Have computer habits changed my brain?

An increased reliance on screens has one user doing some unintentional--and strange--things.

One recent evening, after a fellow writer and I had turned off our computer screens and phone screens, we found ourselves playing a wholesome game of ping-pong.

“I’m think the computer is changing my brain,” I told him during an especially long volley. “I’m kind of freaking out about it.”

I proceeded to tell him two things that happened in the last couple months that worried me enough to think seriously about how to spend less time in front of my computer. (A study earlier this year from the Council for Research Excellence shows we spend an average of 8.5 hours a day in front of some sort of screen.)

The first my-brain-has-been-taken-over-by-an-alien occurrence was after I popped the Coen brothers’ Blood Simple into my laptop. The movie began, and I wanted to know the name of an actor on the screen. So I traced my finger across the computer’s track pad to place an arrow on his face--just as you would to identify someone on a Facebook photograph. I quickly realized the insanity of what I was doing, laughed it off and hunted down the actor’s identity on IMDB. But the damage was done. I was now aware that I was confusing technologies and taking actions without even realizing it. And I was alarmed.

The second unsettling event occurred when I was standing at my kitchen counter, working on a New York Times crossword puzzle—with a ballpoint pen on an old fashioned piece of newsprint. I realized that my eyes were darting down to the bottom of the page and then quickly darting back to the puzzle. But my eyes weren’t darting down to look at clues; they were doing it because this is what I do with my eyes all day long. My desktop is set up such that my email icon, which shows the number of emails in my in-box, sits at the bottom of my screen. So when I’m working on a document, I’m constantly peeking down at this icon to check for new mail. This can happen several times every minute. Multiply that by the hours I sit in front of my computer each day, and we’re talking well over a thousand of these eye-darts a day.

When I think about how often the eye-darting happens, it’s no surprise that my eyes have been trained to do this when I’m concentrating on a difficult task—whether it’s writing a story or solving a puzzle. After all, if I trained physically in such a way, say, holding a Pilates pose that many times an hour, for hours each day, I’d be putting Abs of Steel to shame, and I’d marvel at the results. But for some reason, it’s disconcerting that I’ve involuntarily trained my brain to do something I hadn’t intended.

Sometimes, it’s clear that a technology is making my brain work differently. When I use my GPS, for example, I’m conscious of relying on it too much and not paying enough attention to my surroundings, so I make an effort to use it only as a last resort for directions. But these two little incidents were sneaky. They crept into my daily routine, seeping out from one habit or pattern and infiltrating another.

Should I be worried? Do these kinds of things happen all day long, across various mediums, and we’re just not aware of it? Do I need to start training my mind to neutralize subtle brain alterations?

If there’s one thing I know, the answer’s not on the screen. And that means just one thing: time to walk the beagle.

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com