It’s no secret that technology advancements have affected our brains. With instant messages, push notifications, wearable technology, and many other tech-driven distractions, the pace at which we are expected to respond has accelerated. We’re multitasking with unfortunate effects.
How much more can our brains take? And is it possible to future-proof them for all the technical advances yet to come?
Performance expert and Australian medical practitioner Jenny Brockis, author of Future Brain: 12 Keys to Develop Your High-Performing Brain, thinks so. Our brains are designed to adapt, but there’s a difference between adjusting to change and expecting an organ to endure relentless stress without time to renew, she says. So the first step to future-proofing our brains lies in good physical care, including nutrition, exercise, sleep, and downtime, she says.
"We have developed workplace practices that actually require us to be using our brain in a way in which it wasn't designed. This includes multitasking, which is adding to our cognitive load and making it harder for ourselves to have that clarity of thought and the mental agility and flexibility required to deal with the increasing level of complexity in our lives today," says Brockis.
Cognitive load is an important concept to understand. It’s essentially the amount of effort it takes for your brain to learn something new. If it takes too much effort, then learning will be hampered. So if our brains are already overtaxed, it’s going to be tough to learn new things, she says. Understanding more about this impact can help us learn new things faster.
In addition, we need to get better at prioritizing where we focus our attention. We’ve gotten into the habit of treating everything as urgent and important, which can lead to increased stress and multitasking and diminish our effectiveness. Learning to focus on one thing at a time and moving through our tasks sequentially will still be the best way for most of us to produce our best work, even with advances in technology, she says.
Nathan Wilson thinks that technology will help us with navigating the future, including that prioritization. Wilson, equal parts brain scientist and tech expert, is the cofounder and CTO of Nara Logics, an artificial intelligence company focused on helping businesses make better decisions. He says that a confluence of factors, including the deluge of information and the need to make faster decisions, will create a need for technology that can create systems to help us stay "above that ocean of information, systems that can help us prune things that are not relevant, and really bring to attention things that we do need to focus on," he says.
What does that look like? Perhaps AI-powered tools that help distinguish "fake news" from news based in fact or proven information, he says. Also, perhaps applications and devices that become "smarter," and begin to recognize information that is and isn't important to us. While this is happening on a basic level—you can indicate which contacts are more important than others on your smartphone, for example—he sees the potential of a true assistant that can gather relevant data, synthesize it, and present it to you for consideration.
"We’re really trying to crack the code into the evolving art of how the computer can tell the human what it’s doing while trying to reach the decision rather than saying, ‘Okay, human. I’ve reached this decision,’" he says.
Futurist and emerging technology expert Gray Scott agrees that technology may ultimately be the key to helping us deal with technology. He’s fond of saying, "Technology is a portal inward, not a portal outward." It lets us see our brain waves and understand our physiological responses.
He points to the MUSE headband that uses an accompanying app to help users actually see themselves relax as they meditate. As you get deeper into meditation, the clouds on the app become more still. As your brain waves become more active, so do the clouds. Similar technology could be used to read your own cues to help you understand the best time of day for you to do certain tasks, he says.
"If you could align your biomarkers and your biometrics with your productivity so that you know the best time for your body is between 2 p.m. and 4 p.m., you move all the most critical work during those time periods," he says.
The experts agree that adapting to our tech-infused future will also need to include something counterintuitive: time away from technology.
"You also have to have some self-discipline in this age, in this transition. You have to know when to step away from all of this. The body, our culture, our species, has not had time to evolve at the same rate as technology. You have to give yourself some time away from technology and to know how to pace yourself," Scott says.
The science of how much technology will change our brains continues to evolve. But for now, the answers to effectively preparing our brains for the future lie in a combination of tried-and-true care methods, as well as using the power of technology to help us adapt.