Tuesday, 17 June 2008

Computers & internet: affecting brain, personality, identity?

Is computer use shaping children's personalities in a new way? In a fascinating article from a recent New Scientist, neurophysiologist Baroness Susan Greenfield set out the thesis of her new book, which I plan to read: ID: The Quest for Identity in the 21st Century.

To summarise her ideas:
  1. The mammalian brain, including ours, is "plastic" - human neuronal circuits are malleable, sensitive, easily shaped by external influences and by one's activities (witness the famed research showing that memorising street navigation had enlarged the hippocampus of London's licensed black taxi cab drivers).

  2. She suggests the human mind isn't a mere abstraction, but is "the personalisation of the brain, a set of neuronal connections peculiar to each individual, driven in turn by that person's particular experience and interaction with the outside world".

  3. Of course, the outside world now includes technology. (She also discussed biotechnology etc but I'll skip over that here.)

  4. Might living effectively in 2 dimensions via a computer screen affect neuronal connectivity? (It's been estimated that western children spend about 6 hours a day in front of a computer screen currently.)

  5. More specifically, would "continued interaction with a fast-paced, sensory-laden, multimedia environment predispose a brain to shorter attention spans?" Is it just coincidence that prescriptions of methylphenidate (Ritalin) for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) have trebled these last 10 years?

  6. She also suggests that "the strongly visual, literal world of the screen" could affect our ability to develop the imagination and form the kind of abstract concepts that have hitherto come from first hearing stories, then reading oneself. "Will future generations prefer the here-and-now, opting for a strongly sensory experience over a more personalised cognitive narrative? When you play a computer game to rescue the princess, it is the experience that counts: you don't care about the feelings or thoughts of the heroine. When you read a book, the princess's welfare and fate is the whole point."

  7. Following on from that, could "here-and-now, fast-paced sensory experiences" change how future generations see themselves and construct their identity? Could they choose to stay in a "more infantile world of passive reactivity to sensations", perhaps even "a world where there is no personal narrative at all, no meaning, no context, just the experience of the thrill of the moment?"

  8. In her book ID: The Quest for Identity in the 21st Century, she suggests 4 scenarios for identity:
    1. "Nobody" - an abrogation of the sense of self, hedonism, blowing our minds, letting ourselves go. She posits "that the newer technologies may predispose future generations to seek just this sort of condition."
    2. "Someone" - the persona that prospers under liberal western consumerism.
    3. "Anyone" - the persona of the collective identity in fundamentalist or communist cultures.
    4. "Eureka" - "where the experience of creativity enables you to feel both fulfilled and to have a sense of individual identity (none of the first 3 scenarios seems satisfactory when taken alone). But she notes that some might object that the Eureka scenario could produce "a dysfunctional society of egocentric, eccentric individuals".

  9. She theorises that newer technologies may predispose future generations to seek the "Nobody" scenario: "Twenty-first-century technology is giving us, for the first time and en masse, more time each day and the chance to live to an active old age, and this brings with it greater options for creating or experiencing a dystopia or a utopia than at any previous time."

  10. While the dystopia is a risk, she also suggests: "Perhaps one answer would be to promote a mixed portfolio in which future generations flip from "let yourself go" (Nobody), to selfless, collective working (Anyone), to an occasional sense of personalised achievement (Someone), based not on superiority of status or possessions but on that internal glow that comes with insight and creativity (Eureka). Now that might even be fun."
I think what she says makes a lot of sense. Much of it also applies to the TV generation too, of course, not just the gaming / computer kids. I had the chance to hear her on just these issues at a session at the Dana Centre some time ago (a proper event, for a change, where they actually let the expert say what she had to say, followed by questions from the floor - instead of making attendees scull around listening to opinionated know-nothings spout off in unfacilitated free for alls or trying desperately to catch the experts in time slots that were too short because of the time-wasting involved in shunting people around different rooms in lieu of a proper panel with Q&A in one large room. /rant about Dana Centre's "interactive" approach).

Anyway, back on topic, I really identify with the "Eureka" scenario - but in a much broader sense. It made me think about how much I live for those Eureka moments, to exaggerate only slightly. I've always had an enquiring mind, always wanted to know, I love learning new things, and that high when I suddenly get something, finally understand something, is hard to match - I suspect the buzz is addictive, in a way. (And no, I'm not trying to find excuses for my eccentricity!)

I also think she has a point about kids being unconsciously "conditioned" into passive, experiential, me me me consumption. I use computers and the internet as a participatory medium more than anything - for me it's very "lean forward". I do my share of leaning back, but that's usually in front of the TV, or with a book or magazine. However, I was brought up more with print than computers (though I did watch TV), so maybe that's just a reflection of how my brain's been shaped by my own childhood experiences.

What do you think, do you feel she has a point, or do you disagree?

(Spurred partly by a post on Broadstuff)

1 comment:

gregory said...

thanks for this post..

if she could just add the understanding of the astral world, and subtler levels of conscious, she would have a more valuable analysis...

but not bad for a scientist :)