So what is information technology doing to our brains? Neuroscientist Susan Greenfield has written a book about the upside and the downside of a world full of email and other instant electronic communication, video and online games, and the vast, beckoning, vital but sometimes time-wasting web of information at our fingertips. This article from The Australian describes some of her concerns. The article also includes some quotes from nay-sayers as well, so it’s an interesting look at her arguments.
Certainly we’re exposing our brains to things that brains have never had to deal with before. The pace of life and the flow of information can seem overwhelming, and immersing ourselves in the new world created by technology is bound to have an effect on us. The plastic human brain, resilient, adaptive, and often cited as a cause for hope, is also apt to be shaped by whatever environment we provide for it, whether we plan carefully to provide an optimum environment or just go with whatever the latest gadget is. So Greenfield has some legitimate concerns, and the question of how our technology is changing our minds is a good question to be asking. However, some of the concerns mentioned in the article sound more like basic human nature rather than anything caused by technology. For example, take her description of the next generation of young people:
“They will be people who are more hedonistic and tend to live for the moment, a life that is more sensory and less cognitive. People who have a less robust sense of their own identity and are therefore more easily persuaded or swayed by the wrong kind of things, as we see already in the way people are easily persuaded into movements nowadays.
“People with less meaning to their lives, possibly, and less of a strong life narrative, so they may be happy rather than fulfilled: there is a difference.”
Maybe in the book there is some evidence to back up the implicit claim that people are more easily persuaded into movements today, but I’m skeptical. (And even if you could pin down that fact, I’m not sure how you’d tie it to computer use.) People have always gone chasing after things that promise an answer to life, the universe, and everything. Fads and mass movements of all kinds have periodically swept through humankind, or those parts of it in communication with each other, for hundreds of years.
In fact the entire quote seems to me to describe an essential aspect of the human condition. It’s often hard to think rationally, to pursue long-term goals rather than short-term rewards, to establish your own identity and maintain it in the face of societal pressure and the crush of day-to-day responsibilities. Collectively we’ve always been tempted, to one degree or another, towards the herd mind, the short-term, the hedonistic. Maybe information technology does push some of our buttons fairly hard, but I’m not convinced that that’s the whole story. I do believe that we should be cautious about which technologies we adopt and which we decide to leave alone, and it would be good to know as much as possible about how IT affects our ability to do the hard things humans have always had trouble with. But every time I hear someone warning of how the human race is heading into trouble and the young folks these days are just not getting it, I hear in my mind a chorus of voices raised in similar laments going back hundreds of years. By all means, we should examine the effect of our tools on our brains, but let’s not get too wound up about the dire possibilities until we know more of the story.