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February 16, 2019 Saturday 11:46:58 AM IST


Cover Story

If you were to compare the best artificial intelligence (AI) model available in the world with the human brain, what will be your conclusion? Research and development in computing has advanced to such a level that the best AI system available today can outpace many of the human faculties, but the frontal lobe function of human brain is yet to be challenged. This includes reasoning and problem solving, creativity, emotion and empathy, planning and executive function and the greatest mystery of consciousness. Yet this makes our brain vulnerable as frontal lobe function often bears the brunt in any prolonged stress.

But, won’t an evolution with regression of frontal function result in an AI apocalypse?  It will be the scariest thing to happen if the AI takes over the world as portrayed in contemporary science fiction. Various science fiction movies, from The Matrix to Extinction have exploited viewers’ anxiety around AI. Many such plots center around a concept called ‘the Singularity,’ the moment in which AIs become more intelligent than their human creators. The scenarios differ, but they often end with the total eradication of the human race, or with machine overlords subjugating people. But aren’t we slowly surrendering ourselves to the cyber world which can result in a human generation impuissant to such an invasion?

PRE FRONTAL CORTEX, The marvel of human brain: The prefrontal cortex (PFC) is the cerebral cortex that lies directly behind the eyes and the forehead.

This brain region has been implicated in planning complex cognitive behavior, personality expression, decision making, and moderating social behavior. The basic activity of this brain region is considered to be orchestration of thoughts and actions in accordance with internal goals. The most typical psychological term for functions carried out by the prefrontal cortex area is executive function. Executive function relates to abilities to differentiate among conflicting thoughts, determine good and bad, better and best, same and different, future consequences of current activities, working toward a defined goal, prediction of outcomes, expectation based on actions, and social ‘control’. The prefrontal cortex in humans occupies a far larger percentage of the brain than any other animal. 

The complex connections of prefrontal cortex to the other parts of brain gave a winning edge to human race resulting in their dominance in evolution.  When we have a long-term goal, which we are pursuing with value-congruent action, we maintain a neural representation of that goal so as not to be distracted or influenced by competing goals or alternate values. If the PFC is damaged, it affects our personalities and the ability to orient our behavior in line with our values and goals. The PFC is vital to the sense of self and others necessary for healthy interpersonal relationships and decision making.

There is a complex interconnection between the (1) The Nucleus Accumbens (NAc), (which has been implicated in playing a primary role in addictive behaviours through the processing of rewards that motivate behavior, including problematic behaviours) (2) The Amygdala, (which has been implicated in playing a key role in triggering impulsive behaviours from conditioned cues) and (3) The mid cingulate cortex, (which is involved with self-control or inhibition processes in response to impulsions generated). The reward centre of brain (NAc) is connected to the PFC through the mesolimbic pathway.

In a recent functional MRI study from UCLA, the dopaminergic neurons (DA) of Nucleus Accumbens was found to be activated when teenagers saw a large number of ‘likes’ on their own photos in a social network. Studies have also shown that, when Internet Gaming addicted adolescents were thinking about their own game characters, more global and significant medial prefrontal (MPFC) and anterior cingulate (ACC) activations were observed, than even when compared to thinking about them.


Some of the positive impacts of social media platforms include, that it is great for making and maintaining relationships with people, self-expression, self-identity, emotional support, and community building.  While on the other hand, the negative impacts of social media platforms include issues like increased levels of depression and anxiety, poor sleep quality, dissatisfaction with body image, cyberbullying etc.  In general, these negative impacts of social media are typically attributed to unrealistic depictions in posts that cause viewers to feel inadequate.  This feeling of inadequacy and low self-esteem can lead to these negative impacts. Notwithstanding the positive impacts of technologies on humans, technology-related addictions seem to be fairly prevalent. A recent meta-analysis suggests that globally the prevalence rate is about 6% and that it varies by country, ranging from 2.6% to 10.9%. While the negative outcomes of such addictions may not always be as devastating as those generated by severe substance addictions, they attack the vulnerable population of adolescents and young-adults and can have a myriad of negative effects on individuals’ work, school and social functioning, wellbeing and psychological states, as well as on their sleep hygiene and long-term cardio-metabolic health.

Addiction is often initiated by hyperactivity of the system that assesses rewards and drives impulsive behaviours.  In a recent functional MRI based study on changes in volume of specific regions of brain in long-term addictions, it was found that people with high social network site (SNS) addiction have a pruned amygdala, which is presumably involved in generating strong impulsive behaviours. (Blue colored area showed reduction in the grey matter volume of amygdala). In contrast with other addictions, there was a positive association between the volume of the mid cingulate cortex (yellow coloured area) and SNS addiction, which proves the unique changes in brain.

Another study on youths with Internet Addiction Disorder (IAD) showed that internet-addicted adolescents tended to have reduced gray matter and white matter in key areas of the brain associated with “cognitive control” and “goal-directed behavior”.


In a recent study of high school students on the effect of technological distractions on study habits, it was found that students could concentrate for an average of just three minutes at a stretch. Students reported that even without the constant reminders provided by notification lights and sounds, they were internally preoccupied with whether anyone was trying to get in touch with them or commenting on their statuses.


On an emotional level, posting a Facebook status, a tweet, or an Instagram photo feeds on and reinforces our need for instant approving feedback. Becoming too used to instant gratification in the virtual world can lead to poor choices and major frustrations in the real world.


In a study connecting the relationship between two aspects of narcissism with Facebook behaviour, people with grandiose exhibitionism tended to use Facebook for self-promoting activities, such as frequently updating statuses and posting photos. Those who showed high levels of exploitativeness were likely to exhibit anti-social Facebook behaviours, such as reacting angrily to critical comments.


An AMA (American Medical Association) study in 2012 showed that our round-the-clock exposure to artificial light—even low-level light from computer and TV screens—can throw off our circadian rhythms, with negative effects from depression and mood disorders to increased risk for cancer and cardiovascular diseases.


The influence of smart phones in present day lifestyle is alarmingly high. As many as 91% adults keep their smart phones within arm’s reach, 90% text messages get read within three minutes of delivery, 22% use smartphones in the loo, 84% take their phones to bed, 56% check phones during meals,  15% admit that they text while driving,  60% use phones for games and entertainment mostly and 55% watch videos every day. Chronic social media use may affect trait self-esteem negatively, while state self-esteem can also be affected by incidental use. In fact, research shows that people who use Facebook frequently report higher depression rates and decreased well-being. In conclusion, it is clear that during the past 10 years, online social networking has caused significant changes in the way people communicate and interact. It is unclear, however, whether some of these changes affect normal aspects of human behaviour and cause psychiatric disorders. In the future, additional research will be needed to identify and describe the potential relationship between the use of SNS (social networking service) and various mental health issues.


The Internet Addiction Test (IAT; Young, 1998) is a 20-item scale that measures the severity of self-reported compulsive use of the Internet for adults and adolescents. After reading each statement carefully, please select the response (0, 1, 2, 3, 4 or 5) which best represents how you are most of the time during the past month. 

0 = Not Applicable, 1 = Rarely, 2 = Occasionally, 3 = Frequently, 4 = Often, 5 = Always

1.                      How often do you find that you stay online longer than you intended? ___

2.                     How often do you neglect household chores to spend more time online? ___

3.                     How often do you prefer the excitement of the Internet to intimacy with someone? ___

4.                     How often do you form new relationships with fellow online users? ___

5.                     How often do others in your life complain about the time you spend online? ___

6.                     How often do your grades or school work suffers because of the amount of time you spend online? ___

7.                     How often do you check your email before something else that you need to do? ___

8.                    How often does your job performance or productivity suffer because of Internet? ___

9.                     How often do you become defensive or secretive when anyone asks you what you do online? ___

10.                 How often do you block out disturbing thoughts about your life with soothing thoughts of the Internet? ___

11.                  How often do you find yourself anticipating when you will go online again? ___

12.                 How often do you fear that life without the Internet would be boring, empty, and joyless? ___

13.                 How often do you snap, yell, or act annoyed if someone bothers you while you are online? ___

14.                 How often do you lose sleep due to being online? ___

15.                  How often do you feel preoccupied with the Internet when off-line, or fantasize about being online? ___

16.                 How often do you find yourself saying "just a few more minutes" when online? ___

17.                  How often do you try to cut down the time you spend online and fail? ___

18.                 How often do you try to hide how long you've been online? ___

19.                 How often do you choose to spend more time online over going out with others? ___

20.                How often do you feel depressed, moody or nervous when you are off-line, which goes away once you are back online? ___


SCORING:  Total scores that range from 0 to 30 points are considered to reflect a normal level of Internet usage; scores of 31 to 49 indicate the presence of a mild level of Internet addiction; 50 to 79 reflect the presence of a moderate level; and scores of 80 to 100 indicate a severe dependence upon the Internet. 

DIGITAL RESPONSIBILITY - Be in control of your digital life: It is our responsibility to use technology in a way that doesn't harm others and to be aware of the impact that technology has on our health, environment, and society at large.

General Solutions for Healthy Technology Use

·         Take breaks, both large and small. A tech break can be as small as stepping away from your desk to take a short walk across the room or as large as declaring a technology blackout for an entire day each week.  

·         Try giving up your virtual world and discover real social life.

·         Examine your motivations. Try cutting down on the number of posts or status updates you make each day. Ask yourself whether you are posting for narcissistic reasons or with true connection as a goal.

·         Turn off the lights—all of them. To avoid disrupting your sleep rhythms, turn off all your screens an hour or two before you go to bed and give your eyes a rest. Follow a fixed schedule for your sleep.

Dr. Jagath lal Gangadharan

Consultant and Head, Department of Neurosurgery, Rajagiri Healthcare and Education Project, Aluva, Kerala. [Formerly Associate ProfessorNIMHANS, Bangalore].

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