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Email has turned office workers into 'hi-tech lab rats', says expert

December 7, 2010 - London

A leading expert has claimed that email has turned office workers into no more than lab rats desperately craving "pellets of social interaction".

Increasing levels of information overload from computer and smart phone screens cause a "bottleneck" in the brain and prevent any deep thought, according to Nicholas Carr, former executive editor of the Harvard Business Review.

Carr, a former business of the Harvard Business Review, whose books include 'The Shallows: What The Internet Is Doing To Our Brains', said email exploits a basic human instinct to search for new information, causing us to become addicted to our inboxes.

The natural impulses that helped early humans find food and avoid predators are causing us to regress to a state no more sophisticated than a rat in a laboratory, he said.

A recent study found that British office workers look at their email inboxes at least 30 times an hour.

For each bit of new information we find our brain releases a dose of dopamine, a pleasure-inducing chemical which has been linked to addictive behaviour.

"Our gadgets have turned us into hi-tech lab rats, mindlessly pressing levers in the hope of receiving a pellet of social or intellectual nourishment," The Telegraph quoted Carr as telling Esquire magazine.

"What makes digital messages all the more compelling is their uncertainty. There's always the possibility that something important is waiting for us in our inbox ...[which] overwhelms our knowledge that most online missives are trivial," Carr added.

Scientists fear that divided attention could damage the thought process and the ability to concentrate, and possibly lead to irrational behaviour.

Carr said the abundance of information we are exposed to through various screens "gets in the way of deep thinking" and "obstructs understanding, impedes the formation of memories and makes learning more difficult".

He explained: "When we take in too much data too quickly, as we do skipping between links, our working memory gets swamped. We suffer from what brain scientists call cognitive overload."

This results in us retaining very little information and failing to connect what we do remember to experiences stored in our long-term memory, meaning our thoughts are "thin and scattered".


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