Fireside chat with Dr. Kerry Louw

Dr. Kerry Louw completed both her undergraduate and postgraduate training at the University of Cape Town. She obtained her FC Psych in 2011 and MMed in 2012. She is currently completing an MPhil in Consultation Liaison Psychiatry at UCT. She is passionate about promoting awareness of the psychological and psychiatric causes and consequences of medical illnesses.

Mikaela, ARJUNA.AG Founder, sat down with her to discuss the impact of digital technology on the brain and society at large. 

MB: There is still this public perception that the science around the effects of radiation and technology is some kind of hokey, hippy thing— even though there is actually plenty of legitimate science that shows that it is really damaging. So, why is there this disjunct between the scientific evidence and a growing scientific consensus, and the public consensus? 

KL: I mean if you think about it, there are the same things with big Pharma or the big tobacco industry— technology is industry-driven. So, if you look at advertisements, it’s considered cool  and productive to be glued to your iPhone or iPad. I mean you see an ad and it’s like  “look, Bob is on the plane or the train or he’s at breakfast and he is being productive,” and that’s what we’re seeing. And think about the education system. I’m not sure if its the same here, but in South Africa, kids have to arrive in grade 9 with an iPad. 

 Well, exactly, I know… And they just allowed cellphones in schools [here in New York]. And that’s also industry driven— for example, Apple has a whole division of their company that goes school to school selling iPads. 

 I mean its like everything.. Technology is good, its amazing, we can do so much with it but there has to be balance. And I don’t think we have balance right now. I mean there are social effects which are maybe difficult to study, but there are definitely studies looking at language development under the effect of technology— the effect of television, the effect of social media. 

Ultimately this stuff is addictive, so as much as we might rationally understand that its not good for us, we are driven to continue these behavior because it effects us on this very fundamental level.

Yes, I mean it really is. If you look at these apps or video games, they are designed by neuroscientists to be  addictive.  It started with the computer game industry. (I mean, there is real problem, which I am sure you know about, with these games and the violence.) I mean look at these kids’ games or apps— someone didn’t just make that up— its more like “what can we do that gets people hooked.” I mean that’s scary- because look at Big Tobacco, it was the same thing. 

Yeah exactly… The correlation between technology and tobacco is very profound. One of the products I developed is a pouch that puts your phone away [with no signal or cell reception] and I intentionally developed it to mimic the ‘old school’ tobacco pouches— so its meant to say “ok, here’s this phone, its a device — if used intentionally, the way tobacco was at once point, in an almost ritual context, then it can be ok.” But there needs to be this mediation or barrier. There needs to be this consciousness. What I am really concerned about is kids because at the end of the day, you have these brains that are still in formation, and they are losing their capacity to pay attention, to remember… What other mental capacities are being compromised? 

I think attention is the biggest one. Because if you think about how attention develops it becomes socialized. So if you think about how kids sit at dinner or talk with their parents, they are learning to attend, to sit still, to focus, to be present. But the focus on the phone or the iPad is the exact opposite. Its like, if you’re bored— switch, change. I mean have you seen kids on iPads? Its frightening. I sit next to young students on flights. They are watching a movie, then they close it, then they open it— I mean its ADHD…! But its encouraged by technology.

Yeah exactly. And then they end up taking medication to treat their ADHD - when in fact its this technology that is promoting this ADHD. 

I definitely know there are studies looking at language as well. So, its attention, language, social skills…and executive functioning as well: the best thing for kids in terms of development is to put them on the floor with stuff. Then they have to learn, they have to be creative, they have to problem- solve. So executive functioning is your frontal lobe stuff— its planning, decision making— and that requires a challenge, “let’s work it out,” etcetera.  There’s no executive functioning in a phone if you think about it. Its like— look at my child, they can open a file where all there games are… 

Its sort of pure stimulus reaction— there’s no one in the driver’s seat basically, they are sort of just responding and reacting… So, going back to [impacts of digital technology on] language formation— what are some examples of that? 

Well, the studies that I know of are mainly with TV. They have found that with children, where there was a TV on, even in the next room, they had delayed language development. So, there’s something bad about that…

So, do you think its something physical? I mean the actual electronics themselves or it is more the psychological distraction? 

I think its something to do with learning— I suppose it has to do with stimulus and how one gets activated. I don’t know if it has to do with the radio waves from the TV itself… They’ve found that if children have a TV on in the background they have less creative play (that’s excluding the TV time… so its not just like, “oh, they have the TV on, so they don’t play.”) There is something about people being distracted by the television… Again, its about attention, awareness, creativity, which is not encouraged by television. 

So, I know your focus is psychiatry and psychology, but are you aware of the physical studies around radiation?

I did a bit of research because we were looking to buy a house that was next to a [electrical] substation. And I become more aware personally. But I don’t know the literature…

I think at its core its a failing of the way that we educate people. We give facts instead of teaching people how to be critical of evidence. I mean its something I’m only getting used to now. You’re reading a study… how do you say its good? Was it double blind…Looking at the quality of data is not something you learn in school. That’s not something we teach our kids— whether you know whether a product is safe. 

And that goes back to our point in terms of being pro-active, and utilizing your executive functions, as opposed to being passive and just receiving stuff. It also goes back to this issue again … Who is setting the example? Where does the responsibility lie? Does it lie with parents to be saying — you’re at the dinner table, don’t have an iPad? Or is it the responsibility of the school? I think there is a lot of emphasis on schools right now to be these sort of social incubators— but at the same time parents have to be responsible too — but the problem is often-times the parent is also victim to a lot of this stuff, they’re not in the position to set an example.  

I agree, I think it’s so layered. If you think about the power in this phone. For the first time, we can almost access any knowledge that has ever existed to the human race on some thing like this …. but what do we do? We watch youtube videos of cats… 


And what does that say about us as beings… [laughing]

I think it says that our brain still wants to watch animals! I think its saying we like cats ! [laughing]  But no, I hear you…

Yeah, but look at selfies…I mean we could be sitting here reading up on ancient Egyptian… but we sit and look at E-News 

Yes, I think that points to the fact that we are still driven by our reptilian brain, so we are driven by these things that stimulate us on a very primal level. So, we do watch videos of cats, we watch sensational news thats going to boost our adrenaline or our cortisol… So I think what’s difficult about the phone is that, again, its really activating these areas of our brain that we don’t have much control over and are still driven by. 

And on another level, its just easier…Parents are busy and stressed and its easier to give a child an iPad than to spend time with it or hire a babysitter. Its just easy.  I think that we have a society that is so high pressure, there are so many demands on us, that anything that makes our lives easier we jump on. I mean think about— to sit down and mediate, or go to the gym requires some kind of motivation and planning… awareness, presence…. to pick up your phone or look at Facebook just makes you feel good right, it de-stresses you. its so easy. Its the same as TV and watching cr*p on TV — it makes us feel good, its relaxing.

But I think that most people will say that afterwards they feel depressed. And there are studies that show that  people get depressed after engaging with social media because its actually feeding you in a kind of unhealthy way… 

Oh yes, one of the things I wanted to go back to was the idea of the power in the phone: I mean it extends our power so much, it magnifies our power so much, there’s something very attractive about that on a fundamental level … I mean that’s what all technology is, right? An extension of the human ability that takes it to this extreme that I don’t think we’re really able to integrate fully…

Yes, I think— some of it a false sense of human control … having more control over life, careers, relationships than we have — I think that part of that is addictive to people too.

 That’s a very good point ..

And obviously there is genuinely an increased power with it … but I do think sometimes its a false sense of being in control of our lives, and our destiny, and our mortality. I mean some of these things are fundamental fears: its a fear of intimacy, its a fear of death…We all think that we are going to be young forever, we all think that we are going to live forever, but its a huge narcissistic injury when you realize that actually I will age, this break, I will get sick. 

There seems to be a quantity thing. They’ve shown that, with adolescents, a certain amount of hours is good in terms of developing confidence but when you go over that, it has a negative effect of self- esteem NS self-confidence.  And I’m sure that applies to a lot of the aspects of this… it can stimulate you in a positive way to a certain extent but again you have to self- regulate. 

And I guess that is what’s missing in society. You know, here is a product or a substance, you think about an experimental drug— if I said to you, this is a vitamin, this will be good for your kids, the parents would have questions, “how much,” “what color” “what type,” you know you would want to know about it. But with technology, its kind of an accepted good— here it is, I’m just going to use as much as I want. So I think it needs to be re-thought of as any type of product, or tonic or whatever — that it needs a quantity, it needs a dose, in terms of how much is appropriate. What kinds of this are good for me, what kinds of this are bad for me. 

Yeah exactly. Well, I think that as neuroscience becomes more accepted by the general public, becomes part of popular science, popular discourse, people will start to understand that what we receive mentally is equivalent to what we receive physically — so we will start to re-look at mental inputs as actual physical exchanges— because they are ! 

Yeah, I mean I think it’s naive to think that it won’t effect us. What about epigenetic effects… I mean, as you said what is this doing to any brain, particularly a developing brain? Yes, maybe its good for so-and-so’s math’s abilities but what about other things? Does it later lead to gene expression that is bad? Does it activate certain parts that are not good, not healthy? Our reward system is wired, as you know with drugs, it gets activated in an unhealthy way and then you lack the ability to get rewards from normal pleasures — and I wonder if this is having that kind of effect. Its easy, its a quick fix— it makes you feel good, and then its difficult to get natural reward. We get to a point where even a run doesn’t make you feel good anymore because what you need is this high stimulus….

 I felt this at work— I couldn’t read anymore. My attention span dropped. And so I had this awareness and I started turning off my computer screen at work and putting my phone away and slowly I found my attention come back. I mean I thought I was just getting older and then I went to this talk [on the psychological impacts of technology on the brain] and, actually, its not. Its like we’re reading and then all of a sudden we want to check our email—- and its like, what for? 

Yes, I actually just did a [blog] post recently on this book that is called The Organized Mind that I have been reading, and [the author, Daniel Levitan] sites a study that showed that your IQ level drops by 10 points just by knowing that you have an unread email in your inbox. And that the constant switching back and forth is actually wearing out our neural circuits. But I guess what’s interesting is to notice that these tools can be used positively and with intention. They can be used for focusing — for recording this interview— etcetera — but you have to be pro-active about it. 

I think that “intention” is a good word. One of the core features of mindfulness is doing something with intention. And I suppose technology is just an easy way to have no intention. Whilst the distraction is rewarding and makes us feel good at the time, it feeds into avoidance. 

It does feed into avoidance, that’s true. 

And its sort of legitimate avoidance. There is something culturally acceptable about you know being on the phone, being distracted, doing silly things. I mean you know— my friends are all professionals and they are like, “Oh look I got this app that sees what I’m going to look like when I’m older!” [laughing]  I mean you’re an intellectual… What about this appeals to you.?But as I said— these things are designed by people to be addictive. Its a product, its meant to sell to everybody… so it drops IQ points, you know. 

Yeah exactly. I think that one of the things that concerns me the most is that there are certain ailments that are incurred by modern society … a physical ailment or even certain mental ailments… but what concerns me is that this is effecting these fundamentals functions of the mind that are necessary to even counteract the problem.  It becomes this self-perpetuating loop. It effects these things like, for example, the capacity to pay attention, the capacity to remember things… those are these fundamental things! So there is a certain point where we are going to pass the point of no return where we are not going to realize what we are missing… There is a generation that is going to come into the world and they are never going to have had the experience of deep, immersive thinking… or, you know, natural memory; their default is going to be checking their email or checking Google. So, they’re not going to know what they’re missing…Our generation is on the cusp. We know what its like to be effected by this technology. We also know what its like to be able to sit and read a book. We can say ‘wow, I was actually able to sit and read a book in college. Now, I can hardly focus for 2 seconds.” These kids that are coming into the world, they are not going to know what they are missing!

 I think it is terrifying. And I think what scares me the most is that it’s not just a mass effect and apathy thing—  I think there are voices against it, but its that society is almost making it harder to go against the grain by enforcing things… and in a way its like “I don’t want to do this, but if I don’t, I won’t get this job,” or “I won’t get into that school,” or “my child won’t get accepted into this school if they’re not good with an iPad.” So I think there is a fear even for voices going against this that, “if I don’t, then I won’t be particularly successful.”

And I think that you’re right that there is also this whole advertising machine behind it that creates this hype and fetishization of technology. I mean look at even films today— the fetishization of technology in film— [interruption]

 If you go to the movies now, two thirds of the movie will be a car chase or buildings blowing up—Its so stimulating, its almost sickening— at least for our generation. I mean for the younger generation, they can’t even watch a movie unless its like that, because otherwise they will lose interest. 

I don’t know if you saw that movie,  The Surrogates, with Bruce Willis. The idea was everyone was home and plugged into a virtual world. And essentially that is how we work: we are not connecting, we are emailing. But we wouldn’t be having this conversation is there wasn’t a movement of people, if there wasn’t a science behind it… I mean people are thinking, people are unplugging…there is even a term now “to unplug,” so on some level there is an awareness. 

Yeah, but I think there needs to be action on a policy level. Its like “ok look, this is what is happening to children’s brain, we need to put policies in place, in school systems, so that we can prevent these completely irreparable damages that are going to have these huge effects on the course of our society!” The problem is that this industry is so powerful and it trumps it. So- yeah, there is a small group of scientists, there is a small group of health advocates or whatever that are going to have these discussions, but the general population is being brainwashed by all this advertising, is being fed the policies that are being driven by these industries…through these systems, like the school system, that are given this sort of “free pass” because they are deemed these neutral public institutions— when in fact they are not neutral institutions. They have people like Apple coming in and selling their iPads. So, I don’t know if the action needs to come through consumer education or if it needs to come on a policy level…I know that the European governments are more proactive about this, whereas America has this sort of culture of anti-science… do you know what I mean? 

I do. I think that one of my big precautions about being a psychiatrist is not being a “weird” one— to be taken seriously, to be respected by people, to be normal. So that when I stand up and say something, people will listen. This is the same— you are a young professional person, you have a voice, you have an academic background, you’re not weird and “nerdy”… you are in a unique position where you can have a voice and can influence people and I think every conversation like this one is a way of networking. And obviously you can’t take on the crusade by yourself, but every conversation plants a seed for somebody else to think  “ok, what about this? What about that?” And I think we all have a responsibility to grow awareness. 

I know, I know. But the thing is there needs to be a shift. There needs to be a shift in the perception of this as being some ‘whishy-washy’ hokey area to being a legitimate area of science that needs concrete action. And even I myself haven’t been quite as diligent about taking my own medicine and only now am I like “no, I’m not going to have Wifi in my apartment, I’m not going to check my emails before noon.” But there is also a guilt factor because people feel that they have to constantly be engaged in these devices to be productive— when half the time, they are not being productive! 

That’s my biggest worry. Its not just about saying, I’m making a personal choice, its like I’m making a bad choice. And where is that pressure coming from? Is it just industry, is it policy, is there some truth in it? 

No, its a cultural stigma. Its a deeply rooted cultural stigma around leisure activities. The perception of leisure, the association of technology and work… You know, I can be sitting at my computer, fiddling around on Facebook  and its more legitimate than me staying at home and deciding to read or draw! Whereas me staying home and drawing for a couple hours is probably better for my brain and will allow me to be more productive at “work,” than me by default just sitting in front of my computer. 

I think the irony is actually you can use this technology to get that message out…

Yeah, I know… [laughing]

It feels crazy but it actually makes sense. I mean, if you look at Facebook (I admit, I’m addicted), but something I came across was this “adopt, don’t shop” for pets.” And then we adopted a rescue animal. And that was driven by purely an exposure to something via social media. And this will be the same: its going to be people with enough messages, enough posts,  that read this article, and will become aware. 

Yes, that’s why I really like this book The Organized Mind, by this guy Daniel Levitan—he also wrote this book The Shallows which is about how the internet effects our brain. Anyway, his principle is that its not an all-or-nothing approach— its about creating structure around it and saying— “don’t check your emails all the time, set aside a certain time of day, don’t DO all the same work on one device”— your brain actually, its been shown, that your brain will be triggered to go into a different mode with different devices. So, its about actually pro-actively structuring your day and saying “ok, I will check social media but I’m not going to do it all the time. Im going to check it at this certain point and then I’m going to turn off the phone.”  That, to me, is where the solution lies- its in creating these healthy structures. 

I think a way to do that is to tap into industry. Because if big companies are saying— my employees are more productive if we have these limitations that they then put in place— it becomes popular, it becomes cool— then it spreads.

Yes, exactly. That has my been my approach from a business perspective. A lot of my products are geared toward the workplace and some of my target clients are corporations— which I think, like school,  can become an incubator for certain social practices. And I think its like parents— they become the sort of default social parents. I’m really trying to find even a tech company who would want to take this on board— and it would be like “look guys, why don’t you be pro-active about this stuff, because it’s going to come out, so why don’t you take responsibility for it, rather than suppressing it and denying it.” And the truth of the matter is that half of these bloody tech executives send their children to the Waldorf Schools where they are not touching an iPad all day— so they know! 

They do… 

But then they have a moral responsibility ! 

 But its sad because I think the truth is you cannot rely on that moral responsibility to get your message out. You are going to have to look at ways you are going to make somebody money, increase their productivity… Its sad but true. But we can’t be naive, this is the way the world is. And its not a bad thing. And there are channels you can use to create social change- its just about being smart. 

Correct, correct…And I have been really careful to cultivate the brand in such a way that its not perceived as being extremist or reactionists… I think ultimately people are already starting to feel not good and they will go to doctors and physicians with these problems and, hopefully, on the medical side, people will also start getting the message out. 

And in a way, it will be prescribed in terms of what is bad for you or what is good for you in terms of technology exposure.  I mean it does come across with visual changes or back problems… and I think the mental health problems are going to become bigger as well, [i.e.] depression etc.

There are also physical symptoms such as nausea, headaches, anxiety, depression that are linked to more the radiation side of things. And there is a term for it — ‘electro-sensitivity’- and you know a lot of people will say, “I’m so tired at the end of the day,” well, we are getting ‘zapped’ by these devices. But I think the challenge is that I don’t think a lot of doctors  are  very hip to this stuff. I mean maybe they are starting to change because they are personally experiencing it themselves. So, its partly about people saying— “look, my experience is valid enough to say that this is a problem.” 

Yeah I mean it should be a target area at some point, because the doctors that people will go to will be their GPs, their primary physicians, so to, at some point, to set up a conference, some sort of educational thing that allows for schools, certainly, and primary care physicians to understand— these are the warning signs of too much, this is how you diagnose it…. 

Well, I think its very fascinating. And I think you have a balanced approach to this stuff and that you understand it on a variety of levels… Let’s just hope we can find solutions! 



WritingMikaela Bradbury