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.
- Why Do So Many Robots Have A Woman’s Voice? [Technology] (jezebel.com)
- Siri lets strangers control some iPhone functions (redtape.msnbc.msn.com)
Martin Seligman: Author Of “Learned Optimism” Speaks About Positive Psychology And Authentic Happiness
Martin Seligman was originally best known for his classic psychology studies and theory of “Learned Helplessness” (1967) and it’s relationship to depression.
These days he is considered to be a founder of positive psychology, a field of study that examines healthy states, such as authentic happiness, strength of character and optimism, and is the author of “Learned Optimism”.
This is a terrific talk on Positive Psychology and what it means to be happy. It’s about 20 mins. long but definitely worth a watch!
Multitasking: New Study Challenges Previous Cognitive Theory But Shows That Only A Few “Supertaskers” Can Drive And Phone
A new study from University of Utah psychologists found a small group of people with an extraordinary ability to multitask: Unlike 97.5 percent of those studied, they can safely drive while chatting on a cell phone.
These individuals – described by the researchers as “supertaskers” – constitute only 2.5 percent of the population. They are so named for their ability to successfully do two things at once: in this case, talk on a cell phone while operating a driving simulator without noticeable impairment.
The study, conducted by psychologists Jason Watson and David Strayer, is now in press for publication later this year in the journal Psychonomic Bulletin and Review.
This finding is important not because it shows people can drive well while on the phone – the study confirms that the vast majority cannot – but because it challenges current theories of multitasking. Further research may lead eventually to new understanding of regions of the brain that are responsible for supertaskers’ extraordinary performance.
“According to cognitive theory, these individuals ought not to exist,” says Watson. “Yet, clearly they do, so we use the supertasker term as a convenient way to describe their exceptional multitasking ability. Given the number of individuals who routinely talk on the phone while driving, one would have hoped that there would be a greater percentage of supertaskers. And while we’d probably all like to think we are the exception to the rule, the odds are overwhelmingly against it. In fact, the odds of being a supertasker are about as good as your chances of flipping a coin and getting five heads in a row.”
The researchers assessed the performance of 200 participants over a single task (simulated freeway driving), and again with a second demanding activity added (a cell phone conversation that involved memorizing words and solving math problems). Performance was then measured in four areas—braking reaction time, following distance, memory, and math execution.
As expected, results showed that for the group, performance suffered across the board while driving and talking on a hands-free cell phone.
For those who were not supertaskers and who talked on a cell phone while driving the simulators, it took 20 percent longer to hit the brakes when needed and following distances increased 30 percent as the drivers failed to keep pace with simulated traffic while driving. Memory performance declined 11 percent, and the ability to do math problems fell 3 percent.
However, when supertaskers talked while driving, they displayed no change in their normal braking times, following distances or math ability, and their memory abilities actually improved 3 percent.
The results are in line with Strayer’s prior studies showing that driving performance routinely declines under “dual-task conditions” – namely talking on a cell phone while driving – and is comparable to the impairment seen in drunken drivers.
Yet contrary to current understanding in this area, the small number of supertaskers showed no impairment on the measurements of either driving or cell conversation when in combination. Further, researchers found that these individuals’ performance even on the single tasks was markedly better than the control group.
“There is clearly something special about the supertaskers,” says Strayer. “Why can they do something that most of us cannot? Psychologists may need to rethink what they know about multitasking in light of this new evidence. We may learn from these very rare individuals that the multitasking regions of the brain are different and that there may be a genetic basis for this difference. That is very exciting. Stay tuned.”
Watson and Strayer are now studying expert fighter pilots under the assumption that those who can pilot a jet aircraft are also likely to have extraordinary multitasking ability.
The current value society puts on multitasking is relatively new, note the authors. As technology expands throughout our environment and daily lives, it may be that everyone – perhaps even supertaskers – eventually will reach the limits of their ability to divide attention across several tasks.
“As technology spreads, it will be very useful to better understand the brain’s processing capabilities, and perhaps to isolate potential markers that predict extraordinary ability, especially for high-performance professions,” Watson concludes.
Information from University of Utah
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 different 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.