Wednesday, 24 November 2010

Modern Technology and the Brain – is it Chicken Little all over again?

I don’t know how may young people today are familiar with the story of Chicken Little, but for sure they will google it and then they will know.  Briefly it is the story of a chicken who thought the sky was falling and lost her/his head (metaphorically) about it.  It has given rise to the Chicken Little Awards and I would like to nominate Matt Richtel, writing in the New York Times for contributing to the hysteria around the impact of digital technology and the brains of young people.

Brought to you in the manner of most pseudoscientific writing, the story of Vishal is meant to be a modern take on a medieval morality play railing against the horrors of new digital technology that is supposed to create attention-deficit morally decrepit youth of today by destroying the brain’s ability to sustain attention and to make moral-emotive linkages.  Like the Luddites of the past, the story harkens back to some mythical imaginary Arcadia of the distant and never-existing past in which harmony between brain and nature thrived in pastoral villages supplied by streams flowing with milk and honey. Yesh!

So what is the real scientific story here?

Does the environment affect how the brains of young people grow and develop?  Totally.  Has it always been like that?  As far as we know.  Why?  Maybe because that is how we as a species adapt to our environments, including those we create ourselves and then need to adapt to.  This allows us to change with the times and contributes to our evolutionary success.

Will modern technology change our brains?  Yes it will, just like the discovery of fire, the discovery of the wheel, the creation of the printing press, and the invention of glasses (to name but a few of the trillions of historical impacts on brain function) have done.  And what is the moral message here?  There is none.

We are what we are because of where we have been and what we are doing.  What we will become is not known and how we will get there is unclear.  Can we make ourselves develop in a certain and pre-ordained way?

That has been tried for centuries by political and religious dictators alike without success.  So what do we do?  Let’s start by not writing such Chicken Little drivel and focus on better understanding how our brains work and how we can accomplish things that ensure we leave the world a better place for future generations.  Not in the manner of the Luddites nor with the fear mongering of the protagonist in the famous novel written by Mary Shelley (look it up!). But in honoring each other, respecting each other, celebrating who we are and understanding that we will change.  


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