Your Brain Unleashed – Outdoors and Out of Reach

Ah, rafting the San Juan River in southern Utah, camping and hiking for a week – for most people, a vacation. But for a select group of brain researchers, and some accompanying journalists, it was “serious work.”

It was a primitive trip with a sophisticated goal: to understand how heavy use of digital devices and other technology changes how we think and behave, and how a retreat into nature might reverse those effects.

The whole technology vs. nature theme is a hit, as the NY Times article, Your Brain on Computers: Outdoors and Out of Reach, Studying the Brain, is the most popular article there right now. But that dichotomy of technology as bad and nature as good is a false one. Worse, the prism of the brain proves to be dangerous rapids rather than a river of explanation.

I’ll start with the money quote for me:

Back in the car, Mr. Kramer says he checked his phone because he was waiting for important news: whether his lab has received a $25 million grant from the military to apply neuroscience to the study of ergonomics. He has instructed his staff to send a text message to an emergency satellite phone the group will carry with them.

Mr. Atchley says he doesn’t understand why Mr. Kramer would bother. “The grant will still be there when you get back,” he says.

“Of course you’d want to know about a $25 million grant,” Mr. Kramer responds. Pressed by Mr. Atchley on the significance of knowing immediately, he adds: “They would expect me to get right back to them.”

It is a debate that has become increasingly common as technology has redefined the notion of what is “urgent.” How soon do people need to get information and respond to it? The believers in the group say the drumbeat of incoming data has created a false sense of urgency that can affect people’s ability to focus.

The anthropologists among you should already know where I am going – the conflation of a social expectation, a social reality, with a technological cause. The money quote really is just this, “They would expect me to get right back to them.” But rather than dwelling on that, the piece then asserts that “technology has redefined the notion of what is ‘urgent’.” Sorry, but it was actually people who did that, people and their social expectations. Technology doesn’t come to us unmediated by culture. Rather, technology is culture.

Unfortunately a good ethnographic moment, which says one thing about human life, is turned into a reductive, brain-oriented explanation in the next paragraph – the expectation to get back to someone becomes the drumbeat of incoming data. Yet they are two very different things.

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Great Expectations: Conference on Brain Plasticity


Back in February, the Danish School of Education at Aarhus University in Copenhagen hosted a fantastic looking conference, “Great Expectations: The Plasticity of the Brain and Neurosciences at the Threshold: Nature and Nurture – And Beyond…” The conference was organized by GNOSIS Research Centre – Mind and Thinking Initiative.

It had a great line-up: Steven Rose, Douglas Hofstader, Maxine Sheet-Johnson, Timothy Ingold, and a host of Danish scholars whose work we can now all expore. The three days of the conference each addressed a different theme: Brain Plasticity, Awareness and Intentionality, and Beyond Dualisms.

You can read the Introductory Statement on the conference. Here’s one paragraph from the end:

Neuroscience seems to have learned from its critics. Reductive and neurocentric positions have to give way to the ideas that the plastic brain is capable of learning for life, and that both bodily movement as well as social activity leaves clearly formed traces in the development of the brain. Whenever we pray, learn to ride a bicycle, or read a book, the brain changes. The brain is not destiny. Are there no limits, human and neurobiological, to how much we can learn and to the extent that upbringing might effect changes in the brain?

The best thing is that you can get the videos from all the talks. So here is Steven Rose on The Future of the Brain – Promises and Perils of the Neurosciences (preceed by an intro to the conference), Jesper Morgensen on Any Limits to Neuroplasticity?, and Tim Ingold on The Social Brain.

You can access the entire program and all the videos at the Great Expectations conference website.

Caught in the Net – The Internet & Compulsion

Internet Evolution
By Emily Salvaterra, KT Hanson, Gonzalo Brenner, Hannah Jackson

Why are you reading this? Do you want to learn? Are you doing research? Maybe you’re bored and are looking to kill time? Are you addicted and can’t get offline?

So just how many of those links did you check out? After clicking on the first one, did you want to click on another? Did you fight the urge or just keep clicking?

How Much is Too Much? When a Habit Goes Too Far
World in Hand
Almost 25% of the people in the world are active Internet users. More than 100 million Facebook users log on at least once per day. Nine blogs are created each minute. As advancements in Internet technology continue to make the world smaller and smaller, new users are plugging into the Net at an unbelievable pace. But what happens when these users are logging on too often? Where do you draw the line between harmless and harmful?

Many experts today are asking these questions about Internet usage. The Internet can be a valuable tool for accessing information, making connections, and maintaining relationships. People all over the world use their cell phones, laptops, and home computers to access the Internet and branch out in all directions on the information superhighway. But for some, one wrong turn changes the Internet from a mode of communication to a medium of compulsion.

The Process of Escalation

Remember what your life was like without the Internet? We don’t. And we don’t particularly want to imagine life without it either. Today we live in a fast-paced technology-loving age where the answers to most any question are just a mouse click away. Unfortunately, this is just part of the problem when it comes to Internet addiction.

Over the years, the Internet has become too stimulating, too accessible, too anonymous, and too interactive. To put it simply, it’s way too easy to get sucked into the Internet. For some people, an everyday habit of checking Facebook on your new BlackBerry (a.k.a. CrackBerry) can turn into a full-blown compulsion in a matter of weeks.

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Fear of Twitter: technophobia part 2

When I was a lifeguard in high school, two of my fellow lifeguards — Steve and Pete — sought to converse as much as possible quoting directly lines from the Chevy Chase movie, Fletch. This is what qualified as comedy. Steve was apparently the ‘more clever’ of the two as he probably achieved Fletch Quotation Ratios as high as 20%; Pete, though quite well tanned, likely only managed 10% FQR at best. I hadn’t seen the movie, and I was never much for quoting film scripts (not even Monty Python), so I assumed that Steve’s high FQR was either a symptom of premature senility or a sign of the impending collapse of Western civilization.

Recent fears about the negative cognitive consequences of the social networking site Twitter, which I mentioned in an earlier post, Is Facebook rotting our children’s brains?, led me to recall Steve and Pete’s battle for high FQR. In both cases, concerned observers might wonder whether patterns of mental activity can lead to long-term neural degeneration; I haven’t checked in on Steve or Pete in more than 20 years, but I suspect they’re both locked in institutions living out a cruel Chevy Chase imitation from which they can no longer escape.

Twitter, even more than other Internet-based social networking applications, seems to provoke apocalyptic fears of mass mental degradation. Over at Alternet, for example, Alexander Zaitchik asked Twitter Nation Has Arrived: How Scared Should We Be? In the piece, Zaitchik wonders whether what was ‘once an easily avoided subculture of needy and annoying online souls’ was bringing about the apotheosis of all that is loathsome in American pop culture: ‘look-at-me adolescent neediness, constant-contact media addiction, birdlike attention-span compression and vapidity to the point of depravity.’ Rob Horning of Pop Matters warns about ‘Twitterification’ in a piece titled, Foucault’s Facebook. Keith Olbermann named Twitter ‘worst person in the world,’ …for the one episode at least (see video at You Tube); Olbermann found someone already Twittering in his name, even using his email address. And if you’re not already convinced that Twitter is the unmentioned fifth Horseman of the Apocalypse, John Mayer’s Twitter obsession is blamed for Jennifer Aniston pulling the pin on their relationship.

Fortunately, even if we are on the non-stop plane to cognitive Armageddon, Web 2.0 assures us that we will have clever guerilla videos about our own immanent destruction as our in-flight entertainment. From SuperNews, we have a helpful cartoon, ‘The Twouble with Twitters’, to explain to us ‘the latest socially networking micro-bloggy thingy,’ especially if you’re a slow-on-the-uptake parent not sufficiently worried about adolescent technology use (are there any?).

More after the jump…
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Is Facebook rotting our children’s brains?

The Guardian (UK) brings us a recent example of technophobia based on comments by neuroscientist Lady Susan Adele Greenfield, this time about the latest prime suspects for ‘rotting the brains of our youth’: Facebook and social networking sites. Patrick Wintour offers us Facebook and Bebo risk ‘infantilising’ the human mind, suggesting that social networking websites might be responsible for ‘short attention spans, sensationalism, inability to empathise and a shaky sense of identity.’

Completely unscientific chart from Brainz.org

Completely unscientific chart from Brainz.org

The article quotes at length from a statement to the House of Lords by Baroness Greenfield, Professor of Synaptic Pharmacology at Lincoln College, Oxford, and Director of the Royal Institution of Great Britain.

The Baroness Greenfield has written a stack of books, including a best-seller on the brain, earned a peerage for her outstanding career, and has so many titles and honours that I’m not even sure what to call her (Prof? Lady?). Browsing her homepage and publications list, there’s a range of interesting stuff on consciousness, analgesia, dopamine, and a fair number of subjects upon which I don’t have even the expertise to comment. The only problem is that her fears, closely examined, reveal that she doesn’t know what to be afraid of, adopting a ‘one-paranoia-fits-all’ approach to technological change.

The Guardian article seems a bit over-wrought, and I don’t have the transcript of Greenfield’s presentation to the House of Lords, so I’m hesitant to attribute too much of the phobia to the original speech (for a critique of Greenfield’s habit of alarmism, however, see Ben Goldacre’s weblog). As we’ve seen repeatedly, the transition from scientist presenting to science writer submitting the story to editor reworking to press printing can be really rough, transforming subtle and measured analysis into formulaic, exaggerated soundbites. However, there are some extensive quotes, so in this piece, I’ll do my best to analyze what we have. In another post, I want to move beyond the fear of Facebook, using Lady Greenfield’s comments to think about how we might actually do research on the effects of technological change among developmental influences, but I won’t get to that in this post, as it’s already too long.

I’m not blasé about the developmental consequences of heavy exposure to screen technology, but I think that a legitimate interest in the possible effects of significant technological change in our daily lives can inadvertently dovetail seamlessly into a ‘kids these days’ curmudgeonly sense of generational degeneration, which is hardly new. That is, we have to be careful when we look at the research as it’s easy to annex our popular understandings of generational dynamics, even frustrations with our own children, students, and other young people, into a snowballing sense that everything’s going to hell.

Is new technology affecting our brain development and how? Is the recent change in the developmental environment much greater than previous changes in childhood ecology? And what specifically can we say about social networking sites as a factor in cognitive development? Obviously, these are huge questions, and it’s not my area of research specialty exactly, so I’m not going to bring fresh unpublished data to the table. But I do have some thoughts on the subject nonetheless, as our regular readers might imagine… but here’s the first part, where I deal with the concerns voiced by Greenfield and others.

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Supersized Sweet Secular Search Engine

The latest economic downturn is giving us plenty of business losers, as well as a few winners. It’s the winners that have been catching my eye recently. McDonalds is doing well. Hersheys too. Netflix and Nintendo. Hamburgers, chocolate, movies, and video games. Things we consume, that we experience – not manufactured goods, not services, but activities that mix goods and services together in ways that promote demand, a desire to return and do or have or experience it again.

Let’s take a more mixed example. Mattel the toy company. Its popular 99 cent Hot Wheel toy cars weren’t so popular last year. But American Girl, dolls built around an experience and an identity, is doing well. John Sherry, the anthropologist who heads up Notre Dame’s Marketing department, recently wrote, “The staging ground for the brand’s performance and enactment, American Girl Place, has become a commercial Mecca, a secular pilgrimage site to which female believers throng.”

In my recent piece on what one day at Kotaku the gaming site shows us about our modern world, I wrote:

On this particular day, January 12th, a range of pieces captured why the video game phenomenon has so much to tell us about our modern obsessions, from sex to shopping, drugs to drinking. These eight stories show us the powerful convergence of people looking for fun and industries looking for profit. From pleasure to despair, this convergence is the story of our post-modern lives. It’s not commodities anymore, it’s activities.

We are seeing the emergence of a new type of economy amidst a new type of globalization, and it’s going to produce its own winners and losers, both on the economic side and on the people side.

Want to know how the world is changing? Just look at this Coke avatar ad from the Super Bowl, where the online world meets the iconic brand. It gives us a walk through a modern urban life and ends with romantic tension. Coke is right there in the middle of our enjoyments and our desires, and its enhanced sweetness and pitch-perfect iconic value part-and-parcel of how we live now.

Last April in Cellphones Save the World, I wrote the following:

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Demons on the Web

vaughan-bell-by-paul-smith
Vaughan Bell of Mind Hacks makes the New York Times today! So finally a picture of the man! He is seated in the garden outside the Department of Psychiatry at the Universidad de Antioquia, where he now works in Medellin, Colombia.

The NYT piece Sharing Their Demons on the Web begins:

For years they lived in solitary terror of the light beams that caused searing headaches, the technology that took control of their minds and bodies. They feared the stalkers, people whose voices shouted from the walls or screamed in their heads, “We found you” and “We want you dead.”

When people who believe such things reported them to the police, doctors or family, they said they were often told they were crazy. Sometimes they were medicated or locked in hospital wards, or fired from jobs and isolated from the outside world.

But when they found one another on the Internet, everything changed. So many others were having the same experiences.

The article goes on to discuss this “extreme” online community that gives peer support a whole new meaning! Mind control, stalking and paranoia become the delusions of the net. “The views of these belief systems are like a shark that has to be constantly fed,” Dr. Hoffman said. “If you don’t feed the delusion, sooner or later it will die out or diminish on its own accord. The key thing is that it needs to be repetitively reinforced.”

On the other hand, Derrick Robinson, a janitor in Cincinnati, says “It was a big relief to find the community. I felt that maybe there were others, but I wasn’t real sure until I did find this community.” Mr Robinson has gone on to become the president of Freedom from Covert Harassment and Surveillance.

Vaughan estimates that there are a small number of these intense sites that are frequented around the Internet. I ran across a similar phenemenon exploring pro Ana websites that support anorexia a couple years back. But Vaughan has published everything! The article ‘Mind Control’ Experiences on the Internet: Implications for the Psychiatric Diagnosis of Delusions (pdf) appeared in Psychopathology (also available here through Scribd).

As expected, Vaughan documents the NY Times article over at Mind Hacks. He described the outcomes of this research in an earlier post on Internet mind control and the diagnosis of delusions. As Vaughan concludes about this research:

This is interesting because the diagnostic criteria for a delusion excludes any belief that is “not one ordinarily accepted by other members of the person’s culture or subculture”, whereas these individuals have formed an online community based around their delusional belief, creating a paradox.