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Is Technology Making Us Dumber?

by: Noah Waisberg | March 20, 2012
4 min read

Has your once-good ability to remember phone numbers declined to the point where you can dial few without looking? Do you now also forget facts, dates or the exact wording of legal rules that you once remembered well? Why is this? General memory loss [due to aging]? Or because of technology's coddling effect? This is not a medical blog, so let's put aside memory loss to consider whether technology is at fault. And whether that means technology is making us dumber.

We don't have to remember many numbers, dates or facts in today's technology-supplemented world. They are quickly avaliable online, or accessed automatically by systems we use like cellphones. Because we don't need to remember these details, we are likely reducing the portions of the brain responsible for storing this information. Human brains have been found to be plastic–continually adapting to their circumstances, evolving to meet demands. The brain can reengineer functions after parts of it are damaged in incidents like strokes. And parts of the brain with high demand overdevelop. As Dr. Pascale Michelon relates in the SharpBrains blog:

For instance, London taxi drivers have a larger hippocampus (in the posterior region) than London bus drivers (Maguire, Woollett, & Spiers, 2006). Why is that? It is because this region of the hippocampus is specialized in acquiring and using complex spatial information in order to navigate efficiently. Taxi drivers have to navigate around London whereas bus drivers follow a limited set of routes.

Plasticity can also be observed in the brains of bilinguals (Mechelli et al., 2004). It looks like learning a second language is possible through functional changes in the brain: the left inferior parietal cortex is larger in bilingual brains than in monolingual brains.

Plastic changes also occur in musicians brains compared to non-musicians. Gaser and Schlaug (2003) compared professional musicians (who practice at least 1hour [sic] per day) to amateur musicians and non-musicians. They found that gray matter (cortex) volume was highest in professional musicians, intermediate in amateur musicians, and lowest in non-musicians in several brain areas involved in playing music: motor regions, anterior superior parietal areas and inferior temporal areas.

So tech may be changing our brains. We are losing the ability to remember things we no longer have to remember. But that doesn't necessarily mean we're getting dumber. It means our brains are changing to do what we need them to do. Instead of remembering facts, today's more valuable skill is remembering where to quickly find facts. We can now access much, much more information than we ever could have remembered. For example, I knew a touch about neuroplasticity when I went to write this piece, but was able to quickly call up a lot more information. I might have done badly on an in-class exam on neuroplasticity, but that isn't the test I took. 

Brain plasticity is a happy concept as we confront a world where computers can do more and more advanced human tasks, from driving, to winning at Jeopardy!, to document review and legal due diligence. Our brains can adapt to work with new technology. And figure out how to thrive despite traditionally-human work being done by machines instead.

Since this is the DiligenceEngine Blog, it seems like a good place to consider whether use of our system (which finds diligence-relevant provisions in contracts and puts findings into summary charts (sort of like an automated junior associate)) will ruin junior associates' ability to identify change of control or amendment provisions, forever stunting their growth? Stay tuned and I'll cover this in a future post.

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