. We tend to feel safer in groups and have a sense of belonging. We learn social cues from observing others behaviors and learn to adapt or fit in almost any conditions in which we are placed.

Children learn not to yell and act unmannerly at church or in a solemn ceremony or presentation. Adults learn to moderate their language around young children or the elderly so as not to offend or frighten. When in other cultures, we learn that some things are not acceptable and if we want to fit in we have to learn to moderate previously learned behaviors. Yelling and stomping on the bleachers may work great at football and basketball games but would be frowned upon at dressage competitions or ballets!

Even non-human primates seek to connect with others in their group so that their chances of survival will increase. In order to learn how to adapt to various cultures and groups, we develop intricate connections of neurons in our brains. We have billions of neurons, so this leaves room for a LOT of connections!!!

The authors joke that neurons by nature are social themselves, shunning isolation and depending on their neighbors for survival. While purists might disagree with this comparison, it is true that neurons in our brain are capable of forming connections with other neurons creating neural pathways which allow us to do certain things without thinking, like pour a glass of milk while talking on a cell phone and walking from the refrigerator to the table.

Tests with macaque monkeys showed neurons firing in the prefrontal cortex of their brains when they performed a specific action. Other monkeys observing the test subject performing this action also had neurons in the same sections of their brains firing as if they were performing the task themselves. It's a bit like if you are watching a horse race or a basketball game and are sitting on the edge of your seat or mimicking the actions of the players even if you remain seated.

When you are on the computer or the phone, you cannot share these neuronal firings with friends or your spouse because you are not observing the same thing, so there is a disconnect between what you are feeling and what they perceive you as feeling.

When you are truly connected with someone, you think and feel the same way about things. You empathize with them. Couples that don't do things together, who don't look into each others eyes or share the same experiences with them tend to feel like the relationship is falling apart. They may not feel safe or connected anymore and this can lead to fear, anxiety and depression.

If you are doing things together on the phone or sharing information with each other or laughing together at a funny video, there seems to be no harm in that, but if you are distancing yourself from your spouse by getting overly absorbed in the internet, television or on-line chats or gaming, then it could lead to big problems and could even change the way the neurons in your brain make new connections, leading to attention deficit disorder where you can't focus or when you try to listen to someone you become uncomfortable and start tapping your foot or moving your hands or staring up at the ceiling as if you have better things to be doing than being bored by the conversation. If you do not have those connections in your brain, you are not going to have them in your personal life either so you have to practice being social and empathetic in order to become social and empathetic even if you don't think you are any good at it.

Humans need social interactions to grow as people even in adulthood

Anyone who has raised animals knows about imprinting. If you spend time with a newborn animal it will imprint on you and follow you as if you were its mom, but human children imprint too in a different but similar manner. Young babies learn to identify their parents by smell, sight, sound, touch and mannerisms. Most very young children can read facial expressions and learn to use them to get what they want from people. Tell a child he cannot have another cookie and watch for the sad eyes, the pouting lips, the quiver of the lips and the tears. Tell them no again, and watch the sadness turn to anger and knitted brows followed by the words, "you're mean!". Children learn quickly to use emotions and language to control the adults around them to get what they want. They learn these lessons from observing others.

While a child may not need a second cookie, all primates have a basic need to form secure attachments with an understandable environment over which they have some control. We know that when we are tired, we can pull the drapes or turn off the lights in order to get some sleep. This is predictable and we have control over it If on the other hand we are forced to keep moving or when we pull the drapes, it gets brighter at one time but darker at another it becomes confusing, stressful and makes us feel as if we have no control over our own environment which can make us feel unsafe and cause us to revert to anti-social behaviors to get what we want.

We also have a very strong need for self-esteem and will protect ourselves at all costs from having our ego harmed. If you have ever worked with young children or overly egotistical workmates, you know that they are highly competitive and do not like you to be able to do ' anything if they are not allowed to do it themselves. Darwin would call this "survival of the fittest" or "anything you can do, I can do better, but how will I know if you do not let me try."

We have a strong need for attachment and lasting relationships and if we cannot find them in the real world, we may turn to chat rooms and social media. Attachment is often based on emotional development. If you are secure with who you are, you do not have the strong need to please others or build up your self esteem. You will have greater trust in your partner and friends and not feel the need to constantly please them in order to be accepted. If you have ever had these feelings of abandonment or low self esteem as a child, they will tend to follow you into adulthood, largely due to those neural networks.

When your attachment needs are not met, you may become insecure or avoid contact with others whom you fear will put you down or lure you in pretending to be a friend when they really only want to use you to get noticed by someone else. It sounds a bit like high school doesn't it? In a chatroom, you can simply become someone else. If people make fun of you, you can disconnect, literally and figuratively and become someone else. There is a never ending possibility of "friends" with which to connect and one of them is bound to "get you" and make you feel as if you belong and are not crazy.

In the 1970s Mary Ainsworth developed a test called the Strange Situation, to evaluate attachment patterns. Children between the ages of 11 and 20 months were observed with their mothers and then separated from them. Their reactions to the separation and rejoining led to the identification of four attachment patterns: secure, insecure-avoidant, insecure-ambivalent, and insecure-disorganized.

Secure attachment children reacted with distress when separation from their mothers and immediately sought closeness with their mothers upon their return. Infants were soothed by their mothers when they were reunited.

Insecure and avoidant attachment children avoided closeness after being separated from their mothers and showed no signs of distress upon separation. Researchers surmised that the children were protecting themselves from further stress and that this was a protective mechanism that would enable them to survive if not thrive.

Insecure and ambivalent attachment children displayed anxious behaviors when separated from their mothers. They became preoccupied with the relationship after the separation and did not pursue other activities in the room. Upon the return of their mothers they would fluctuate between seeking proximity and an aggressive rejection of contact. Children in this category learn to associate closeness with worries of losing the attachment figure, leading to fears of being alone.

Insecure and disorganized/disorientated attachment children (the least likely pattern to occur) respond to separation from and return of their caregiver with bizarre behaviors. These reactions are the result of severe violations of the attachment need due either to abuse by the primary caregiver, or their absence.

Bottom line: if our attachment needs, even in adulthood are not met, our thoughts, state of mind, emotions, and immunological functioning become inconsistent with well-being and healthy long-term survival (Cozolino, 2006).

Emotional development continues throughout adulthood but gets its start when we are infants and forming relationships and bonds to parents and caregivers. Children who have been abused, abandoned or neglected tend to have more intense reactions towards those they perceive do not have their best interests in mind, therefore, if you have a spouse who pays more attention to their phone, favorite TV program (which you cannot stand) or spends too much time on social media to the exclusion of those around them, you are more likely to feel abandoned. Instead of feeling safe and protected in an enriched shared environment, you may begin to isolate yourself emotionally and physically in order to preserve your own self esteem, causing a wider rift to form.

A loving environment in which you are hugged, are able to share your opinions without being ridiculed or sighed at or told what you need to do rather than encouraged to explore your own options, can actually prevent new neural connections from taking place, making you feel as if you are dying in your own environment rather than thriving in it. This can lead to avoiding the things that make you feel sad or disconnected and clinging to those things that bring you excitement, whether they are good for you or not.

A study by Luby and colleagues (Luby et al., 2012) found that the hippocampus (the structure in the brain that most closely aligns to memory formation) in those from loving nurturing homes were larger and therefore had better memory and more neural connections. Maternal support was one of the greatest predictors or a larger hippocampus in children. Children with a smaller hippocampus also showed greater signs of depression.

Much research has been done on how the external environment influences brain development and while adult brains may be fully developed physically, we are always forming new neural connections, so the quality of the information coming into us can affect our brain chemistry and ward off depression and behavioral outbursts which are not considered appropriate in most circumstances.

We need to feel attached to others and we need to feel as if we have some control over our environment. When someone ignores us and focuses on their phone or laptop, it makes us feel less significant even if that person is a stranger to us. We want to be acknowledged . It is okay to use your smartphone as a tool or to connect to people who are out of range, but it is not okay to use it to push out those sitting or standing right next to you and if you find yourself going into withdrawal when the battery on your phone is low or you attended an event but can't get the photos to download to prove that you were there, then maybe you have an addiction problem that is literally messing with your head!

The more portable a technology device is, the more likely you are to use it in inappropriate places and circumstances

Newsweek looked into whether smartphones caused attention deficit disorder in adults who had not been diagnosed with it before. If you are like most folks and own a smartphone, computer or tablet, you know that they do and can cause you to divert attention away from things that need to be done to focus more on unnecessary things that become too important, like who is going to the movies that night with whom and what exciting event everyone is doing for the upcoming holiday season or whether you can beat your high score on a game.

The study looked at 221 young adults and specifically focused on inattentiveness and hyperactivity among smartphone users. The results showed that more frequent phone interruptions, whether texts, calls, cute videos or emergency news flashes, did indeed cause a rise in tension and an inability to focus on the task at hand, but it did not show that it actually caused ADHD in people who did not have it to begin with, only that it mimicked ADHD symptoms and made it difficult to get any real work done.

People use their cell phones in public restrooms, have private conversations in public places and take photos without regard to the sanctity of events. At a recent friend's wedding, over a half a dozen people waved their cell phones and tablets overhead to record the wedding ceremony while it was happening, even recording during the prayer.

Customer service reps complain that clients approach them while talking on their cell phones and try to have two conversations at once, making it embarrassing and frustrating when the service rep responds and is scolded for interfering with the "private" call.

"We've seen people walk off the sidewalks and trip on the curbs, little kids lose their parents because they were so engrossed in playing a game or watching a video. When they want us to converse with a third party on the other end of the line, we ask them to please relay the message in person or have the person on the other end of the line call us or come in. No one wants to get caught in a three-way confrontation passing the phone back and forth."

Store owners and hotel clerks also relay that when people's cell phone batteries start to die, they panic and rather than turn them off and put them aside to charge for later, they use every last bit of energy to send photos of themselves standing in front of the fountain or statue rather than conserve energy in case they need to make an emergency call.

"It is not that they fear they will not be able to contact someone in case of need, but that they will not be able to update their social media accounts so that people can follow what they are doing. Having their cell phones with them helps them document their lives, almost as if they were their own reality TV stars with loyal followers who would miss not being able to keep up with what they are doing!"

Addicted to your phone?


Don't let your smartphone turn you into a dummy

Using technology without engaging or interacting with a partner has been shown to negatively impact the relationship. From a neuropsychological view, individuals experience a decrease in their sense of control when their partner closes them out and shows more affection for their smartphone than their friend or spouse.

Research has shown that the emotional areas in the brain actually "light up" or show activity in response to this feeling of being shut-out of someone's life, especially if one is under the belief that this relationship should be one of the greatest bonds one has with anyone else on earth.

Feeling shut-out or cut-off can lead to depression and low self esteem, anger issues with the person shutting them out and fear of losing the person. This can lead to the brain releasing cortisols or stress hormones which can also lead to lack of sleep and hypertension and can negatively impact the body and the brain.

Ironically, mobile phones appear to cause more neurophysiological damage than any other device, and not because they emit harmful radio waves into the brain, but because they are something that is small enough to be carried anywhere. Most people carry their phones with them, even into bathrooms where they often carry on conversations despite taking care of business on the toilet as well as the phone. There are no boundaries, with people even ignoring signs in libraries an businesses to turn mobile phones off. To many people, the phone has become a close friend and few can put their phones down long enough to have real conversations.

It is not atypical to be among a group of friends who are all texting and posting pictures or reading texts so that no one is actually talking or looking at anyone else standing right next to them. If you are including others while on the phone; sharing texts or updates or looking up a good restaurant or checking on the weather and then put your phone away, there is nothing wrong with that, but if you are constantly pulling out your phone and ignoring the people around you, especially our own spouse, you are doing real damage to your relationship and to each others self esteem.

Instead of constantly being reminded not to text and drive perhaps we should be reminded not to text when we could have a real-life conversation and show actual interest in the world around us without recording it for posterity or closing out the people who are standing beside us.

It is hard to function without technology today. If you do not have a smartphone you miss out on texts and calls and special offers that save you money or get you free things you would not have access to without the phone, but if you feel like you are spending too much time on your smartphone, computer or tablet then you probably are and you probably need to do something about it, like maybe set it aside or lock it away so it can't tempt you. Don't let your smartphone dumb or numb you to the endless possibilities of interacting live with friends and family.

Try leaving your phone behind one day and see how you react or keep a log of how long you spend on the phone, what you do and the feelings you get when you do it. If you check your phone constantly or have sudden urges to see what others are doing on social media sites, chances are you are forming a bond with your phone at the expense of forming bonds with the people who matter to you most in life and this can literally change the way your brain functions and not for the better. That's not so smart when you think about it!


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