Home > neuroscience, philosophy > Why Technology Is Not Bad For The Brain

Why Technology Is Not Bad For The Brain

The Mark News recently published a piece by Susan Greenfield of Oxford University’s Institute for the Future of the Mind. She argues that technology is having adverse effects on the human mind for a number of reasons. First, computers are replacing full-on five-sense experience like that we get from the “real world” with two-sense experience (namely, sight and hearing) because that’s all computer monitors are capable of producing. Because monitors only have two senses to work with, they overload those two senses in order to keep us interested, and in the process we move from understanding to simple information processing as we try to make sense of the rapidly flashing sights and sounds emitted by our monitors. This information processing leads to more shallow understanding, and “infantilizes” our brains. She also tacks on a complaint about Twitter status updates being trivial and attention-seeking. She ends by arguing that by spending more time in front of the computer, people are learning less “real life” skills like how to make eye contact and socialize with our peers.

 

With due respect, I think she’s completely missed the mark (no pun intended). I’ll address each of her points in turn.

 

She is undeniably correct that monitors are limited to two-sense output. But this isn’t limited to monitors – televisions, movie screens, etc are also limited to two senses. Books, before that, were also limited to either two senses (if you count the tactile sensation of holding the book, although then it seems like computer keyboards ought to give computers three-sense input) or a single sense – sight. If less than full sensory input negatively affects the brain, then the problem Susan is describing has been going on for quite some time – at least as long as the general populace has had ready access to books.

 

On the other hand, she’s only right as a matter of contingency – if monitors are limited to two senses, then I think that first she isn’t taking into account tactile feedback devices that allow for more sensory input (as a simple example, vibrating “rumble” controllers that have been out for 25 years or so) and second that she’s discounting the relatively short period of time that this will be so. Sight and sound are easily programmable. Basic tactile feedback is easy enough, but more complicated feedback is starting to come around – see the “kissing machine” I wrote about previously, and teledildonics in general. See also the Wii Kinect and Playstation Move, that require users to hold those controllers and actually move about in an approximation of the actual activity. See also, Guitar Hero. Taste and smell are the most complicated to program because either we would need something like a direct neural connection to simulate smells and tastes, or some kind of taste and smell mixing packet integrated with the machine, such that it can produce appropriate smells and tastes on demand. With full immersion VR we will probably get there (and I imagine smell will come first, because it is easier to pump a gas than layer on a taste) but one wonders if expecting taste and smell from a computer is any more sensible than expecting taste and smell from a car.

 

Greenfield is also mostly right that because monitors only have two senses to work with, that they (potentially) maximize their output to those senses. However, the extent to which this is true depends on what the computer is being used for. If you’re playing Call of Duty, with twenty or thirty players running around a chaotic map firing guns, tossing exploding grenades, and calling in attack choppers to rain death down on every enemy on the map then yes, sight and sound are being overloaded to a point where information processing is more important than cognitive understanding. These are “twitch-based” games for a reason – they rely more on instinct than understanding, although some tactical knowledge never hurts in warfare games. Further down the spectrum are turn-based-strategy games, where the game pauses to allow the player to set up their next move and then resumes to show the outcome of the player’s choices. These have periods of downtime where cognitive processing is very important; they are strategy games, and so understanding and appropriately reacting to whatever situation the game is presenting is vital. Like chess.  Then there are moments of flashing sounds and lights where the decision is simulated and pays off in sensory experience. See games like Civilization or the turn-based Final Fantasy games (which are more role playing games than a turn based strategy games, but still require considered thought on a pause screen during battle.)  At the far end of the spectrum is a simply laid out webpage which seems, to me, no more complicated than a book. How ‘overloaded’ are your senses as you read this? How much thinking are you doing about the content of what you read, and how much twich based information processing is expected? Computers (and video game machines, which I consider essentially the same) offer a variety of output options, some more information process-y and some more cognitive.

 

If information processing infantilizes our brains, then it seems we have bigger problems than computers. How does driving (or riding a horse) differ from a twitch based game in terms of the amount of sensory input that needs to be dealt with immediately? Indeed, if computers are limited to two senses, then ought we not be glad that our brain has less information to process? Shouldn’t we worry more about full on experience than the admittedly limited output offered by computers? Each of us is constantly trying to make sense of a “fast and bright” world consisting of whatever sensory inputs are crashing through our eyes, nose and ears and washing over our tongues and skin. If this torrent of information is a bad thing, as Greenfield implies, then ought we not be glad to have the comparatively restful deluge of information offered by the most chaotic two-sense games? Ought games not be restful to the brain, as many gamers think, instead of hyper-active?

 

The understanding we gain from computers depends entirely on what the computer is being used for. If one spends their entire time playing Farmville there will be some cognitive development, but I expect that there is only so much knowledge to be gained from the game. If, however, one spends all their time reading the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, or even Fark.com, then much more knowledge-based cognitive development is possible. The computer is no more of a brain-sucking device than a television, and the information derived from a television, like a computer, depends on what the device is being used for: Watching the Science channel is going to lead to more cognitive development than Jersey Shore.

 

Greenfield’s final argument, that interacting via computer detracts from “real world” skills, is well taken but ultimately potentially mistaken.

 

First, like her sensory argument, if true at all her argument is only contingently true. As video calling and holographic representation become more popular, eye contact and traditional “real world” skills are more and more useful. I’ll argue below that useful social skills are being learned through the computer medium already. Finally, her argument depends on the “real world” remaining the primary method of communication between people. Just like someone who is socially awkward (perhaps, as Greenfield implies, because of time spent on the computer) has difficulty maneuvering through social situations in the real world, so too does a computer ‘noob’ have difficulty maneuvering through social situations in the virtual world. How many of us have chastised (or at least seen chastised) someone for formatting their emails poorly, or for typing in all caps? How difficult is it to ‘get’ the internet if one doesn’t understand basic internet lingo like emoticons (  :)  ) and acronyms (LOL). Even a basic understanding is not enough to skate by effortlessly if one doesn’t understand more subtle internet cues that evidence, if not (to borrow an old term) internet leetness (itself an example of internet culture) then at least familiarity and proficiency. Does anyone who spends all their time in the “real world” understand the importance of Anonymous? If one constantly runs across acronyms that they don’t understand (omgwtfbbqpwn) or memes they don’t get (lolcats have become pretty mainstream, but what about technologically impaired duck, or Joseph Ducreux) or anything on (sorry to bring them into it) 4chan. Technologically impaired duck is, as a whole, about people who don’t ‘get’ internet culture.

 

Beyond pure information, I’ve seen that people who have spent their entire lives off line still have difficulty separating good sources from bad, or valid emails from spam and scams. In short, there is a different culture on the internet that could, if the internet becomes the primary method of communication, be just as rich as the “real world” and where picking up subtle cues through emoticons or acronyms is just as important as making eye contact or cracking a joke in the “real world.”

 

Finally, I don’t think that “real world” social skills are being lost simply by being online as Greenfield claims. Certainly, for all its downsides, Facebook has taught people to network better. Prior to the internet, one was limited to communicating with people in roughly the same geographic area, or perhaps a few if that person had traveled extensively for work or school. It was hard to keep in touch, and people had to make an effort to call or write to another person. Now, it’s much easier to keep in touch with far-flung friends and to know without much trouble what is going on in their lives (to the extent that they make such information available) and to drop a note to say hello. Games like World of Warcraft force groups of people to work together, learning leadership skills and group dynamics on the way. The internet is about connecting people with each other, and that is a skill in vogue both online and offline.

 

It seems to me that Greenfield is upset that the method of communication is changing, but I don’t think her (admittedly short) article really explains how technology is damaging the human brain. I have no doubt she’s a smart woman and probably has a lot of academic work to back up her claims; I’d like to see that work and see if it, too, is based on what I consider to be faulty assumptions.

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  1. June 3, 2011 at 1:45 pm | #1
    • June 3, 2011 at 1:47 pm | #2

      And that wasn’t meant to come across as link throwing, I was just reading the two articles concurrently! I liked your writing

      • June 4, 2011 at 8:19 am | #3

        @Minnie: Thanks for the kind words, and the link. If the link is right, non-religious is just about as bad as most born-again types of religion for the brain. But, if they’re linking hippocampal shrinkage to stress, I wonder what the hippocampus of surgeons, lawyers, and stock brokers look like, whatever their religious affiliation…

  2. June 19, 2011 at 2:29 pm | #4

    A well-written, insightful, and nuanced post — thanks for that. While we should always be researching the consequences of new technology, we are always obligated to ask “compared to what?”

    • July 3, 2011 at 9:35 am | #5

      @David: Thanks very much! I’ve seen some of your research on The Science Channel and Nova where you talked about time perception and synesthesia. I’ve also read a bit of your work on neuroscience and how it ought to affect the law. I may do some writing about it, but in short it’s fascinating.

  3. September 15, 2011 at 11:11 pm | #6

    Hello JONH
    I want to say that I really liked your article and I could really identify with what is expressed
    Now I have a better idea about this, thank you very much

    • September 17, 2011 at 8:53 am | #7

      Hi Sofia,

      I’m glad you enjoyed the article. Thanks for reading!

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