Digital Overload: Your Brain On Gadgets The constant stream of information we get through mobile and hand-held devices is changing the way we think. Matt Richtel, a technology writer for The New York Times, explains how the use of digital technology is altering our brains -- and how retreating into nature may reverse the effects.

Digital Overload: Your Brain On Gadgets

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This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

With computers, smartphones, apps, we have the potential of being constantly connected just about anyplace we go: pretty amazing, but maybe sometimes a little overwhelming, like you can never get away. Even on vacation, it doesn't stop.

Scientists have been investigating how being constantly plugged in is affecting our brains and our stress levels.

My guest, Matt Richtel, is a technology reporter for the New York Times who has been writing about this new science. He won a Pulitzer Prize this year for his series of articles "Driven to Distraction," about the dangers of driving while multitasking with cell phones and other digital devices.

Matt Richtel, welcome to FRESH AIR. You've come up with a term I really like, the screen invasion, to describe how we're always connected to a screen, whether when we're in a car or at our desk or walking down the street. Just describe the state of the screen invasion right now.

Mr. MATT RICHTEL (Technology Reporter, New York Times): Well, I think you've actually done it well. There are - at one time, a screen meant maybe something in your living room. But now it's something in your pocket. So it goes everywhere. And I guess we've all experienced it.

It can be behind the wheel. It can be at the dinner table. It can be - I guess we'll get this interview started off on the right slightly off-color note: It can be in the bathroom. We see it everywhere today.

GROSS: And it certainly feels to me like I'm consuming more information than I used to, because there's always another email to read in addition to all the reading that I have to do for my job. Is that scientifically true, that Americans on the whole are consuming more information than we used to?

Mr. RICHTEL: Yeah, absolutely. I don't want to overwhelm you with numbers in the spirit of what you've just said. It's in some of our articles. But I believe it's three times the amount of information we consumed in 1960.

If you look at some of the data that we've reported, people sit at their desks and, you know, they can check something like 40 websites a day. They will switch programs sitting at a desk something like 36 times an hour. It's a kind of an onslaught of information coming today.

GROSS: And before we get to what that's doing to our brains, let's talk about vacations. And with the end of summer, vacation time has kind of run out for a lot of people, but vacation, one of the things you look forward to now with vacations, it's - you're going to get a break from that flow of data, though some people don't get a break. They don't want the break. They take - you know, they're still, like, texting and emailing and surfing and all of that stuff.

So you did this really interesting article. You went basically on a retreat or a vacation with several scientists who are all studying the impact of this, you know, digital data on our brains. And tell us about what the rules were for this vacation.

Mr. RICHTEL: I guess it was a rule, or I guess it was maybe just the reality of going to a place where it was impossible to break the rule, the rule being no devices.

And we were in the San Juan River, southern part of Utah, right at the four corners. And the reason why I say the rule was not breakable was there was no cell phone coverage. There was no Internet.

We crossed the first day under this 150-foot bridge, right after we launched our rafts, and one of the scientists said it's the end of civilization, by which he meant your cell phone will no longer work.

GROSS: So what was the goal of this vacation or trip or retreat or experiment, whatever you want to call it?

Mr. RICHTEL: The goal of this retreat/vacation/trip was, I suppose, several-fold. One goal was to go on vacation. These are elite neuroscientists. There were five. They happened to be all men, although the trip's organizer had invited more, including some women. These were the five that said yes.

Partly they wanted to get away. Partly, though, they wanted to effectively go on vacation and see it through a neurologic lens. They wanted to take a look at what was happening to their brains and their perspectives, and by extension ours, as they got off the grid.

And those were the two key elements to the trip.

GROSS: Basically the scientists were divided in half, between people who thought that it would make a really big difference to be away from all the digital data and the scientists who thought it wouldn't. Would you describe the differences in their points of view?

Mr. RICHTEL: Yeah, I mean, this was really - it took a while for me to kind of pick up that you tend to think of, well, elite scientists, they must be elite, different from us in some way.

But on a basic level, there was a rift in this group that is the same rift, I think, that - the same discussion, debate we're having among ourselves and our friends. And that is, a couple of these guys felt like going in that heavy technology use changed their ability to focus, to attend to things.

And so on the day-to-day basis in their own lives, they tried to keep it occasionally at arm's length. That was two of the five.

And three of the five went in saying, look, this is an enormous tool for me, technology. As academics, we need it to stay in touch with our peers, the people who work for us, our graduate students. We need to follow the latest developments. It is invaluable, and therefore, whatever small problems or inattention it creates or distraction far pales by comparison to the benefits. And that's a debate I suppose we're all having.

GROSS: One of the things that the scientists talked about is a phenomenon that I've noticed on my vacations, although I never had a name for it, but it's called the three-day effect. What is it?

Mr. RICHTEL: Three-day effect, you start to feel more relaxed. Maybe you sleep a little better. Maybe you don't reach for your phone pinging in your pocket or even feel compelled to. Maybe you wait a little longer before answering a question. Maybe you don't feel in a rush to do anything. Your sense of urgency fades.

It's something that didn't surprise anybody on the trip. It certainly didn't surprise me or my editors. But I think what made it interesting is they were trying to put science to this question, or rather they said: Let's see if we can identify anything in this three-day effect that might be the basis for future study that might help us understand what is happening to us when we're overwhelmed by data, and what happens to us when we get away from it.

GROSS: So did the scientists reach any conclusions as a result of this trip, and did anybody's conclusion contradict the beliefs that they had when they first started this vacation?

Mr. RICHTEL: Well, I am a journalist. So you will get a yes and no answer.

GROSS: Okay.

Mr. RICHTEL: I will give you both sides. I think to some extent, at least the skeptics, who I described earlier, did see a bit of a change in their perspective.

It was not a wholesale change, but they did say, you know, I notice that I am not quite as engaged in my world when I'm constantly using devices as I am when I'm away from them. I notice that I can I can give myself over to conversations a little bit differently, and I may change my own behavior.

They also said that revelation, if you will, let's call it a small R, will inform my research going forward and may help us reach broader conclusions for other folks. But they didn't say: I understand now what is happening to the brain. They simply said: There is something that merits real study here.

GROSS: So you've been looking at how technology, digital technology, is changing people's lives and changing their brains. So what's the lens that you're looking through? What are some of the things you've been looking for as a reporter?

Mr. RICHTEL: You know, halfway through this year, writing about this and following on the distracted driving series last year, I think we've come upon an analogy that really informs how we're covering this and that as I've spoken to scientists, they've embraced, too. And the analogy is technology as analogous to food. Shall I go on?

GROSS: Yes, go on.

Mr. RICHTEL: So just as food nourishes us and we need it for life, so too in the 21st century, in the modern age, we need technology. You cannot survive without the communications tools. The productivity tools are essential. And yet, food has pros and cons to it. We know that some food is Twinkies and some is Brussels sprouts. And we know that if we overeat, it causes problems.

Similarly, after, say, 20 years of glorifying all technology as if all computers were good and all use of it was good, I think science is beginning to embrace the idea that some technology is Twinkies, and some technology is Brussels sprouts.

And if we consume too much technology, just like if we consume too much food, it can have ill effects. And that is the moment in time we find ourselves in with this series and with the way we are digesting, if you will, technology all over the place, everywhere today.

GROSS: So what is that line between it being helpful and, you know, nourishing and being a hazard?

Mr. RICHTEL: That is exactly the question. What is the line right now when we go from a kind of technology nourishment to a kind of obesity, to a kind of stepping backwards, to a kind of distraction that rather than informing us or making us more productive, distracts us, impedes our relationships, impedes our productivity?

And there's ample evidence, or rather, let's say, growing evidence that that line is closer than we've imagined or that we've acknowledged.


GROSS: So do you think that the scientists ended this vacation with the feeling that vacations are important, that they're important for our brains, as well as to relax and have fun?

Mr. RICHTEL: Unequivocal yes. I mean, they walked away basically saying that people need to take breaks. They aren't sure from a scientific perspective how long the break needs to be, but as one of them said, I thought beautifully, one of the skeptics, he said we didn't understand how aspirin worked for years, even when we were prescribing it. We didn't understand the scientific mechanism. He said, I'm prepared to tell you I don't know exactly the scientific mechanism behind vacation, but you ought to be taking it.

GROSS: You know, and I can tell you, too, just from my experience, that the difference between a weekend, Saturday and Sunday, and a three-day weekend, Friday, Saturday and Sunday, is huge. And it reminds me of that three-day effect idea we were talking about.

Mr. RICHTEL: You may have alluded to this earlier, about the value of downtime. Some of the science we're looking at now is, I guess, a bit indirect, if you will. For instance, take the effect of downtime for rats. When - at UCSF, they've been doing experiments about how rats learn.

When a rat has a new experience, say standing on a table, through brainwave measurements, they can tell that the rat basically expresses new neurons, new neural activity.

If the rat has then downtime, those neural networks and those new neurons make their way from the hippocampus, a part of the brain that's kind of a gateway for memory, into the rest of the brain. In other words, in short, during downtime, you record memory, you set the basis for learning.

Well, by contrast, what happens if you don't have downtime? What if in the quiet moments, you are fiddling with your device? What if sitting at the bus stop, instead of kind of letting your mind wander, you're playing a quick, casual game? What if, you know, standing in line at the grocery store, you're taking a photo or checking a photo or checking your email?

There seems to be some evidence that this constant use of our devices, in addition to being entertaining and maybe creating productivity, takes a neurological toll.

GROSS: That we don't have time to process what we've learned or even to remember it.

Mr. RICHTEL: And also, conceivably, some scholars say, although again this is based on hypothesis from indirect evidence, that you're not spending time creating.

So during boredom, if you will, you oftentimes may create something. You may entertain yourself with a thought. You may augment something that you've been - an idea you've been doing at work, and then that period of time, you're not doing that.

Just one other thing: When you are constantly on your device, there is clear evidence to show this, you can be experiencing stress. For instance, very clear research will show, out of the University of California, that will show that - I believe the Irvine campus - that when you're constantly interrupted by email, you are experiencing stress. Stress equals stress hormones. Stress hormones take their toll on the brain. Specifically, cortisol gets released, and that can have an effect on long-term memory production.

GROSS: What's the effect on long-term memory?

Mr. RICHTEL: Well, again, this is an area where we're kind of drawing some conclusions from indirect evidence. And the short answer is, we're not sure yet what the cortisol release from heavy technology use does, but over time, heavy cortisol production can reduce your ability to form memories.

So if you add up a whole bunch of shots of cortisol, you can create some memory impact.

GROSS: Wow. So the picture that you're painting is the more data that we take in, the less we remember, the more stressed we are and the less creative we become.

Mr. RICHTEL: I'm going to say that. Let's say that all in small letters and maybe in parentheses because that is the hypotheses that researchers are going on and that they're trying to explore and that indirect evidence suggests to us today.

What we're piecing together in this series is some of that neurological evidence with a whole bunch of behavioral evidence. So let's call it the, you know, the science of the brain and the science of behavior that we're trying to marry together in this series as a way to offer pointers about what all this technology use is doing.

You know, behavioral evidence is this fascinating stuff out of, for instance, Stanford, that would suggest that heavy multimedia multitaskers have more trouble filtering out irrelevant information. They have more trouble staying focused.

They tend to have more trouble, remarkably enough, switching between tasks. You would think heavy multitaskers would switch more easily. But they have more trouble switching.

This stuff doesn't tell us cause and effect. We don't know, are the heavy multimedia-taskers folks who, by definition, are - have more trouble with these things, or is the heavy multimedia causing them to have more trouble with these things?

But when you marry it with the neurological evidence we talked about a little bit ago, a picture starts to form that to the scholar seems very scary. And that picture is, in a nutshell, do this stuff a lot, you have - do this multimedia a lot, multitask a lot, it starts to take a toll neurologically on your abilities, on your proficiency, on - let's put it this way - your capabilities.

GROSS: Well, that's very ironic because we think when we're multitasking that we're really doing great, we're getting two things done for the price of one, or three things done in the amount of time it should take to do one thing. But what are scientists learning about how efficiently we're doing any of those two or three things when we do them at the same time?

Mr. RICHTEL: Yeah, this is another place where I don't have to equivocate. It's pretty clear to scientists you cannot do more than one thing at a time. This research goes back years, and it is having like its new day in the sun, its new applicability.

Your brain effectively processes one stream of information at a time. I've heard this very basic test from a Stanford scientist that has stuck with me. It's a kind of cocktail party test that researchers have known about for years, where if you sit at a cocktail party and you're listening to the person in front of you, you can't really listen to the person behind you.

In fact, you may pick up very basic things like your name being said, if someone says it behind you, but beyond that, you're not processing both those streams of information.

So apply that to the person sitting at a desk, fiddling with a device or trying to read an IM while surfing a website or talking on the phone to a boss or colleague or subordinate. What you are basically doing is switching rapidly among those tasks, not doing them at the same time.

And all the research says when you switch among those tasks, you cut your effectiveness at each one of them by a significant degree.

GROSS: We've been talking about some of the downsides that scientists are finding about how, you know, constant texting and emailing and surfing the Internet is affecting our brains, our attention, our memory, our creativity. There's probably upsides, too. Are there scientists who believe that our brains are becoming, like, more sparkling and better wired and that we're developing new capacities with our brains because of all this new stuff that we're doing?

Mr. RICHTEL: Yeah, absolutely. And one interesting study out of the University of Rochester shows that there is some evidence that when you play a certain kind of video game, you develop more visual acuity. You can pick up more things on a screen.

In addition to that, there's, as we started out comparing technology to food, there's enormous nutritional value to technology in terms of the fact that you can offload some of your thinking onto a computer.

Now, this isn't exactly a neurological impact, but it is certainly worth noting. For instance, you know, when I came down to the studio today, I let my Google maps get me directions here, rather than taking up someone's time here, calling them on the phone.

I can now look things up on the computer with great ease that I couldn't do before. I can make calculations that I wasn't able to do before. I can save information and organize it in ways I couldn't do before.

I think, though, that is different than the question of how it's changing our brains. I just don't want to - I don't want to leave the audience thinking we're unaware of the enormous benefits that technology is providing.

As to the neurological benefits that it's providing, that research is very embryonic, too. There's some stuff being done at UCSF where scientists are trying to figure out, might they be able to train older drivers to be more attentive, to pick up more information in their surroundings that would let them react more quickly?

Could they effectively develop games that would have transferability outside the game environment into the real world environment? A key word in this discussion is transfer. How do tasks we perform on the Internet, on a computer, transfer to real life? That stuff is still very much in its embryonic stages.


GROSS: Getting back to the idea, if our brains are improving in some way as a result of the digital data onslaught, don't some scientists think that the brain is more capable of developing, of rewiring itself than scientists used to think?

Mr. RICHTEL: Absolutely. This is one of the things that makes this area of study so interesting at this moment in time. As of say, 20 years ago, scientists began to realize that the brain is what they call plastic. It bends and it evolves and it changes throughout a lifetime, whereas opposed to years ago, they used to think, well, your brain basically formed when you were a kid and then it was static, it was done.

The recognition, the revelation that the brain changes over time means that what happens in our environment effectively acts as a molding experience for our brains. And so when we get into a place like this, where there is such a fundamental change to our environment through the use of handheld devices, ubiquitous information, media everywhere, we can now expect that that changes our brains. Whereas, two decades ago, we might not have thought it had any effect internally. We might have thought it was just some external thing we experience.

GROSS: I keep wondering, did my brain develop in a different way than children's brains are developing now, because they have different technology than I did when I was growing up?

Mr. RICHTEL: Terry, you are asking what I think is the question. I mean, this is - it's maybe one thing for those of us whose brains are mostly formed. But the frontal lobe of the brain tends to develop last. It is the thing scientists say makes us the most human. There is some thought that the way kids' brains are developing now is different from the way ours developed. And now I've got to say I can't tell you any more. Can you stay tuned until early December?

GROSS: Oh, you're coming out with an article then?

Mr. RICHTEL: This is something we have been - I have spent much of the year researching and I think this frontal lobe question is fascinating, and it's really the center of this conversation. Even notwithstanding the things I'm not comfortable talking about yet, this is the part of the brain that - it's the front of the brain. It evolves last. It sets priorities. It helps us balance between and make choices. It essentially says, here's where I'm going to direct my attention at any given time. And it's kind of long-term thinking, long-term goal-setting.

But it is constantly, if you will, in a simplistic sense, under bombardment from other parts of the brain. The sensory parts that like, you know, we see something and we send a message to the frontal lobe that says, should I pay attention and how much?

When we have an onslaught of data coming in, the sensory cortices of the brain are now constantly bombarding the frontal lobe, saying, what should I pay attention to?

GROSS: Right, and that is so distracting, and it makes it impossible to do the project that you're really trying to do.

Mr. RICHTEL: And on some level, all this modern technology, what it winds up doing is kind of playing to a very primitive clash between the sensory cortices and the frontal lobe. If you take yourself back millennia, and you're in the jungle or you're in the forest and you see a lion, then the lion hits your sensory cortices and says to the frontal lobe, whatever you're doing, whatever hut you're building, stop and run.

Well, here's what scientists think is happening in this data era, is that these pings of incoming email, the phone ringing, the buzz in your pocket, is almost like we get little tiny lions, little tiny threats or, let's say, maybe little tiny rabbits that you want to chase and eat, you get little tiny bursts of adrenaline that are bombarding your frontal lobe asking you to make choices. But these in some ways aren't these modern bombardments; they're the most primitive bombardments. They're playing to these most primitive impulses and they're asking our brain to make very hard choices a lot.

GROSS: It's really interesting. Now, I don't know if this relates to what you're saying or not, but here's a paradox for me; I'm driven crazy by email because I feel every time I open it, I'm on everybody else's agenda instead of my own. I'm answering their questions and responding to their needs and doing all these things as opposed to doing the research for my next interview or something, you know what I mean?

At the same time, when it's really late at night and I know it's time to go to bed, I'll often say, I wonder what's in my email. And I'll check it one last time because I'm just so curious. And it's hard for me to reconcile that, that sense of curiosity, I wonder what's there, maybe it's something interesting, I better open it. And the sense of, oh, if I open it it's going to drive me crazy. There's things I'm going to have to respond to right now.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: I don't want to. I need to go to sleep or I need to prepare my interview or whatever, and those things are always clashing in me.

Mr. RICHTEL: You have illustrated a number of the concepts that underlie the why question. And this is, to me, some of the most fascinating part of what we learn not only in distracted driving, but that we learned -that we're learning this year, which is given that we recognize attention, that we're having trouble getting things done at some cases, that we're having trouble focusing on the face of the person across from us at the dinner table because we feel the buzz in our pockets, why? Why are you compelled at night to check your device?

Do you want to take a shot at that before I start throwing out what some of the research says?

GROSS: I always think maybe it'll be a little gift there, like some really wonderful message, something like really interesting and fascinating or somebody I'm dying to hear from.

Mr. RICHTEL: Terry, you are a winner. You know, if this were like "Family Feud," that would be answer one or two.

GROSS: What did I win? What did I win?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. RICHTEL: You have won an email. You've won an attachment you can't open.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. RICHTEL: So, let's break this down between psychological and physiological. You've hit on one of the really interesting psychological reasons people constantly feel compelled to check their devices. And this goes to one of the ideas that psychiatrists think is the most powerful in luring people, and it's called intermittent reinforcement.

I'll use a crude analogy. If you have a rat in a cage and the rat doesn't know when a food dispenser is going to dispense a pellet, it feels compelled to check all the time. It creates intermittent reinforcement. You or I or anyone else who doesn't know when something fascinating is going to come by email, when something good is going to come, feel compelled to check all the time. So that would be a psychological lure. And if you take that back again to the primitive analogies that we discussed earlier, you know, you don't know when you're going to get a little rabbit coming in or a little lion. It's not only the positives you're looking for but you also get stimulated by the threats.

GROSS: You describe psychological reasons why we check our email even when we don't want to be bombarded by it. Is there, like, a neurochemical thing going on there too?

Mr. RICHTEL: Yeah, and these things, I mean, I guess as we all kind of know in life, the brain and the body are hard to differentiate at this point. But let's make that division and say that there's some research out there now that says for instance, heavy video game use gives you some dopamine release. Dopamine is a chemical that is also thought to be involved with addiction. A lot of this research is still forming, so I want to be careful not to overstep my understanding of this.

But the connection that scientists are making are saying basically this: when you check your information, when you get a buzz in your pocket, when you hear a ring - you get what they call a dopamine squirt. You get a little rush of adrenaline. So you're getting that more and more and more and more. Well, guess what happens in its absence? You feel bored. You're actually conditioned by a kind of neurochemical response.

Now, I don't want to go too much into the distracted driving thing 'cause, you know, that was something we handled last year. But to me, it's the most powerful manifestation in a way of this concept because you're behind a two-ton vehicle and yet you feel compelled to check your device, or you're sitting at a stoplight and you feel bored for a second and you feel compelled to check it. That's a place where you might have a deadly manifestation.

Sitting behind your desk, though, as we've talked about the last, you know, hour or so, there are other kinds of manifestations, while not as potentially dangerous, still take their toll.


GROSS: Since you've been covering the effect of digital media and devices on our brains and our behavior, have you changed your behavior?

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Okay. I'm going to say here that I know you have an online comic strip; I know you wrote a novel...

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: ...about the Internet and, of course, you're doing your articles and you tweet too, don't you? Don't you?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. RICHTEL: Well, I, no. You know what, I actually think it, is the hour up? I think it's up.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. RICHTEL: I am not tweeting now. I am not blogging...

GROSS: You mean at this moment or in general?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. RICHTEL: I'm going to say yes to both honestly.

GROSS: I'd be so annoyed if you were tweeting during this interview. I can't tell you how annoyed I'd be.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. RICHTEL: I am so having trouble paying attention to this conversation.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. RICHTEL: I - in some respects, yes, I have changed, particularly driving. I don't use my device. I listen to a lot more sports radio. But I haven't changed my habits nearly as much as I guess I'd like when I'm sitting at my desk. I now have a more powerful, they call them smartphones now, and it delivers me so much information that constantly demands my attention and constantly gives me an opportunity to be stimulated and I fall to it a lot.

I used to go - when I write both my non-fiction and my fiction, I would go to cafes that didn't have Internet access deliberately so that I could focus. But I know that also part of the reason I'm going to that place is because I like the occasional break that I get. I know that I am less focused around that stuff. Sometimes I just can't help myself.

GROSS: Because?

Mr. RICHTEL: Gosh, I guess for all the aforementioned reasons. Partly because it's entertaining, partly because I think you alluded to something very, very interesting a bit ago and I neglected to mention it. But you said sometimes when you're facing something difficult or challenging, you will just skip to the easier thing. You know, I think that being the...

GROSS: That's funny, I don't remember saying that, but I'm like that.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: I do that. But I really don't remember saying that.

Mr. RICHTEL: Listen, one of us is misremembering, which means our devices are affecting one of us.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. RICHTEL: But I think, I actually think that is, it's a really powerful point in this conversation and it is for some of the stuff you'll see us writing later on, particularly as it pertains to kids. You know, it used to be if you wanted to procrastinate you had to go in the living room and turn on the TV. But now that device is in your pocket and I think more powerfully than that conceptually is, for a long time the guise of computers has been the guise of productivity.

We always equated computers with productivity, and going back to the initial analogy with food, we thought of all computers as nutritious. Well, you kind of, you Terry, and I, Matt, and others, can kind of excuse going to that device under the grounds that it has a kind of an air of productivity to it. So as you avoid this more difficult problem, thinking about an interview the next day, reading your background materials, you can say, I'm not exactly watching TV. I'm certainly not playing a video game. But I think you might acknowledge, well, let me ask you, isn't that thing you're going to just a little bit of a procrastination rather than a productivity that has a guise of productivity?

GROSS: Sometimes, yes, absolutely.

Mr. RICHTEL: So why do you do it?

GROSS: To take a break from the thing that's kind of hard or that I'm bored of or that's tiring - if my eyes start to close, you know, I feel this like fatigue overwhelming me, I'll jump on my email because it'll wake me up, because it's just like a little bit, a little bit, a little bit. You know what I mean?

Mr. RICHTEL: And guess what?

GROSS: It's like one little bite at a time as opposed to a big project.

Mr. RICHTEL: And - and this is something forthcoming from us over time, too, that we'll be baking into other things - it will not only wake you up in the moment, but there's some evidence that, particularly as people use video games heavily, it affects their sleep patterns throughout the night.

And so what's happening to you is a kind of arousal. But the question is: Is that arousal benefitting you because it's enabling you to work more? Or is it harming you because you're not getting the night's sleep that in turn would let you be a better learner, maybe a - listen, this has been an awesome interview, so notwithstanding this interview, but maybe it impinges an interview someday because you're more tired.

I know that as I get captivated by things at night, I know as kids get captivated by things, it can affect their ability to learn and perform the next day.

GROSS: Yeah. Yeah. Well, listen, you wrote such a great series called "Driving While Distracted." This is the series you won the Pulitzer for, and it was all about drivers, you know, texting and using their cell phones while they drive and often getting into accidents, as a result. And you looked at all the science behind that and the behavior behind that.

Now, here's one of the things that scares me: I don't text while driving, and I try not to dial phone numbers while driving. But I will dial a phone number in a parked spot and then listen through my headset to a call - you know, to somebody on the phone - and I'll think that that's fine. But you've written that science is finding that it's riskier to talk on a cell phone, even with a hands-free device, while driving than it is to talk to a passenger in your car. And it's hard for me to understand: What's the difference? I mean, you're still talking and listening. Why is it different if you're doing it on a cell phone than to somebody who's in the back seat or the front seat in the same vehicle?

Mr. RICHTEL: It's not fair to call this nugget trivia, but in some ways, this is one of the most interesting pieces of trivia I learned in writing that series and that I get asked about the most. The reason is -remember, we talked about how you can't process two streams of information at a time. Well, if you're engaged in a phone conversation, even if both hands are on the wheel, you're processing a stream of information.

Most times, you can get away with that because driving turns out to be, you know, a fairly rote experience. But if something comes into your field of vision, if a kid walks into the roadway unexpectedly, if a car swerves into your lane, you have missed - you have forfeited milliseconds of crucial time to make decisions that would've allowed you otherwise to react. And I, you know, I did some research for our articles on some really tragic accidents, head-on death collisions, where the researchers tell me they would not have happened if a person hadn't been on a hands-free phone.

Now, how is that different, you asked, from talking to a passenger next to you? This kind of gets to that really fascinating nugget I mentioned earlier. It turns out, when you're sitting next to someone in a car, that person helps your safety, the research shows, by acting as a second set of eyes. They watch the roadway. They modulate their conversation, both topic and tone, based on what they see in front of them. They tend to get more quiet when the weather gets bad. So rather than being a detractor, like someone on the phone who can't see you or your conditions, they're an advantage.

GROSS: All right. Well, Matt Richtel, it's been great to talk with you. Thank you very much.

Mr. RICHTEL: Thank you, Terry. I've enjoyed it.

GROSS: And so, can people follow you on Twitter, now that we've discouraged them from being, from using their devices 24 hours a day?

Mr. RICHTEL: They actually can't. I do try to be disciplined. And one of the things I do, even though I didn't completely hit on this earlier, is I've tried to shut down a few of my avenues, and that's one of them.

GROSS: Really? Interesting.

Mr. RICHTEL: So, yes.

GROSS: And what was the last straw for you?

Mr. RICHTEL: Well, I actually have modified my behavior, and I've done it for a couple of reasons. And a chief one is that I've got a family now. I've got a young - a baby, and one on the way. And both research and intuition has told me when my devices are present, I am less present.

It's very clear from some fascinating research going back years' worth with regard to TV, that when there's a screen on, the parents' eyes shift and the parents' attention shift. And, you know, I can't stand it when I'm not looking at my son and paying attention to him. I can tell when I'm not. And I can't stand it, frankly, when other people aren't invested in me. And my relationship with him and with my family has really made it very clear to me that if I'm constantly looking at my device, I am not giving him what he deserves as a human being. And I think I'm also creating a human being in him that is going to give others what they - less than they deserve.

And so this is, I guess in that respect, become very personal for me, and I would wish upon kids that their parents would silence the thing when they're nurturing.

GROSS: Matt, thanks again.

Mr. RICHTEL: Thank you, Terry.

GROSS: Matt Richtel is a technology reporter for The New York Times. You can find links to his articles in a series "Your Brain on Computers," on our website:

Coming up, we unplug. Lloyd Schwartz has a review of the Matisse show at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

This is FRESH AIR.

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