In today’s world, it seems pretty much everyone uses smartphones and tablets on a daily basis. But our brains may not thank us for it, according to new research showing that overuse of electronic devices correlates with a poorer understanding of complex, scientific texts.
Electronic devices have become an integral part of people’s lives in the 21st century. We now reach for our smartphones to check our emails, read the latest news, and post updates about our lives on social media.
While this means that we can have all the information we want at our fingertips, constantly “training” our brains to process information in the ways that electronic devices dictate may have unintended consequences for our ability to follow and process complex ideas.
This, at least, is what scientists affiliated with Pennsylvania State University suggest in a study they recently published in
In their paper, the scientists explain that expository texts, such as scientific articles, have a particularly complex knowledge structure.
This means that they use cross related information that readers find in different parts of the text. To understand such a text, a reader must be able to identify the information they find in these various sections of text and then establish the connection between the ideas.
Yet in the study, the investigators found that individuals who reported constantly using electronic devices had a poorer comprehension of scientific texts than people who used their smart devices more sparingly.
“[I]f people use electronic devices excessively on a daily basis, that could possibly impair their ability to acquire hierarchical order — or structure — of scientific concepts,” explains study co-author Ping Li.
“If you cannot acquire — or understand — this hierarchy, then you aren’t acquiring the essence of the concepts. Understanding science isn’t randomly putting sentences […] together; it is putting the key concepts in these sentences together in a hierarchical structure — which is something a lot of students are having trouble with today.”
The research team worked with 51 volunteers from 18–40 years of age, all of whom were right-handed. The volunteers undertook functional MRI scans of their brain activity as they read five scientific articles on topics including maths, the planet Mars, electric circuits, GPS, or the environment.
The research team also tracked participants’ eye movements to find out how they followed a text as they read it.
Regardless of which scientific text the volunteers were reading at any one time, the findings were consistent.
People who had reported using electronic devices constantly throughout the day had lower activity in brain areas — the left insula and the inferior frontal gyrus — tied to processing complex information, understanding language, and paying attention.
“[W]e know that the [inferior frontal gyrus] is very important for language understanding, for understanding semantics, or the meaning of words and grammar, and we see that this area becomes less active among people who use more electronic devices,” notes Li.
Moreover, Li continues, “[t]he insula is an area involved in cognitive tasks like attention switching. So, let’s say you’re daydreaming while you’re reading a text and then a teacher suddenly tells you to pay attention to a certain part of the text, that’s when you are switching attention.”
While the current findings only indicate a correlation between electronic device overuse and lower activity in these key brain areas, the researchers caution that relying too much on our smartphones and tablets may change how our brains process information.
For instance, Li suggests that electronic devices may stimulate certain parts of our brain while failing to engage others, thus potentially weakening those regions’ performance.
“Our work may have implications for education,” Li adds. “Our goal was to look for a neural basis for reading comprehension. Middle school, for example, is a time when kids are starting to read about science — very basic information in the STEM [science, technology, engineering, and mathematics] fields.”
“Right now, we have very little knowledge about how a middle school student’s brain is responding when they are trying to understand these very basic scientific concepts,” the researcher says, indicating that this is an area for investigation that future research should address.