Your brain on technology: how our phones are rewiring our brains

Sep 3, 2018
reviewing brains

Save Intimacy is your guide to exploring barriers to intimacy. With devices an everyday presence in our lives, we set out to question our habits and examine the relationships between technology, personal connection and intimacy.

Inspired by SkynFeel, our technology that’s designed to bring you closer together, we’re giving you the chance to get back in touch with intimacy. Join SkynFeel here to enter the draw to win a boutique hotel stay – we’re giving away one £500 Mr and Mrs Smith gift card each week for 10 weeks.

The distractions inside our devices – social media, videos, games – have a social effect. Online communication is taking over from offline socialising, and the time we do spend with people IRL is often disrupted by the pull of a thin rectangle flashing on the table or vibrating in our pockets. The effects of this phenomenon may be altering more than the amount of time you spend face-to-face with your partner: research supports the idea that it’s also generating neurological effects. So can intimacy keep up with what technology is doing to our brains? And what can we do if it can’t?

phone addiction

What dopamine means

Any discussion about screen-based stimulus and its effects will inevitably mention dopamine. It’s the neurotransmitter we are most likely to know about (British clinical psychologist Vaughan Bell once described it as “the Kim Kardashian of molecules”), but it’s also one we’re likely to misunderstand. We think of dopamine as the chemical that generates sensations of ‘liking’ something. But as this study notes, “dopamine just sometimes looks like it causes pleasure – but it does not after all”. Instead, it causes “incentive salience to be attributed to reward stimuli”. In plain language: it makes us seek out pleasurable things rather than creating the pleasure itself. It’s this impulse that keeps us refreshing our email and checking our phones dozens of times a day. Our brains have been trained to chase the pleasure of a friend request or a message from a lover, and they’ll keep on looking for the notification even when it’s not there. What’s worse, some developers actively exploit this behaviour. Loot box mechanics in games are a good example of how our attention gets hacked in this way.


Distracted to death

This constant distraction can have an adverse affect on our relationships – the phone that’s literally between us can also be between us figuratively. Social media platforms whose stated common goal is to foster connection between people may be generating the opposite effect. As a 2013 study notes: “Rather than enhancing wellbeing, as frequent interactions with supportive ‘offline’ social networks powerfully do, the current findings demonstrate that interacting with Facebook may predict the opposite result for young adults – it may undermine it.” Then there are claims that internet use can depress our immune systems, mess with our sleep and even create symptoms akin to obsessive-compulsive disorder.

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Is it all bad news?

Not at all. A UCLA study demonstrated that internet use can “enhance brain function and cognition”. Gaming – which parents everywhere think is rotting their kids’ brains – has been shown to increase the speed with which people “shift their visual focus between various images and tasks”. These adaptations happen because of the brain’s neuroplasticity – its ability to change and rewire itself.

The power of touch

As with so many things, the solution to balancing the advantages and disadvantages of the online world is kind of boring: exercising moderation and mindfulness. But there’s one way to reclaim your brain’s sensation of intimacy that’s a lot more primal: touch. A study published in Frontiers in Behavioural Neuroscience describes an experiment in which romantic couples were placed in a room and asked to describe four intense emotional experiences (both happy and sad) they had shared with each other. While they described these experiences, they were physically separate and hidden from each other via partitions. Their ‘empathy state’ was measured by behavioural and physiological variables (respiration, pulse, variation in the electrical properties of their skin). When they recounted the same experiences but were able to touch each other’s hands and forearms through the partitions, the subjects felt deeper emotional intensity and feelings of coupling with their partner. The researchers concluded that “touch can bring romantic partners ‘viscerally’ closer, thereby increasing intimacy and providing a remarkable medium for partner support”.

So next time you feel like your phone is keeping you apart from someone, maybe the best thing to do is literally reach out and touch them.

Save Intimacy

Inspired by SkynFeel, our technology that’s designed to bring you closer together, we’re giving you the chance to get back in touch with intimacy. Join SkynFeel here to enter the draw to win a boutique hotel stay – we’re giving away one £500 Mr and Mrs Smith gift card each week for 10 weeks.

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