Technology and the human brain: how we work
We live in a time where all aspects of our lives are increasingly driven and shaped by technology, and nowhere is this more apparent than in the workplace. Neural & Systems Complexity Specialist Dr Fiona Kerr will be appearing at the upcoming Mobile-ising Women in Business event in Canberra where she will speak about the impact of technology on the human brain and how this affects the way we work and make decisions in business. Here, she gives Biz Better Together readers some advance insights.
Dr Fiona Kerr
The rise in the use of mobile devices is not just changing our consumer buying patterns; it’s changing our brains and our society. Due to the speed at which our brains work, we already have a short attention span and neurons can reset in as little as a few seconds as our attention moves onto something else. This means we have always had to concentrate in order to keep our attention focused, and the neurons from switching or resetting before information is embedded or connections made. However, the speed and distractive qualities of technology are training our brains to jump more superficially to other things which distract them.
We also have novelty detectors which go off whenever we see something new. Originally humans really needed this to survive in the wild; 10,000 years ago if you saw something new it might give you an advantage, and it could mean that the human race improved and kept going. But now we are overwhelmed by the deluge of data, information and stimuli aimed at us, and this creates a number of internal issues when trying to sort out the overload of data. With the increase in technology and devices which are specifically designed to gain your attention and keep it, distraction becomes the normal way of living.
Information is stored in multiple locations across the brain, a process called fractionating. When you work on a complex task like writing an in-depth report, your brain unpacks all the various files that contain the information you need and in a virtual sense, lays it out in your head much as you would spread paper files across the desk in your office.
While you are working on this complex task, any time you get a ding or a notification on your desktop or a mobile device, you can’t help yourself; you look down to see who it’s from. In that sixth of a second, the brain has to not only pack up all of the information you’ve been using to work on that report, it has to then unpack all the files containing the information you need in order to make a rapid decision about the email or message that has captured your attention. This process occurs even if you just have to decide that you don’t need to respond right now. Every time you are interrupted, this process of packing up the in-use files, opening new ones, repacking those files and then re-opening the original files is repeated. It happens incredibly quickly, but this unpack and repack cycle is not conducive to deep thinking; it destroys it every time.
This unpack and repack cycle that happens anytime we are distracted is why we cannot multi-task. People may talk about multi-tasking but it’s just not possible, the brain doesn’t work like that.
What we need to do is look at attention as a resource. People don’t look at it that way, but we need to. People need to be very good at managing attention. Because if you are very good at managing it, when you get distracted – and this is inevitable because everything around us is built to distract us – then you can steer your attention back to where you want it. The brain is a pattern maker and likes habits, so that provides us with the advantage of exercising willpower to create a habit, which then shapes your behaviour, so be proactive in deciding what you want to concentrate on.
We have brains looking for the novelty factor, looking for something to do, easily distracted. Mobile technology is finding fertile ground.
Organisations are hooked on the idea of the efficiency of email and having people on tap 24 hours a day, but that has a number of negative impacts on the workplace. These include lowering the capacity for complex, quality decision making, creativity and innovative thinking, as well as paradoxically decreasing the social connectivity of employees – with less face to face contact comes a number of changes to collaborative capacity and strategic capability. There is even a lessening of sleep quality as the need to always be ‘on’ can create a state called hypervigilance which disturbs sleep cycles.
There is a useful way of thinking about how we use technology in the workplace, which is to consider the needs of what is now being called shallow work versus deep work. The first allows us to hop around working on more simple, processual tasks (emails, returning calls, busy work), but when we need to concentrate on a complex issue or idea, or come up with something creative, we switch into using different types of thinking (abstraction, chunked embedded judgement, intuition) to build rich pictures and make new connections. We need to be offline to do this well.
Once people understand the demand of deep work we can structure work and usage of mobile devices around the tasks people need to do, such as agreeing on when people will be engaged in deep work, during which time they will be unavailable to answer emails so they have sufficient time to do the ‘deep-dive’ thinking. Interestingly, due to the creative process some phases of this type of thinking is best done with others, so get people together, but leave the mobiles and screens at the door (yes, even the screens!).
The technology is all around us and it is here to stay, and there is a lot of excitement around the benefits and flexibility it brings. However, the technology itself won’t automatically create a productivity boost and in fact may have the opposite effect. People in business need to be strategic about how they incorporate mobile technology so that there are positive effects on productivity, collaboration, good quality communication and space allowed for deep work.
Fiona Kerr is a Systems and Neural Complexity Specialist with Adelaide University and consults on a range of Cognitive Neuroscience areas and neuro-ethics. You can hear more from Fiona about how technology impacts the brain and decision making in business at the next Mobile-ising Women in Business seminar.