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Digital devices deprive brain of downtime

It’s 1 pm on a Thursday and Dianne Bates, 40, juggles three screens. She listens to a few songs on her iPod, taps out a quick e-mail on her iPhone and turns her attention to the high-definition television.

india Updated: Aug 25, 2010 20:21 IST

It’s 1 pm on a Thursday and Dianne Bates, 40, juggles three screens. She listens to a few songs on her iPod, taps out a quick e-mail on her iPhone and turns her attention to the high-definition television.

Just another day at the gym.

As Bates multitasks, she is also churning her legs in fast loops on an elliptical machine in a downtown fitness centre. 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.

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 ideas.

“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 of California, where he specialises in learning and memory.

When the brain is constantly stimulated, “you prevent this learning process.”

Many business people 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,” Chen said. Chen, who recently started his business, doesn’t want to miss a potential customer. Yet he says that since he upgraded 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.