Smartphones and other electronic devices have changed the way we communicate and the way we interact with the world. But to what extent can technology change us? Most importantly, can it change our brain?
When neurons communicate with each other they generate brain waves. These are the result of the synchronized rhythmic activity of thousands or even millions of neurons. There are different types of brain waves and they can be detected through electroencephalographic (EEG) recordings, each having a specific EEG pattern. Each type of brain wave is associated with different states of brain functioning.
During deep, dreamless sleep, our brain is in its slowest state of activity; this type of sleep is known as slow-wave sleep and the typical low-frequency brain waves that characterize it are called gamma waves. When we’re dreaming, during REM sleep, brain activity increases and originates another type of brain waves; these are called theta waves, and they’re also characteristic of light sleep and meditative or drowsy states.
When we wake up, our brain activity increases. In a wakeful resting state, alpha brain waves predominate; they are also associated with a state of relaxed, flowing thoughts, for example.
During normal wakeful consciousness and reasoning, alertness, active thinking, active concentration, logic, and critical reasoning, the frequency of our brain waves further increases; the brain waves associated with this state era called beta waves.
During high cognitive demand tasks, when we’re processing and integrating information arising from different brain areas, gamma brain waves predominate; these are the highest frequency brain waves, and they are important in learning and memory; they are believed to underlie perception and consciousness.
This is a broad description of brain waves and there are other types of rare or unusual brain waves, referred to as “normal EEG variants”. There are also brain waves that are associated with dysfunction or disease.
But going back to theta brain waves, even though they’re commonly associated with dreaming and drowsy states, they are also present during certain behaviors, particularly when they require mental effort, attention, concentration, calculation, or problem solving, as well as during emotional reactions. They have been described, for example, during aiming and shooting a rifle, during driving simulations, or while listening to music.
Recently, it has been reported that theta brain waves may also be present during text messaging. But it’s not just random theta brain waves – it’s a specific pattern of brain waves that falls within the frequency interval of theta brain waves. And apparently, it only occurs during text messaging, since it hasn’t been found during any other type of activities associated with speech, motor performance, concentration-attention, memory, and cognitive performance. This brain activity pattern has been named “the texting rhythm” and it seems to be a new technology-specific theta wave rhythm that occurs during texting.
Text messaging is a state of alertness that requires a concentrated form of enhanced mental activation associated with speech, visual perception, and specific fine motor skills. Furthermore, the smaller screen size of a smartphone may require a particularly high level of attention while sending a text message. It’s a very specific type of activity, which may account for its distinct brain wave pattern.
Text messaging is one of the most widely used forms of communication, particularly by younger people. Even though this brain wave pattern is not pathological, if it really is restricted to text messaging, it is certainly new and created by technological advances – it’s the brain adapting to new behavioral needs.
But it’s not just brainwaves that change. EEG studies on the brain’s response to touch on thumb, index, and middle fingertips found that sensory processing is also altered by the use of touchscreen electronic devices, leading to an enhanced representation of the thumb in the sensory cortex after intense use of smartphones.
This is still a poorly studied topic, but apparently, the use of technology can indeed change our brain. And this is a great example of neuroplasticity.
Colgin, L. (2013). Mechanisms and Functions of Theta Rhythms Annual Review of Neuroscience, 36 (1), 295-312 DOI: 10.1146/annurev-neuro-062012-170330
Gindrat, A., Chytiris, M., Balerna, M., Rouiller, E., & Ghosh, A. (2015). Use-Dependent Cortical Processing from Fingertips in Touchscreen Phone Users Current Biology, 25 (1), 109-116 DOI:10.1016/j.cub.2014.11.026
Tatum, W., DiCiaccio, B., Kipta, J., Yelvington, K., & Stein, M. (2015). The Texting Rhythm Journal of Clinical Neurophysiology DOI: 10.1097/WNP.0000000000000250
Tatum, W., DiCiaccio, B., & Yelvington, K. (2016). Cortical processing during smartphone text messaging Epilepsy & Behavior, 59, 117-121 DOI: 10.1016/j.yebeh.2016.03.018