top of page

Brain Drain

Updated: Oct 12, 2021

Is a Beagle’s brain bigger than a golf ball?

(NOTE: if you own a Beagle, you are hereby recused).

Once upon a time, a question like this would lead to some serious cognitive calisthenics. Beagles are infamously difficult to train, but how does canine intelligence relate to brain size? Beagles are one of the smaller breeds, but are dog brains proportional in size to the rest of the dog? What about those big ears? Is this a trick question? Do Beagles even have brains?

Thanks to the likes of Google, Yahoo Answers, Wikipedia - or if all else fails, Quora - the age of wondering is over. In a matter of minutes, in the privacy of your own palm, you can connect to the world at large, flip through pretty much anything, and settle in on an answer (and in the process see some cute Beagle pictures). All of this transpires with minimal demand on the human brain, which in most cases is substantially bigger than that golf ball.

In my youth, answering a question like this would require a trip to the library. This quaint practice is something my granddaughter will never know (along with rotary dial phones, driving a car, having milk or newspapers delivered to the house, or writing in cursive). Answers are now easier to obtain, and there is really no need to learn them for the future.

Today we are surrounded by screens; smartphones, tablets, laptops, desktops, TV’s, video games and even automobile dashboards have screens that command a large chunk of our attention. According to the Healio Optometry News, we Americans spend 42% of our waking hours looking at screens.

Not working to obtain information is one thing, and not needing to bother remembering it is another, but there are other insidious consequences to our screen-centric lives. Princeton Psychology Professor Diana Tamir, for example, took notice that tourists everywhere now have a camera in their pocket, as well as a GPS to help locate those prime photo-ops.

She sent her research team out on various trips, noting that those who took the most pictures actually had a poorer memory of the experience at a later date. Says Diana - “Creating a hard copy of an experience through media leaves only a diminished copy in our own heads.” Those who use GPS to navigate those trips are much worse at processing where they are or where they have been than those few remaining souls who use actual printed maps.

Some screen impacts are more pervasive. According to the National Sleep Foundation, adults age 18-64 need 7-9 hours of sleep each night. Sleep deprivation not only impairs mental cognition, it may also contribute to obesity, with its associated health problems. The hormone that controls the sleep/wake cycle is melatonin - the less melatonin we have, the harder it is to sleep.

That said, it seems natural that we would want to encourage the production of melatonin in our pursuit of the elusive “good night’s sleep.” While that soothing blue light coming from our screens would seem like a logical midway point between daylight and darkness, researchers at Harvard Medical School say that just isn’t true. That calming glow from our omnipresent screens diminishes the production of melatonin, making it even harder to wind down.

Yet another way that screen immersion impacts our brains is a bit counter-intuitive. An interesting new experimental study from Melissa Hunt and her team at the University of Pennsylvania has demonstrated the first causal connection between social media use and feelings of depression and loneliness. There is more to it than just the lost-opportunity cost of all that time spent with a glowing, inanimate object.

Our capacity to develop empathy and compassion for others and our ability to integrate physical input with emotion arises in a portion of the brain known as the insula. Not only is this linked to violent behavior, these skills also dictate the depth and quality of our personal relationships. FOMO begets social media use, which in turn begets comparisons. It’s hard not to feel like everyone else’s life is much better than yours. The insula, according to the U of P study, suffers the damage.

It’s getting harder to spot anyone in an airport, a coffee shop, or even walking along the sidewalk who isn’t staring at a screen. We are living in a Brain Drain Culture.

As for the Beagle brain question, the volume of a golf ball ~ 41 ml, while the average Beagle brain ~ 80 ml. Although pundits may be tempted to argue that a Beagle is therefore twice as smart as a golf ball, science has failed to show a connection between brain volume and intelligence.

NOTE: The human brain, for comparison, is ~ 1300 ml, and hopefully still capable of producing some original thoughts to halt the steady drip of Brain Drain.

Author Profile - Paul W. Smith - leader, educator, technologist, writer - has a lifelong interest in the countless ways that technology changes the course of our journey through life. In addition to being a regular contributor to LoveMyTool, he maintains the website Technology for the Journey and occasionally writes for Blogcritics. Paul has over 40 years of experience in research and advanced development for companies ranging from small startups to industry leaders. His other passion is teaching - he is a former Adjunct Professor of Mechanical Engineering at the Colorado School of Mines. Paul holds a doctorate in Applied Mechanics from the California Institute of Technology, as well as Bachelor’s and Master’s Degrees in Mechanical Engineering from the University of California, Santa Barbara.

bottom of page