Cognition Expert: Technology Is Making Us Think Differently

For Pat Scannell, it’s important to think about how humans think—and how that may be changing.

A veteran strategist who has helped wireless carriers, telecoms, governments and businesses take advantage of technology advancements, Scannell has turned his attention to human cognition and how high-tech society may be shaping the way we think. He recently stopped by for a 4Front podcast episode to share his thoughts about the intersection of technology and the human brain.

A native of Lake Placid, New York, Scannell joined the military and later studied at the University of Maine. After meeting his future wife and following her to Colorado, he earned a finance degree at the University of Colorado and started work on a doctoral degree focusing on electronic privacy issues. During that time, Scannell founded an internet service company but sold it during the dot-com bust. Through a friend, he landed a consulting job at Sprint, kicking off a 20-year career in telecom, mostly helping adjacent industries evolve and adapt to telecom advancements.

In addition, he became interested in research about the impact of technology on human cognition—and that led him to a new career path fusing neuroscience, sociology and archeology. He wrote two books examining the co-evolution of thought and technology in primates and humans, respectively.

His newest book, The Future of Thought, proposes that technology is actually disrupting human cognition. He notes that the human brain was hardwired during a time when danger was everywhere, and resources were scarce. As a result of that psychological evolution, we still tend to do things like watch too much violent TV and eat unhealthy foods.

“But over the past 100 years,” he said, “we’ve doubled life spans, we’ve radically transformed foods, we’ve fundamentally altered all those evolutionary conditions and factors that shaped the rise of the brain.”

The link between technology and the mind isn’t new. A 2016 research study of 245 young adults found that during a two-day period, stress levels—measured through participants’ cortisol hormone levels—decreased or increased depending on the media that they consumed. A 2017 study of 423 young adults found that 32.6 percent of participants who binge-watched TV shows reported poor sleep quality, indicating stress.

Scannell argues that technology can actually be harnessed to help us think better. For example, people can now use devices such as the Apple Watch to monitor their heart-rate variability—not the number of beats per minute but rather the interval between heartbeats—to track stress.

“Let’s say you you’re watching TV to tune out,” Scannell said, “but what you find is that you’re actually getting more stressed out, and you’re getting more cortisol, and you’re having worse sleep at night—which your bed knows because it’s measuring the quality of your sleep—and when you wake up in the morning, you have a crappy workout. All of these things are tied together. We can instrument the human body, and we can do so with technology that’s quite passive.”

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