Tonight is the first night of DigiFest, the series of events that I’m curating for the Science Museum that looks at the real-world effects of digital media. We’re kicking off with a bang; This is your brain on technology has been sold out for two weeks already, and the waiting list is as long as your arm.

Tonight’s event is intended to be an eye-opener for people who are curious about tech but have no idea what it is that it means to use it – physically, socially or cognitively. It’s a real hands-on session: we’ll have three experiments on the go, run by the top researchers in their fields.

New innovations – and new technologies in particular – create a real polarisation of attitudes when they first arrive in the public sphere, causing equal measures of fear and optimism. The Web his no different; it’s had its fair share of detractors and proponents over the years. Tonight’s event seeks to tackle three of the areas that have garnered the greatest number of column inches.

What is technology physically doing to our brains?
First, what is technology actually, physiologically doing to our brains? When we use a piece of tech, what happens in our grey matter? The concern is that technology over-stimulates us, that its demand for constant attention, its high-speeds and flickering lights are more harmful than more passive pastimes, like reading or watching TV.

For example, in 2006, Genevieve Johnson described evidence that the Internet’s environmental stimulus contributes to “the formation of specific cognitive architecture”, while addiction researchers like Prof Mark Griffiths at Nottingham Trent University or Noreen Tehrani at the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre (UK) (2010) have argued that digital technologies like computer games and the Web stimulate the brain in a way that can lead to addiction. Susan Greenfield argued this on Virtual Revolution (see the clip here).

To test how technology physically stimulates our brains in comparison with other activities, we’ve invited digital artist Luciana Haill to show us our brain waves when we do a number of different things. Her unique technology, the IBVA, is a portable EEG machine that graphically represents how our brainwaves change state in real time. We’ll be testing people reading a book, using a computer, playing a game and eating a chilli pepper.

How is technology changing the way we think?
Second, we’ll be testing whether the effects of stimulation will have any long-term effect on our brain’s cognitive functions, and specifically, how our long-term use of Web technologies restructure how we organise and gather information. Prof David Nicholas and Dr Ian Rowlands have offered extensive evidence that our information search behaviours have been transformed by online technologies, yet that have also argued that the so-called Google Generation demonstrates no different aptitudes or literacies than other generations. Kids born after 1993, however, do spend less time evaluating information and prefer the the structure of Web-based research rather than using traditional resources like the public library (2008; pdf).

There is fear that this shift may affect the future workplace, when superficial skimming of information rather than deep knowledge of a subject becomes the norm. But is the Web actually changing the Internet-connected human species from hedgehogs to foxes (pdf)?

Nicholas and Rowlands and their team at the CIBER group at UCL worked with the BBC’s Virtual Revolution production team to roll out an online web behaviour survey that, to date, has tested the multi-tasking abilities and search patterns of over 50,000 participants worldwide. Dr Rowlands will be at tonight’s event, presenting the initial findings, his analysis and other observations based on the empirical data, and will give the audience a chance to take part in this global research project.

What is technology doing to our social brains?
Finally, Web critics have expressed concern about the impact of the communication technology on our social lives. As early as 1998 (pdf), researchers were suggesting that this new medium reduced the number of social ties it was possible to have, and that frequent Internet users became more isolated and depressed. Although there is evidence suggesting otherwise, public perception of the Web often focusses on the potentially harmful effects of the Web on our social lives.

With the advent of social networking and the apparent boom in the number of (explicit) friends that it’s possible to have, other critics have weighed in, suggesting that it’s impossible – and in some cases biologically dangerous (e.g., Sigman, 2010; pdf) – to have so many friends. Friendship, they argue, involves trust and other psychological aspects of closeness that the Web simply cannot support.

Indeed, Robin Dunbar, the evolutionary anthropologist who described the Dunbar Number in 1992 which sets the upper limit of the number of connections in functioning social groups to 150, maintains that – despite the apparent largesse of our online social circles – we still have only up to 150 close friends. I tried to have more, but my personal experiment failed.

So what does it mean to have 700 friends on Facebook?

Dr. Sam Roberts works with Prof Dunbar at Oxford, focussing specifically on this research question. He will be demonstrating that audience members’ Facebook contacts can be narrowed down to a much smaller circle of meaningful relationships.

It’s going to be a great evening, and I look forward to contributing to the research and looking at the empirical evidence.