How digital culture is rewiring our brains

13/08/2012 7:07
How digital culture is rewiring our brains

I’ve read a number of other contemporary articles in the same vein and they all appear to make the same points as Baroness Greenfield. The wholesale adoption and introduction of digital technologies to young minds without an understanding of the long term effects is reckless. I like the reference to smoking and cancer. It’s an  allusion I frequently use when I’m trying to explain my worst fear scenario for the current “digi-babies”.     

The full article can be read from the link above 

“Our brains are superlatively evolved to adapt to our environment: a process known as neuroplasticity. The connections between our brain cells will be shaped, strengthened and refined by our individual experiences. It is this personalisation of the physical brain, driven by unique interactions with the external world, that arguably constitutes the biological basis of each mind, so what will happen to that mind if the external world changes in unprecedented ways, for example, with an all-pervasive digital technology?

A recent survey in the US showed that more than half of teenagers aged 13 to 17 spend more than 30 hours a week, outside school, using computers and other web-connected devices. If their environment is being transformed for so much of the time into a fast-paced and highly interactive two-dimensional space, the brain will adapt, for good or ill. Professor Michael Merzenich, of the University of California, San Francisco, gives a typical neuroscientific perspective.

”There is a massive and unprecedented difference in how [digital natives’] brains are plastically engaged in life compared with those of average individuals from earlier generations and there is little question that the operational characteristics of the average modern brain substantially differ,” he says.

The implications of such a sweeping ”mind change” must surely extend into education policy. Most obviously, time spent in front of a screen is time not spent doing other things. Several studies have already documented a link between the recreational use of computers and a decline in school performance. Perhaps most important of all, we need to understand the full impact of cyber culture on the emotional and cognitive profile of the 21st-century mind.

Inevitably, there is a variety of issues. Let us look at just three.

First, social networking. Eye contact is a pivotal and sophisticated component of human interaction, as is subconscious monitoring of body language and, most powerful of all, physical contact, yet none of these experiences is available on social networking sites. It follows that if a young brain with the evolutionary mandate to adapt to the environment is establishing relationships through the medium of a screen, the skills essential for empathy may not be acquired as naturally as in the past.

In line with this prediction, a recent study from Michigan University of 14,000 college students has reported a decline in empathy over the past 30 years, which was particularly marked over the past decade.

Such data does not, of course, prove a causal link but just as with smoking and cancer some 50 years ago, epidemiologists could investigate any possible connection.

The psychologist Sherry Turkle, of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, has argued in her recent book Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other that the more continuously connected people are in cyberspace, the more isolated they feel.

Second, video games. Neuropsychological studies suggest frequent and continued playing might lead to enhanced recklessness. Data also indicates reduced attention spans and possible addiction. In line with this, significant chemical and even structural changes are being reported in the brains of obsessional gamers.

No single paper is ever likely to be accepted unanimously as conclusive but a survey of 136 reports using 381 independent tests, and conducted on more than 130,000 participants, concluded that video games led to significant increases in desensitisation, physiological arousal, aggression and a decrease in prosocial behaviour.

Third, search engines. Can the internet improve cognitive skills and learning, as has been argued? The problem is that efficient information processing is not synonymous with knowledge or understanding. Even the chairman of Google, Eric Schmidt, has said: ”I worry that the level of interrupt, the sort of overwhelming rapidity of information – and, especially, of stressful information – is, in fact, affecting cognition. It is, in fact, affecting deeper thinking. I still believe that sitting down and reading a book is the best way to really learn something.”

Given the plasticity of the brain, it is not surprising adapting to a cyber-environment will also lead to positives – for example, enhanced performance in skills that are continuously rehearsed, such as a mental agility similar to that needed in IQ tests or in visuomotor co-ordination. However, we urgently need a fuller picture.

I would like to suggest a ”mind change” initiative, involving epidemiological studies that explore the significance of these trends in relation to a screen-based lifestyle, as well as funding for basic brain research into, for example, the neural mechanisms of addiction and attention, the long-term effects of various screen activities on brain structure and function, and the neural processes perhaps underlying deep understanding and creative insight.

The design of innovative software that attempted to offset some of the perceived or agreed deficiencies arising from our digital culture would be enormously valuable. We need more detailed profiles of computer use, along with surveys of the views and insights of parents, teachers and employers. Then, in the light of all this input, this hypothetical initiative would make recommendations. It might well include a root and branch re-examination of education and subsequent training that best equips the citizen of the 21st century to be personally fulfilled and useful to society.

Science and technology is having an unprecedented impact on the length and quality of our lives. We have an extended lifespan and extended leisure time. Like climate change, mind change is complex, unprecedented and controversial. However, the endpoint is not one of just damage limitation. It is, rather, ensuring that we deliver to the next generation an environment that can, for the first time, enable the realisation of each individual’s full potential.

Tess Michaels