Devices weave our brains into a twist

IN OFFICES, living rooms, cafes, cars and trains everywhere, smart technologies are proving us dumb. We are pressing when we should be tapping and swiping when we should be waving. We are uselessly pinching laptop screens to make the writing bigger, jabbing at stubborn desktop monitors with TV remotes, even trying to change TV channels with a mouse.

The cycle of anticipation, followed by annoyance then embarrassment at using the wrong gesture or movement occurs when the brain prematurely transfers a task from the frontal lobe (where it is learnt) to the more primitive basal ganglia, which handles "automatic" actions, says Ross Cunnington of the Queensland Brain Institute at the University of Queensland.

As the tide of digital devices gathers pace, so does the potential for disconnect between hand, eye and machine. Apart from Apple's new iPhone, new smartphones or tablet devices are imminent or just launched from Nokia, Motorola, Sony and Amazon, among others.

''I guess the problem now, with all these devices, is there are just so many different types,'' he said. ''It does put a big load on us'', especially ''unnatural movements'' which, because the physical movement is disconnected from its effect, are a cognitive step beyond ''natural'' gestures like picking up a stick.

Some of Dr Cunnington's research involves ''annoying'' participants by reversing the direction of a mouse control so the cursor moves opposite to the expected direction, so up instead of down, or left instead of right. Happily, he says, the brain adapts quickly: within a couple of minutes for the up-down reversal, or 10 minutes for the ''much harder'' left to right.

When learning how to manage a new machine, all the action is in the frontal lobe. ''People use a lot of visual control … watching their hands, watching the object of the goal they are trying to achieve,'' Dr Cunnington said.

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