Gabriella Warren-Smith captures this constant ‘automatic ingrained behaviour’ with our digital devices perfectly, revealing that the average person checks their phones every 12 minutes.

Mishelle Brito  |  Ed Francesca Gransden  | 8 August 2020

Our dependence on our devices in the ‘current era of digital connectivity’ has become a natural part of our everyday lives, affecting our work, how we communicate, our interactions and even our mental health and wellbeing. But how much do our digital consumption habits affect not only how we engage with the world around us, but our actual brains? Warren-Smith notes in her writing ‘Are Smartphones Changing Our Brains and Behaviour?’   that the regularity of our digital actions alters the structural connectivity of the brain. 

Warren-Smith’s work and research are dedicated to this very timely question. Cognitive Sensations is a public programme exploring the cross-disciplinary practice in art and science’s impact on the brain and was inspired by Warren-Smith’s idea that the ‘digital age’ is rapidly reshaping our global societies.  

Warren-Smith started Cognitive Sensations in 2018, following a desire to explore the neurological impact of handheld technology. She now works with artists and scientists on multidisciplinary projects exploring human development in a technological world. She has presented this research in organisations such FACT, The British Museum and Tate Liverpool, and is currently exploring the medium of the online sphere.

In her research, Warren-Smith explores and investigates the relationship between digital culture and society. Through the subjects of art and science, her work addresses various themes including perception, attention, neuroplasticity, engagement and interaction with technology and its impact on our mental health. An area of interest most apparent in her work is the concept of attention.

Warren-Smith discusses ‘attention-grabbing technologies’ in her article ‘Humans, Machines, and the Acceleration of Time’ and their power to leave us ‘hanging on the edge of our seats,’ constantly vying for our attention. However, she reminds us that these devices and technologies rely one hundred per cent on human participation, therefore positioning them as a process of social construction that we can choose to engage (or not engage) in. 

She further explores the subject of ‘attention’ in ‘Are Smartphones Changing Our Brains & Behaviour?’ which discusses neuroplasticity and attention. Warren-Smith describes the ‘Attention Economy’ and notes the ecosystem behind the technology is built through forms of power, data and advertising and how these components manipulate what we pay our attention to. Companies and organisations are responsible for the technology that demands our attention: creating content that keeps us distracted. Understanding that our addiction is to the technology as opposed to the devices themselves will help us to manage our attention better.

We are currently in the midst of not just a ‘digital revolution’ but an unprecedented global pandemic. ur digital reliance is more prominent than ever before, which sets a fascinating landscape for Warren-Smith’s discussion of how science and art cross-disciplinary practices can work together to face current global issues and challenges around the pandemic, technology, and the brain – especially when it comes to taking agency over how much we allow our devices to affect our mental health. Warren-Smith discusses in ‘Fighting Loneliness and the Digitally Divided’ as the pandemic forces our global society online, we face a multitude of people who could have severe repercussions for their mental health and wellbeing. While she remains positive about the rapid evolution of our digital culture in these times, one can’t help but wonder what our relationship with technology will look like soon.

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