Technology-assisted communication can damage brain development

Technology-assisted communication can damage brain development

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Summary: Face-to-face interactions elicited nine significant cross-brain connections between frontal and temporal brain regions, while remote communications elicited only one.

source: University of Montreal

Video conferencing services are proliferating—there’s Zoom, Teams, Messenger, FaceTime, Skype, WhatsApp—and since the COVID-19 pandemic, they’re being used more intensively than ever.

While the transition to technology-enhanced communication has permeated all aspects of social life over the past three years, there is scant scientific literature on its impact on the social brain.

Can technologically mediated interactions have neurobiological consequences that interfere with the development of social and cognitive abilities?

An international research team including Guillaume Dumas, professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Addiction at the Université de Montréal and principal investigator in the Precision Psychiatry and Social Physiology Laboratory at the CHU Sainte-Justine Research Center, wanted to find out.

Dumas is also an Associate Academic Member of Mila, the Quebec Institute for Artificial Intelligence, and holds the IVADO Chair in Artificial Intelligence and Mental Health. His research interests include social neuroscience, systems biology and artificial intelligence.

In this study, the research team compared electrical brain activity during face-to-face interaction and technology-assisted remote communication in 62 mother-child pairs in which the children were aged 10 to 14 years.

Using a technique called hyperscanning, which can simultaneously record the brain activity of multiple subjects, the research team found that interacting via a videoconferencing platform weakened mother-child brain synchrony.

Literally on the same wavelength

A few years ago, Dumas demonstrated that human brains tend to synchronize spontaneously when engaged in social interaction, ie. their electrical rhythms oscillate at the same frequency.

“Interbrain synchrony is related to the development of social cognition,” Dumas explained. “Resonance between brains allows children to learn to distinguish between themselves and others, to learn social relationships.”

The study found that face-to-face interactions produced nine significant cross-brain connections between the frontal and temporal regions of the brain, while remote interactions generated only one.

“If the synchrony between the brain is disrupted, we can expect consequences for the child’s cognitive development, especially for the mechanisms that support social interaction,” said Dumas. “And these are lifelong effects.”

Fundamentally social creatures

In light of the findings, Dumas believes more research is needed on the potential impact of social technology on brain maturation, especially in young people. In particular, he questions the appropriateness of online learning for teenagers.

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Technology-assisted communication can damage brain development
The study found that face-to-face interactions produced nine significant cross-brain connections between the frontal and temporal regions of the brain, while remote interactions generated only one. Image is in the public domain

“I wonder about the digitization of education and the impact of the pandemic on the development of social cognition in young people at a time when human relationships are fragmented,” he said.

“This is an important question, but a difficult one to answer given that the full effects will not be known for 10, 15 or 20 years.”

According to Dumas, the study’s findings can be extrapolated to adults and may explain the widespread “scale fatigue” following the rise of video conferencing during the COVID lockdown: “Since online interactions produce less synchrony between the brain, it is understandable, that people would feel they have to expend more effort and energy to interact,” he suggested. “Interactions seem more laborious and less natural.”

Dumas believes that the research confirms that social relationships are extremely important to humans and that brain-to-brain mechanisms are linked to the development of the social brain.

“These results are consistent with the results of a study we conducted on the power of a mother’s scent and another that found that a gentle touch from a romantic partner has the power to reduce pain,” he said.

It seems that people are connected to each other through a technology more powerful than Zoom or Teams: our brains.

About this news about neurodevelopmental and communication research

Author: Press office
source: University of Montreal
Contact: Press Office – University of Montreal
Image: Image is in the public domain

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