Peter H Brown Clinical Psychologist

Psychology News & Resources

iPhone Addiction: Does Smart Phone = Dumber You?

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Source: Psychology Today, Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D. The smartphone is quickly becoming an extension of the human brain. The latest entry into the market, the iPhone 4S, contains a feature named Siri that (according to the Apple website): “understands what you say, knows what you mean, and even talks back. Siri is so easy to use and does so much, you’ll keep finding more and more ways to use it.” Now, I love technology as much as anyone (at least when it’s working), but as a psychologist, I have to join in the voice of critics who yearn for a simpler, less tecnical age. It’s not that I wish to return to the pre-computer age, of paper and pencil, however. Instead, I’m worried that we risk having our brains become vestigial organs. Research on technological tools suggests that offloading our mental functions to these electronic devices could cause our brains to go soft. Consider the evidence from a study reported in late 2010 by researchers at McGill University. Neuroscientist Veronique Bohbot and her team reported that relying on a global positioning system (GPS) to get to known locations reduces the function of the hippocampus, the “seahorse” shaped structure in the brain that controls memory and spatial orientation. Participants used to getting around on the basis of their own wits had higher activity and a greater volume in the hippocampus than the older adults using a GPS. What’s more, when it came to their actual performance, the non-GPS users performed better on a memory test. Bohbot recommends that you turn off the GPS when you’re navigating around your hometown and use it only for its actual purpose of finding locations you’ve never been to before. Your hippocampus will thank you, whether you’re 16 or 60.

It’s not much of a leap to extrapolate from the GPS to the smartphone. A normal cellphone can remember numbers for you so that you no longer have to do so. Confess– can you remember the actual cellphone number of the people you call most frequently? We used to rely on our neurons to hold onto these crucial bits of information. Now they reside somewhere out there in the ether. What’s worse is that most people don’t even take the time to write down a new phone number anymore. You call your new acquaintance and your new acquaintance calls you, and the information is automatically stored in your contacts. It’s great for efficiency’s sake, but you’ve now given your working memory one less important exercise. Memory benefits from practice, especially in the crucial stage of encoding. Let’s move from phone numbers to information in general. People with smartphones no longer have to remember important facts because when in doubt, they can just tap into Google. When was the last time St. Louis was in the World Series, you wonder? Easy! Just enter a few letters (not even the whole city name) into your “smart” search engine. Your fingers, much less your mind, don’t have to walk very far at all. Trying to give your brain a workout with a crossword puzzle? What’s to stop you from taking a few shortcuts when the answers are right there on your phone? No mental gymnastics necessary. This leads us to Siri, that seductress of the smartphone. With your iPhone slave on constant standby, you don’t even have to key in your questions. Just say the question, and Siri conjures up the answer in an instant. With a robot at your fingertips, why even bother to look the information up yourself? The irony is that smartphones have the potential to make our brains sharper, not dumber. Researchers are finding that videogame play involving rapid decision-making can hone your cognitive resources. Older adults, in particular, seem to be able to improve their attentional and decision-making speeded task performance when they play certain games. People with a form of amnesia in which they can’t learn new information can also be helped by smartphones, according to a study conducted by Canadian researchers (Svobodo & Richards, 2009). The problem is not the use of the smartphone itself; the problem comes when the smartphone takes over a function that your brain is perfectly capable of performing. It’s like taking the elevator instead of the stairs; the ride may be quicker but your muscles won’t get a workout. Smartphones are like mental elevators. Psychologists have known for years that the “use it or lose it” principle is key to keeping your brain functioning in its peak condition throughout your life. As we become more and more drawn to these sleeker and sexier gadgets, the trick will be learning how to “use it.” So take advantage of these 5 tips to help your smartphone keep you smart: 1. Don’t substitute your smartphone for your brain. Force yourself to memorize a phone number before you store it, and dial your frequently called numbers from memory whenever possible. If there’s a fact or word definition you can infer, give your brain the job before consulting your electronic helper. 2. Turn off the GPS app when you’re going to familiar places. Just like the GPS-hippocampus study showed, you need to keep your spatial memory as active as possible by relying on your brain, not your phone, when you’re navigating well-known turf. If you are using the GPS to get around a new location, study a map first. Your GPS may not really know the best route to take (as any proper Bostonian can tell you!). 3. Use your smartphone to keep up with current events. Most people use their smartphones in their leisure time for entertainment. However, with just a few easy clicks, you can just as easily check the headlines, op-eds, and featured stories from respected news outlets around the world. This knowledge will build your mental storehouse of information, and make you a better conversationalist as well. 4. Build your social skills with pro-social apps. Some videogames can actually make you a nicer person by strengthening your empathic tendencies. Twitter and Facebook can build social bonds. Staying connected is easier than ever, and keeping those social bonds active provides you with social support. Just make sure you avoid some of the social media traps of over-sharing and FOMO (fear of missing out) syndrome. 5. Turn off your smartphone while you’re driving. No matter how clever you are at multitasking under ordinary circumstances, all experts agree that you need to give your undivided attention to driving when behind the wheel. This is another reason to look at and memorize your route before going someplace new. Fiddling with your GPS can create a significant distraction if you find that it’s given you the wrong information. Smartphones have their place, and can make your life infinitely more productive as long as you use yours to supplement, not replace, your brain. Reference: Svoboda, E., & Richards, B. (2009). Compensating for anterograde amnesia: A new training method that capitalizes on emerging smartphone technologies. Journal of the International Neuropsychological Society, 15(4), 629-638. doi:10.1017/S1355617709090791 Follow Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D. on Twitter @swhitbo for daily updates on psychology, health, and aging and please check out my website,www.searchforfulfillment.com where you can read this week’s Weekly Focus to get additional information, self-tests, and psychology-related links.

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October 24, 2011 Posted by | Addiction, brain, Cognition, Health Psychology, Identity, Internet, research, Technology | , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Now That I’ve Got Your Attention: What Gets Your Attention?

Source: Association for Psychological Science.

Once we learn the relationship between a cue and its consequences—say, the sound of a bell and the appearance of the white ice cream truck bearing our favorite chocolate cone—do we turn our attention to that bell whenever we hear it? Or do we tuck the information away and marshal our resources to learning other, novel cues—a recorded jingle, or a blue truck?

Psychologists observing “attentional allocation” now agree that the answer is both, and they have arrived at two principles to describe the phenomena. The “predictive” principle says we search for meaningful—important—cues amid the “noise” of our environments. The “uncertainty” principle says we pay most attention to unfamiliar or unpredictable cues, which may yield useful information or surprise us with pleasant or perilous consequences.

Animal studies have supplied evidence for both, and research on humans has showed how predictiveness operates, but not uncertainty. “There was a clear gap in the research,” says Oren Griffiths, a research fellow at the University of New South Wales, in Australia. So he, along with Ameika M. Johnson and Chris J. Mitchell, set out to demonstrate the uncertainty principle in humans.

“We showed that people will pay more attention to a stimulus or a cue if its status as a predictor is unreliable,” he says. The study will be published in an upcoming issue of Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science.

The researchers investigated what is called “negative transfer”—a cognitive process by which a learned association between cue and outcome inhibits any further learning about that cue. We think we know what to expect, so we aren’t paying attention when a different outcome shows up—and we learn that new association more slowly than if the cue or outcome were unpredictable. Negative transfer is a good example of the uncertainty principle at work.

Participants were divided into three groups, and administered the “allergist test.” They observed “Mrs. X” receiving a small piece of fruit—say, apple. Using a scroll bar they predicted her allergic reaction, from none to critical. They then learned that her reaction to the apple was “mild.” Later, when Mrs. X ate the apple, she had a severe reaction which participants also had to learn to predict.

The critical question was how quickly people learned about the severe reaction. Unsurprisingly, if apple was only ever paired with a severe reaction, learning was fast. But what about if apple had previously been shown to be dangerous (i.e. produce a mild allergic reaction)? In this case, learning about the new severe reaction was slow. This is termed the “negative transfer” effect. This effect did not occur, however, when the initial relationship between apple and allergy was uncertain — if, say, apple was sometimes safe to eat. Under these circumstances, the later association between apple and severe allergic reaction was learned rapidly.

Why? “They didn’t know what to expect from the cue, so they had to pay more attention to it,” says Griffiths. “That’s because of the uncertainty principle.”

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June 22, 2011 Posted by | brain, Cognition, Identity, research | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Aspergers and Ipods: Reaching into the Hearts & Minds of ASD Youth

I love  using technology to engage and reach people in therapy. For me, it started with the relaxation cassette tape! I frequently use the internet,email, PowerPoint  narratives and mp3’s and even Twitter and this Blog with clients. A Minneapolis center is experimenting with Ipods as an intervention tool with ASD youth. The wonderful book “Getting IT” is a must for anyone interested in using technology with children and youth in the areas of mental heath and disability. I thoroughly recommend it.

This story from Reuters

Sue Pederson knows that the teenage boys in her treatment program have trouble making conversation. They may not know what to talk about; or once they get started, when to shut up.

That’s one of the striking features of people with Asperger’s syndrome: they struggle with the social skills that come so naturally to others.

But about a year ago, Pederson, a psychologist, and her colleagues at the Fraser Child & Family Center in Minneapolis found a new way to reach these students — right through their headphones.

They’re using iPods, which play music and videos, to teach them how to fit in.

It may have started out as a form of entertainment, but Pederson says this kind of technology is turning into an unexpected boon for children and teenagers with special needs. The devices, it turns out, can be crammed with the kind of information they need to get through the day. While it’s still experimental, she said, “I think it’s going to spread like wildfire.”

With Asperger’s, a form of autism, people lack the inner voice that tells them what is, or is not, appropriate behavior. At Fraser, Pederson’s staff came up with the idea of programming iPods to act as an electronic substitute for that missing voice.

In this case, the staff helped students create a series of short videos and slide shows on how to behave in different512NC997YML social settings. Some are barely 30 seconds long: How to carry on a conversation (“Let the other person talk AND change the topic…”); how to respect other people’s boundaries, and think before they speak (“Use your filter!”)

In the world of special education, these scripts are known as “social stories,” used to teach basic social skills. “It’s a mental checklist for things to think about when you’re interacting with other people,” explained Mandy Henderson, who works with Fraser’s Asperger’s program.

As part of the Fraser project, the students can transfer the videos onto their iPods, and replay them over and over, to drive the lessons home.

Jack O’Riley, of Eagan, said it’s just what his 15-year-old son P.J. needed. “This really hit the mark,” he said. Like many kids with Asperger’s, P.J. is baffled by the normal rhythms of social interaction: in conversation, he may blurt out too much information, or say nothing at all, his father says.

At the same time, P.J. is easily distracted and has a hard time staying on task, another common trait of Asperger’s. For years, O’Riley posted laminated signs around the house to remind his son how to get through the day — take a shower, brush his teeth, get ready for school.

Now, with the videos developed at Fraser, “we can plug this stuff into his little ‘extended memory,'” O’Riley said. P.J. is building a library of videos on his iPhone, so they’ll be at his fingertips. “He can pull up a topic on his ‘to do list’ and find everything he needs to know,” his father said.

Sixteen-year-old Myles Lund of Lakeville, another student in the Fraser program, said he’s learned to use the iPod to help control his emotions by playing his favorite music. “It helps take my mind off of it,” he said. At the same time, Myles, who says he rarely initiates a conversation, agrees the videos can help in social situations. “I just pull out my iPod and go through a list of things to talk about.”

The staffers at Fraser came up with the idea after they noticed how students with Asperger’s would use iPods as a calming device, to block out noise or other distractions. “We just started thinking how else can we use this technology,” said Pederson. They got a $7,500 private grant to buy the iPods and other equipment, and started experimenting.

Jim Ball, an adviser to the Autism Society of America, said similar projects are popping up around the country. Some people are designing adaptations for smart phones, Palm Pilots and other devices to fill the same need, he said.

“This is just another way of prompting kids when they’re in situations when they don’t know what to do,” said Ball, who works with autistic children in New Jersey. “The technology gives them the ability to be independent.”

Ball noted the devices could work especially well with Asperger’s kids, because they’re often far more comfortable with electronic gadgets than they are with people. “It’s a machine; they don’t have to react to it, they don’t have to understand it,” Ball said. “They just need to know how to work it. And they do.”

Another advantage, especially for teenagers, is that they won’t stand out using this kind of device, noted Pederson. “If you walk into a family reunion and you’ve got a teenager with an iPod, nobody bats an eye,” she said.

Barbara Luskin, a psychologist with the Autism Society of Minnesota, agrees. “Adolescents with Asperger’s, like all adolescents, don’t want to look different,” she said. If the device just blends in with everyone else’s, she said, “you’re much more likely to use it.”

So far, there appear to be few commercial products aimed at this market, but that may be changing. The Conover Co., a special-education software company in Appleton, Wis., recently adapted its “Functional Skills System” for the iPod Touch. But the package, which sells for $3,500, is mainly marketed to schools and other organizations.

Fraser, meanwhile, is hoping to get another grant to expand its iPod program.

Ball, of the Autism Society, predicts this is just the beginning. “I think that technology is limitless in its potential for working with kids,” he said.

For more information on the Fraser program, go to www.fraser.org.

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July 28, 2009 Posted by | Aspergers, Autism, Resources, Technology | , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment