Researchers: Digital devices deprive brain of needed downtime

Cell phones, which in the last few years have become full-fledged computers with high-speed internet connections, can make the tiniest windows of time entertaining, and potentially productive. But scientists point to an unanticipated side effect, reports the New York Times: When people keep their brains busy with digital input, they are forfeiting downtime that could allow them to better learn and remember information, or come up with new ideas. At the University of California, San Francisco, scientists have found that when rats have a new experience, like exploring an unfamiliar area, their brains show new patterns of activity. But only when the rats take a break from their exploration do they process those patterns in a way that seems to create a persistent memory of the experience. The researchers suspect that the findings also apply to how humans learn. “Almost certainly, downtime lets the brain go over experiences it’s had, solidify them, and turn them into permanent long-term memories,” said Loren Frank, assistant professor in the department of physiology at the university, where he specializes in learning and memory. He said he believed that when the brain was constantly stimulated, “you prevent this learning process.”

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