Technology and the brain

Technology and the brain

On Neuroplasticity

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Experience changes the brain

Source: Norman Doidge, The Brain That Changes Itself

"Each time the plastic brain acquires culture and uses it repeatedly, there is an opportunity cost: the brain loses some neural structure in the process, because plasticity is competitive" (Norman Doidge).

Change and innovation are often met with a mixture of caution and enthusiasm. However, a healthy skepticism about the effects of technology on culture and society may alert us to the possible negative impact of technology on the brain without preventing us from acknowledging that technology-derived brain changes are not inherently bad, and may in some ways be beneficial.

Plasticity is competitive, but it is also neutral, so brain change is not inherently positive nor negative. Similarly, environment, including the signature activities of our culture, influences and directs brain development. However, environment may enable healthy brain development or do the opposite. Technology and electronic media are a large and essential part of our environment and the various ways we use and relate to everyday technologies undoubtedly change our brain for better or for worse.

Our brains are different from our ancestors' brains

Scientific evidence confirms that our neurons are "basically identical" to the neurons of other animals, including marine snails as well as chimpanzees, all of which have plastic brains. This similarity between our brains and those of other animals has allowed scientists to study the human brain as well as discover the distinguishing gene that allows humans to grow roughly 100 billion neurons, compared to chimpanzees, whose brains are roughly one-third the size of ours. The number of synaptic connections made possible by 100 billion neurons far outnumbers the particles of the known universe. These astronomical numbers help to explain the vast potential for creativity, contemplation, adaptation, and change enabled by the vast number of neurons we have, the massive number possible synaptic connections between neurons, and by neuroplasticity.

Norman Doidge informs us that "the hunter-gatherer brain was as plastic as our own and . . . was able to reorganize its structure and functions in order to respond to changing conditions." That doesn't mean that the brains of hunter-gatherers were identical to ours. Basic brain mudules - i.e., specific areas in the brain, developed during the early stages of our evolution to accomplish specific tasks, including language have undergone dramatic changes since our early dawn. New and different brain functions and processes were developed and strengthened in the ongoing process of human creativity and adaptation to changing environments.

Humanity has progressed from cave drawings and hieroglyphics, which formed and strengthened links between visual and motor functions, to phonetic alphabets, reading and writing, which created and strengthened new synaptic connections to "process the images of letters, their sound, and their meanng, as well as motor functions that move the eye across the page," as well as the hand, in the case of writing.

Researchers have shown that "different brain areas are involved in hearing speech and reading it, and different comprehension centers in hearing words and reading them. . . each medium creates a different sensory and semantic experience . . . and develops different circuits in the brain." The progressive development of dramatically different signature activities and systems of communication restructured and reorganized our basic brain modules, forming new pathways, creating new synapses, developing new process, and replacing older specializations with those required by the signature activities of new or changed environments. This process has altered our brains.

Oral traditions appear to support the view that the human brain has a limitless memory capacity. With literacy and the consequent reduced reliance on memory, one result has been a decrease in memory capacity. ("Use it or lose it.") Memory capacity has been further reduced by the prevalence today of technology and electronic media. Now to increase the memory capacity of our brain and the speed of recall, we have to be motivated. Continual adjustments to the cost-benefit scale, even before the advent of modern tecnology, has meant that brains today are substantially different, structurally and functionally, from the brains of our ancestors.

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Television and the young brain

We know that in infancy and early childhood, normal brain development depends on a stimulating environment, particularly through interaction between the children and the people around them. During this critical period, the brain is so plastic - i.e., changeable - that learning is effortless, requiring only exposure to new stimuli. The result is rapid formative growth. Watching television is a signature activity among cultures around the world, and most of us have probably heard television facetiously referred to as a substitute babysitter or preschool teacher because young children watch a lot of TV. What is the effect of television on the young brain?

Research shows a correlation between early exposure to television and brain problems. Watching a lot of TV between one and three years of age may relate to difficulties paying attention and controlling impulses later in childhood.

Attention deficit traits (ADT) have reportedly often been misdiagnosed as attention deficit disorder (ADD) because they appear similar to the symptoms of ADD. However, ADD is genetic and ADT is not. Modern neuroscience has linked the increase in ADT to the extensive TV viewing by toddlers, to the proliferation of electronic media and consequent changes to the brain. A plastic brain is changeable and vulnerable. A young brain is particularly vulnerable to environmental influences during its critical periods of formation, during which the signature activities of the culture shape the brain.

Although television is not by definition harmful, caregivers today need to balance the benefits of "educational television" with the effects of extensive television viewing on the extremely vulnerable brains of infants and young children - particularly on their ability later in life to focus and pay attention.

Rewired brains

It's not only the brains of toddlers that are vulnerable. Neuroscientists have shown that acquiring a new set of signature activities reorganizes the brain and reshapes the mind. In some cases change may be the result of conscious effort. However, it is more likely that we are not consciously aware of the "opportunity cost" as well as the gain in the competitive process of additive and subtractive plasticity. Electronic media change our brain structurally and functionally as we acquire new skills, abilities and behaviours at the expense of others.

Electronic media activate the "orienting response" by incorporating a variety of noises, cuts and edits, zooms and pans, and a faster-than-life pace to compel our attention. Video games offer incremental challenges and regular rewards that trigger dopamine, resulting in the experience of pleasure and euphoria. The patterns of behaviour and the conditions that lead to addiction are evident, and individuals often recognize their obsessive attachment to their mobiles and their addiction to video games. Less obvious is the extent to which electronic media have rewired their brains.

When students have difficulty paying attention in their relatively slow-paced and comparatively boring classrooms, brains rewired by electronic media are among the usual suspects. While this is at least partly true, the driving force of technology and the fast pace of innovation compel us to better understand our world and our tools and to evaluate the impact of signature activities on our brains and our environment. As we create the tools that change our environment, we are also restructuring our brains, changing how our brains work, and reshaping our minds.

Recommended Resources

Daphne Bavelier - TED Talk - Your brain on video games

Norman Doidge - The Brain That Changes Itself

Michael Merzenich - TED Talk - Growing Evidence of Brain Plasticity

Vilayanur Ramachandran - TED Ed - The neurons that shaped civilization

The Star - Is the internet bad for us?

The Star - Your brain online