When we are bored, we should not be on our electronic devices, but rather doing something more productive, such as memorizing something. But if technology can actually improve memory, then what’s the point of putting it away?
What do you do when you’re bored? Maybe you take a nap, watch some TV, eat some snacks, or just go on your phone. All of these are common ways to fight boredom, but they do not do anything to further your productiveness. In fact, all of these are things that can distract you from focusing in on your deep work when you need to the most. Our brains are being rewired to embrace distractions subconsciously and to look for them in case we get the slightest bit bored while engaging in deep work.
In Cal Newport‘s Deep Work, he emphasizes that getting your brain to solely concentrate on deep work is a tall task for someone who’s never done it before, and that a large amount of concentration training is needed in order to rewire your brain to prevent the urge to get distracted.
One method Newport suggests you do in order to improve concentration is to engage in memory practices. He explains that one of the “biggest differences between memory athletes and the rest of us is in a cognitive ability that’s not a direct measure of memory but of attention.” This, Newport explains, shows us that memory training is linked to concentration improvements. This skill is not only essential to improving how efficiently you work, but also in improving your life. James Fallows interviewed Linda Stone in his article, “The art of staying focused in a distracted world,” where Stone told Fallows that as a child, “you [read or built] things for your own pleasure and joy. You were in a state of relaxed presence as you explored your world.” Stone explains how society has made it more difficult for adults to be in a state of relaxed presence, but that if we engage ourselves in an activity that requires a lot of attention, we will be able to return to that state. We know, therefore, that memory plays a big role in improving concentration, and the benefits that having a strengthened ability to concentrate can do for your life, but the question we must now answer is: how do we improve our memory?
This is where, quite frankly, technology comes back into play. It might sound crazy, but here’s what I’m saying: technology can ultimately improve your ability to resist distractions, including those coming from technology. It sounds like a stretch, but if technology can improve memory, and memory can improve concentration, then technology is indirectly improving your concentration.
Of course, when I say technology, I am mainly pointing towards video games. Michael Stevens, executive producer of the YouTube Premium series Mind Field (now free to watch), explores this theory in “Your Brain on Tech” (S2E4), which was released December 6, 2017. His experiment goes as follows: he will play video games intensively for ten days, while a control group does not play video games at all during those ten days. Before and after the gaming, he will participate not only in computerized memory tests, but in a real world spatial memory test that involves him traveling through a 3600 sq. ft. maze while trying to find objects in a particular order as fast as possible.
All of these tests are supposed to train and grow your hippocampus, which, according to University of California, Irvine professor of neurobiology and behavior Craig Stark, “is really involved when you need to rapidly form new and arbitrary associations.” Some examples he provides include remembering what we did yesterday or where exactly in a parking lot we parked our car.
Will playing video games improve my mental skills in the real world? If so, society will have a whole new way to look at gaming.Michael Stevens, Mind Field S2E4 (Your Brain on Tech)
What were the results of the experiment after Stevens’s ten days of intensive gaming? The UC Irvine researchers built a new maze that was isomorphic (same level of difficulty, variables, etc., just different design). During the new test, Stevens says “Instead of thinking of the overall geography of the maze like I did last time, this time I was remembering specific details.” This included how many right turns to make, which corners to hug, etc. The results of the maze experiment: while the control group (those who didn’t play video games over the ten days) got a bit slower on the second maze, Stevens actually performed faster on the second maze than the first maze.
In terms of the other experiments, Stevens performed ten points better on the computerized tests, which Craig Stark says equals 20 years of growth normally. Imagine that? Just ten days of intensive gaming improves our memory as much as it would improve after 20 years of aging.
Lastly, while Stevens’s hippocampus did not grow during the ten days, some parts inside the hippocampus changed shape, according to Craig Stark, which shows that even throughout adulthood, our brains are still changing, something Stevens mentioned himself.
The big takeaway is that doing things, giving your brain something to learn, something to do, something to figure out…this is what we think is actually keeping your brain sharp.Craig Stark, University of California, Irvine professor of neurobiology and behavior.
It’s truly fascinating to learn about all of these studies on gaming and their positive impact on our memory. I wonder how Cal Newport would respond if I told him that video games can indirectly strengthen our ability to resist distractions while in a state of deep work. Either way, I am so happy to be living in a world where we can use technology to study our brain and to figure out how knowledge and learning can strengthen our brain to our full cognitive capabilities.