TECHNOLOGY: by Christopher J. WardNews Weekly
Computers, TV and a shrinking attention span
, February 20, 2010
The impact on the human brain of computer games, social networking and the Internet has been the subject of research by Britain's most distinguished female scientist, the Oxford University neuroscientist, Baroness Susan Greenfield. (Tim Cannon, "Can computer games harm children's brains?", News Weekly, November 14, 2009).
In contrast to Baroness Greenfield, I am a social scientist who is proud to be called an empiricist (these days part of a dying breed). While Baroness Greenfield is interested in the mechanics of the brain, my interest is in the behaviour that follows - the social consequences.
I have no doubt that technology and our use of it have induced brain changes. We are beset with data and information, almost to the point of saturation, and it is impossible to assimilate everything. There is good reason to believe that the brain grabs or seizes what it wants in a given context. Thus, we can reinforce prejudice or change our minds.
However, an attendant problem is the question of whether our brains are capable of processing all the information we receive from the media and any other source.
To the extent that I am interested in the chemistry and mechanics of the brain, we should realise that, even while we are asleep, the brain still processes information. This is analogous to leaving a computer turned on overnight to conduct routine maintenance. Such is the brain, the wonder of God's creation and still the most powerful computer in the world.
Expanding on Baroness Greenfield's observations, I would argue that it's not just computer games that can affect children's and even adults' minds. In fact, the computer is a comparative latecomer to mind-altering technology.
Before the advent of radio and television, simple verbal communication in the form of rhetoric changed the brain for good or ill. And, as George Orwell noted, control of the language is all-important in shaping opinion.
The impact of TV on the family home and social relationships is well established. In today's America, many houses are built without kitchens. In the UK, in three out of five households, there is no dining table, and meals are taken in front of the TV.
The ubiquitous box - or should I say boxes, because most homes have more than one TV - is for the most part a passive babysitter, sometimes a channel of doctored information (tailored to the lowest IQ), and, at worst, an addictive pastime.
I would argue that TV, especially with colour, began the desensitisation process of both children and adults. "In-your-face broadcasting" changed social norms and behaviours, and good manners and civility suffered as a consequence.
Then there is the ubiquitous computer. It is staggering to think that, in just over half a century, technology has become miniaturised and incredibly powerful. If you have the luxury of an iPhone or similar G3 phone, you can hook into the Internet just about anywhere. Your laptop is more powerful than the computers on the US space shuttles.
Personal interaction with a computer is virtually a given. From the moment children enter school, they are introduced to computers and the Internet. They come home from school and, these days, a child's room in a fairly average home is "their" territory. Parental rights have been displaced by the rights of the child to privacy. The modern parent can be in the wrong by "trespassing" in a child's room and trying to establish what they are viewing on TV or on the Internet.
Children's social interaction these days is greatly reduced and often conducted by computer and mobile phone. Mobile phones are practically mandatory for most schoolchildren.
I envisage a possibly dystopian future for humanity where people don't really learn but rely on what they are told or assimilate through various media. Checking facts and mastering great books have been replaced by cutting and pasting entries from Wikipedia.Sound bites
Recently, the director of Stanford University's Impulse Control Disorders Clinic, Dr Elias Aboujaoude, discussed how modern technology effectively rewires the human brain.
He chillingly warned: "The more we become used to just sound bites and tweets, less patient we will be with more complex, more meaningful information. And I think we might lose the ability to analyse things with any depth and nuance. Like any skill, if you don't use it, you lose it." ("Attention loss feared as high-tech rewires brain", San Francisco Chronicle
, November 15, 2009).
Empirical evidence exists to demonstrate that young and old alike today have a diminished attention span, and even academics have confessed that their priorities are literally driven by their computers.
I fear that humanity, rather than improving its intelligence from generation to generation, risks having its mental capacities and faculties effectively disabled by the very technology that was supposed to educate and benefit it.Dr Christopher J. Ward is a social scientist.