The insidious re-wiring of the brain by tech companies

Changing tech, changing minds

Our lives in the Digital Era are saturated by tech. Our usage of tech, together with the rapid pace of new developments in tech, instill us with a feeling that our existence in the modern era is rapidly speeding up. As has been the case throughout human history, we are changing tech and tech is changing us. This rolling symbiosis may be at the very core of what makes us human.

What does it mean to be human in the modern era?

As Andy Clark suggests in Natural-Born Cyborgs, the combination of the technologies we use and our brain’s inherent plasticity mean our human experience is extended – we think and feel differently because of technologies; in fact, in some sense we think through these technologies. This concept is not new. Even in the last century Marshall McLuhan argued that technologies were an extension of the human function. The book was an extension of the eye; the telephone an extension of the ear.

As digital technologies become more and more refined, more closely adapted to our biology, more interconnected, it will become increasingly difficult to draw the line between where we, as humans, begin and where we end.

Technologies using virtual and augmented realities will challenge this distinction further than we thought possible.

Rewiring our brains

The sensory cortical homunculus (image below) illustrates how much space different parts of our body represent in our brain’s neurological ‘map’ of sensory regions. There is more space dedicated to sensations from our hands, so this area is depicted as larger, relative to areas such as our body’s trunk that takes up less space. I have overlaid some common tech devices to illustrate my observation that our brain re-maps and re-wires in a constant exchange with the digital technologies we use. This ‘Digital Homunculus’ can perhaps help us think through questions such as: how might objects such as smartphones, that are so seamlessly integrated into our actions and sensations, be neurologically mapped?

How much of our consciousness is being taken up exclusively now by these interactive devices?

If these technologies are fundamentally part of us, then does damage or theft to them count as injury to self as well as to property? How much of our selves do we lose if a social media account is blocked or cancelled?

An image of a bran, labelled with the areas that represent the head, trunk, legs etc. Overlayed on the image are common technological devices such as smart phones and games console controllers.

As we share the experiences of our digital detox, we hear stories of mothers who are giving birth refusing to let go of their phone; of teenagers born in the smartphone era who, when deprived of their devices, become unwell; as well as many accounts of the common phenomena of phantom phone vibrations and ringing noises. Each story reinforces what we all feel: an ever-closer union between ourselves and our technologies.

The human experience is increasingly ‘bio-augmented’.

What are tech companies up to?

The role of tech companies in driving this ever closer union between ourselves and our digital devices is clear, and there are compelling reasons for this drive, perhaps the most common being the reduction of barriers to faster communications and enhancing our abilities to connect with peers around the world.

But what about the longer term impact that tech companies have on us – biologically or psychologically?

The first widely-used telecommunication network was devised in France in the late 18th century, using a series of telegraph towers, paddles and codebooks to transmit information at speeds 10 times that of a galloping horse!

The intentions of telecommunications in the 18th century were clear. But can we say the same for our age? With the pace of technological advance comes a need for reflection.

“A GPS device on your phone is designed to get you where you need to go, and it does that. It was not designed to weaken your sense of direction and make you dependent upon it to feel safe in urban or rural areas. Yet it also does that.”

Daniel Schmachtenberger

We can now see in real time the reactions (good, bad & ugly) to what we post on social media; our thoughts, image and identity are suspended in a technical ether. They form a barrier between our selves (including our inner world of thoughts and imagination) as individuals and the rest of the world representing the new frontier of progress for tech companies.

The skill sets of engineers who are employed to solve technical problems around communications are shifting. The building blocks of innovation have shifted from bricks, mortar and physical tools to code and information dynamics. Now, the skill sets include those of the neuroscientist, data scientist and machine learning expert. But what are the intentions of the current tech companies as opposed to the longer term impact on biological humans?

An uneven arms race in the information world

The role of these engineers and their skill sets is of particular relevance for us on this journey to using technology with intentionality (rather than being used by technology and technology companies).

In order for us to maintain our biological human sovereignty and use technology with intentionality, we need to better understand our relationship with digital technologies and to unpick the dopaminergic pull of technology and how this affects us.

Technologies are being built and designed to appeal to us in more and more precise ways. Algorithms provide suggestions to us based on our behaviour (and the usage of those like us). Features like the endless scroll draw on our propensity for novelty and the desire to find out more. Precisely timed notifications – built on intermittent reinforcement schedules – remind us of our need for food, companionship and connection. ‘Like’ buttons draw on our need for social acceptance. Vivid colour schemes catch our eye and draw our attention from the subtler, natural beauty of the world around us.

As has been revealed in court testimonies by former tech employees, tech companies have been hacking human weaknesses in order to gain more attention. Why? People only have so much attention during the day, but tech companies somehow needed to get more attention time (to sell onto eager advertisers), and this extra time was only achieved through hacking basic human needs and hacking the brain’s limbic system.


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The level of understanding in the general public of the dopamine system and addiction is far behind those in the tech industry. We find ourselves in an uneven arms race – perhaps the only way to fight back is through arming ourselves with greater understanding.

Information is that which changes us – literally in-forms us. This is our attempt at using information to change ourselves for the better.

“Watch your thoughts. They become words. Watch your words. They become actions. Watch your actions. They become habits. Watch your habits. They become character. Watch your character. It becomes your destiny.”


Let’s continue our journey and find out more about dopamine and how that affects us- when using technology.

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