Digital Overload can Change our Brains

Social Media Signs
The rise of the digital culture over the last 20 years is compromising our Emotional Intelligence (EQ), according to leading neuroscientist Susan Greenfield.


What’s happening?

Greenfield explains how the emphasis on technology is impacting our brains, due to ‘neuroplasticity’ (how the brain adapts to its environment).  Our experiences leave their mark on our brain cells’ connections, forming links and associations, shaping our own particular perspectives on the world.  So if our environment is now dominated by hearing and vision, rather than one where we engage in face-to-face contact, our brains will adapt accordingly.


‘If you’re not meeting people face-to-face or talking with them face-to-face, then how you think and feel will be different from previous generations.’

Susan Greenfield


Man with mobile phone and backpack wb

What are the differences for this generation?


Shorter attention span 

Things are flashed up very quickly and there are constant distractions.


Harder to have interpersonal skills 

We‘re expected to respond immediately, leaving little time for reflection or real understanding, which means our reactions are becoming increasingly superficial.  This also results in poorer communication skills and a decrease in empathy.


Identity – how we see ourselves and others

We’re obsessed with monitoring other people’s lives, and recording every moment of our own, relentlessly posting our thoughts and photos, and craving feedback.  Greenfield worries that we could be heading for a life where the thrill of reporting and receiving completely trumps an experience itself!  An environment where we are constantly switched onto other people’s actions and views, will certainly be changing our mindset.  And this need for social approval makes us more fragile than previous generations.
Greenfield points out that the interaction between the brain and the environment is a two-way process: the way we view and use the latest technology is important.  But equally significant, is the impact of a technology-dominated environment on shaping our minds, and on how we view ourselves and other people.


Challenges for business

Susan Greenfield suggests that living life through a digital medium will have an overall negative impact on Emotional Intelligence, because ‘you’re not looking at and interacting with people and not picking up on all the usual cues of interpersonal relationships’.*  Face-to-face contact may become uncomfortable; her research shows we are already losing critical skills like relationship-building, which is essential for collaboration and creativity.
An alarming trend, particularly when Emotional Intelligence seems to be ever more important in the workplace. Studies by clinical psychologist Dr Martyn Newman, show that in roles where effectiveness depends on managing your own or others’ emotions, there is a strong correlation between high EQ and success. *   Now that a growing number of roles involve managing customers and colleagues and establishing emotional connections, business leaders want emotional and relationship skills to become a key part of the recruitment process.
It seems that people with good Emotional Intelligence will be in high demand!


What can we do?

Susan Greenfield suggests 3 simple ways to boost Emotional Intelligence:

Eat together

As well as building relationships, she explains that thinking and talking as you’re eating stimulates the senses, and anchors you in the present moment (rather than just letting your mind wander).  It has been an important tradition in all cultures, and we’re the first generation to skip doing it, preferring to grab a laptop sandwich or a TV takeaway.
So eat together, and no mobiles on the table!


Get outside

‘Being in rural environments and walking with people enhances creativity’,* exercise stimulates the brain and is great for the body, plus fresh air is good for you… it ticks a lot of boxes!


Revisit stories

Greenfield is concerned we are losing the notion of stories – a beginning, middle, and end; she likens our thought process to this linear sequence of steps within a timeframe.  But she believes our ability to ‘think straight’ is now at risk with screen technologies – where we’re hypertexting, hypernetworking, flitting from one thing to another and getting easily distracted.

So go tech-less!  Think. Talk. Laugh. Have fun – enjoy a digital detox!

Group of friends chatting


About Baroness Susan Greenfield

Research neuroscientist, broadcaster & author of a wide range of books on the mind & brain, including:

Mind Change: How digital technologies are leaving their mark on our brains

A Day in the Life of the Brain: The Neuroscience of Consciousness from Dawn till Dusk

About Dr Martyn Newman

Dr Martyn NewmanClinical psychologist specialising in Emotional Intelligence and Mindfulness.

See more from Martyn in his blog, videos and books, including the best selling Emotional Capitalists and The Mindfulness Book.

EQ Summit 2017

*   What’s the Most Critical Skill for the 21st Century according to Europe’s Leading Neuroscientist? And Why are we Losing it? – Martyn Newman & Susan Greenfield

Computers may be Altering our Brains – Susan Greenfield  (The Independent)

Facebook Home could Change our Brains –  Susan Greenfield  (The Telegraph)