Book review: iBrain

iBrain: Surviving the technological alteration of the modern mind, by Gary Small and Gigi Vorgan. New York: HarperCollins, 2008.

If you are looking for a good book summarizing what we know about the effect of technology on our brains, I’d suggest you keep looking. This book provides a mixture of self-help, technical help, popular neuroscience, and a subtle but persistent deprecation of modern communication technology, without, in my opinion, doing any one topic justice. Furthermore, it’s mired in a fundamental confusion about the difference between evolution and the capability of individual brains to change their neuronal circuits in response to the environment (neuroplasticity). This leaves me dubious about how far I can trust the authors when they present scientific information.

The book addresses “Digital Immigrants”, those of us for whom current communication technologies are something we encountered after our formative years. This is fine, except for the fact that it is threaded with anti-technology bias. Although the authors don’t explicitly advise against technology use, instead counseling balance, the vignettes presented throughout the book deal only with the risks and down-side of technology. Loaded language is often used to deliver statistics: Young people don’t watch or use digital media, for example; they expose their brains to them.

The book does cover some interesting research in various relevant areas (e.g., addiction, ADHD), and tackles big topics like the effect of the Internet on politics, entertainment, and crime. These are all useful or important things to consider. However, it tends to cover these topics in a more or less cursory way, because it covers a lot of other turf as well, offering self-help exercises to bolster your interpersonal communication skills and information to help you survive in a digital world. This technology toolkit contains fairly basic advice about things like web searching, cell phone etiquette, and online privacy, most of which is not likely to be new to you if you read this blog. (And even your mother, no matter how old she is, could probably tell you to save only the email messages you are likely to have to refer to later.) In short, the book is a hybrid that, in my opinion, doesn’t provide significant new, useful, thoughtfully presented information on any one topic.

At the heart of my quarrel with this book is the first chapter, which assures you that your brain is evolving right now. That’s a questionable statement. Your brain changes into something different as you learn new things, no doubt about that, but that’s neuroplasticity, not evolution. You might charitably think that the authors are using “evolution” in its broader, nonscientific sense of developing into something more advanced. In fact, they offer this definition themselves, but it’s at the head of a section on Darwinian evolution, which talks about natural selection and survival of the fittest and even mentions DNA, but goes on to talk about brain evolution in terms of single-generation changes like the development of a shorthand for text messaging, rather than intergenerational changes in gene frequencies. OK, maybe they’re talking about cultural evolution, but in that case, why bring up Darwin and genes without making plain that biological and cultural evolution are analogous in some ways but not the same? Also, can a single brain even be said to evolve culturally, or does the culture itself evolve? All in all, I found this first chapter a grievous irritant.

The book goes on to discuss the brain gap; I remember the generation gap and the missile gap from my childhood, so maybe I’m not as excited about a new gap as I should be. One worthwhile question about the difference between Digital Natives and Digital Immigrants—as yet unanswered—regards the way that immersion in electronic worlds affects the social maturation of young brains. The research the book presents is suggestive, but inconclusive. Sometimes it seems like the authors are trying to argue it both ways: On the one hand, individual brains change to adapt to their environments; that’s why the brain gap arose, because Digital Natives and Digital Immigrants face different environments, to some degree. But the point of adapting is to cope with the environment better, and it’s possible that kids are developing the kind of social skills they need in the world they’re going to have to survive and mate in. If this is happening at the cost of losing ordinary garden-variety social interaction skills, that is worrisome, but it’s not really clear yet that that’s what’s happening, in my opinion. As far as I can tell, young people still go to school and have to interact with their peers and their elders face to face. And it’s worth mentioning that older communication technologies, like the book, have also been blamed for stunting social skills. (Hands up everyone who, as a child, was told by teachers or parents to get your nose out of that book and come play with the other kids.)

I get the feeling that part of what motivated the book is the unease that an older generation feels with the world that young people are creating. This has been a concern of the older generation for centuries. While there may sometimes be room for concern, the fact that the plaintive cry about young people who seem like they’re from another planet has been heard for generations does blunt the urgency for me. And while the authors seem to view online interactions as less desirable than those that take place face to face, they don’t say much about the social benefits of the Internet, like the way it connects far-flung communities that might otherwise never have found each other, or how email can revive old friendships and keep relationships alive, albeit in attenuated form, over long distances. If I communicated with my kids only via email or IM, that would be sad, but email is perfect for maintaining some friendships that would otherwise probably die away.

All in all, I’d say to save your money for a book that goes into a single topic of interest to you in more detail (and more even-handedly and rigorously) than iBrain does in its smorgasbord approach.

1 Comment

  1. One to skip. Thanks for the heads-up. I’m rereading “Up From Dragons: The Evolution of Human Intelligence” by Skoyles and Sagan at the moment. It is such a marvelous book. Check it out if you haven’t already.

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