An upcoming lecture at the Lafayette Library and Learning Center to be presented by two experts, "Your Brain on Computers: Neuroscience" and "Tech's Devices of Distraction," promises a collision.
Dr. Adam Gazzaley has been traveling in reverse, studying the organically aging brain and memory at the Neuroscience Imaging Center at the University of California, San Francisco.
Matt Richtel has been fast-forwarding, writing for The New York Times about technology and authoring novels and the comic strip Rudy Park, all of which forecast how the Internet is rewiring our lives and our brains.
The two experts, departing from a common point involving attention, memory and neuroscience, have circled full speed in worlds composed of opposite matter, only to arrive together on June 19.
"We've known each other for a while, but I don't know where it will go yet," Gazzaley confesses, in an interview 10 days before the Commonwealth Club presentation. "Given both of our schedules, we'll probably figure it out when we get there!"
It won't be a first meeting. Richtel has come to the neuroscientist for perspectives when writing about technology's effect on the brain, and Gazzaley has welcomed the opportunity to stretch his wings.
"As a scientist, I have to stick to my defined area," he explains, "but talking to Matt allows me to talk about the brain in a broader context."
Minus the specifics of their presentation, Gazzaley is excited
"Studies have shown that young adults can engage in media multi-tasking at a very high level," he says, "but that doesn't mean they have an increased ability to deal with distraction."
Gazzaley mentions ongoing, correlational research showing that children who use instant messaging more often tend to have lower reading skills.
And Richtel quotes Gazzaley in a 2010 NY Times column: "The nonstop interactivity is one of the most significant shifts ever in the human environment. We are exposing our brains to an environment and asking them to do things we weren't necessarily evolved to do. We know already there are consequences."
Which leads to an obvious question: With new forms of technology invading classroom settings and libraries, will our brains be helped, or hurt?
Both, Gazzaley replies -- and because it's often overlooked, he and Richtel are quick to emphasize the good news.
"There are exciting studies showing improved attention abilities and increased resistance to distraction through exposure to technology," Gazzaley insists.
"Imaging studies show the brains of Internet users become more efficient at finding information," Richtel writes.
Understanding their good news/bad news replies involves a little Neuro 101.
Until a person reaches his or her 20s, cognitive ability is on the rise. After that, fluid activities like processing speed and data processing begin to decrease as degenerative changes occur in the brain's prefrontal cortex, neurotransmitters and white matter.
"Both chemical and physiological factors could be causing (the decline)," Gazzaley says, "and although cross-sectional and longitudinal, studies show that these changes might be also affected by environmental factors."
Sounds scary, until he mentions how video gaming may reverse or slow down that process of decline.
"Video gaming is being used for entertainment, but a side effect is the benefit to attention," he says.
Ironically, action video games that feature high interference, a fast pace, intense challenge and immediate rewards offer the greatest brain boost.
"New companies are trying to use these aspects that make (action video games) beneficial." Gazzaley says, adding that the deep engagement the games require may be "immersive" enough to actually improve resistance to distraction.
Mention of video gaming on multiple platforms -- televisions, handheld playstations, tablets and other mobile devices simultaneously competing for attention -- turns the conversation to multi-tasking.
"Simultaneous engagement is a myth," Gazzaley states. "But it always depends on how you define the term 'multi-tasking.' We're not talking about activities like chewing gum or walking. When you are in a situation with two tasks that demand attention, you are rapidly switching between them, not multi-tasking."
Data on multi-switching shows a negative effect on long term and working memory recall, according to Gazzaley.
Richtel suggests an ensuing battle -- the control portion of the brain fights to set priorities while the primitive part of the brain jumps in response to technology's stimulating sights and sounds.
"I don't think it's a high leap to say that technological multi-tasking has a (distracting) impact," Gazzaley concludes.
The one-hour lecture will skim the surface of brain research's endless frontier, but answer common questions about the effects of technology. If he intersection of innovative brain research and pervasive technology has potential to define the road ahead, Gazzaley and Richtel may be the 21 century's Galileo and Neil Armstrong.
WHEN: June 19 (5:45 p.m. check-in, 6:30 p.m. program)
WHERE: Lafayette Library and Learning Center Community Hall
COST: $22 standard, $12 Commonwealth Club members, $7 students (with
TICKETS: www.commonwealthclub.org; 415-597-6705