Facebook’s impact on the brain
The idea that the internet is having profound effects on our brain is back in the news this week with findings presented in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B that there are correlations between the density of grey matter in certain brain areas and the number of friends both offline and through social networks. The real implications of these findings is itself another grey area as although the correlation is likely important, it is not known whether those with denser grey matter in right superior temporal sulcus tend to have more friends, whether increased density is caused by the use of social network sites like Facebook, or whether some third factor might be involved. But it is easy to imagine a thousand experimentalists are now dreaming up studies to try to probe these relationships.
In fact, findings that parts of the brain can indeed be restructured rapidly by learning new tasks is nothing new. Notable mention here goes to the hippocampus of cabbies growing as they learn the job (at least in the days before SatNavs) but learning almost any skill, from writing to playing Frisbee will make changes in brain circuitry. Nicholas Carr´s recent book The Shallows made much of the finding that novice internet users’ brains can also be rapidly restructured by a few hours learning about using web-browsers. Considering such research has led some commentators including Susan Greenfield and Sherry Turkle to make a series of dark pronouncements on the impact that social network sites might be having on our minds, brains and selves. One curiosity is that such changes are almost always uncritically represented as a source of worry.
Yet, from another perspective it might come as pleasant surprise to find that our brains can be rapidly restructured by what we do. And it makes a nice riposte to the new dismal scientists of evolutionary psychology, whose proponents like to claim that however much human beings have appeared to change throughout history we are still prisoners of our stone aged brains. The stream of finding about how our brains are plastic in the face of what we do – such as using technologies like Facebook – might be taken as a vindication of the counter claim that while much of our brain structure is built by Darwinian selection, human beings are immensely flexible and that this is in part is do with our brains’ ability to rapidly restructure to whatever tasks we face or with which we choose to engage.
This reception is, I believe, down to a couple of framing concepts: the idea of technological impact and a certain understanding of what mind to brain reduction means.
It is striking that a metaphor of impact is applied to almost every discussion of the interaction of the internet and our brains and minds. It is, however, a biased metaphor that represents technology as a potent and destructive force and human beings as puny individuals only able to cower in its shadow. The internet is arguably a technology that is like almost no other in history in that, with new mobile devices and new software applications offering new possibilities every day, it is open to individuals’ tailoring and customisation of the ways we choose to interact with it. Viewing it as something which simply impacts on us robs human beings of their role in being able to shape and appropriate the technology. To take Facebook as an example again, many people may find the frequent updates to the way the site appears disorientating but then again the ways people have customised the device to their use since its invention surely outstrip anything Mark Zuckerberg has dreamed of. Facebook is clearly a technology which was repurposed by its users.
The second concept is that we are somehow slaves to changes in our own brains. Indeed there is something ominous to many people about the idea that some activity or other changes the functioning topography or the relative sizes of our brain. It is as though something covert and beyond our control is going on here. Yet if you believe that ultimately the brain is the material basis of the mind then this should really come as no great shock. Learning a new skill, or adopting a new interest will undoubtedly cause brain rewiring, changes to the density of neural wiring and possibly entirely new brain circuits, but this does not mean we are the zombies of our technology. We still get to choose what we do; it´s just that our brains adapt to our choices.
The whole history of technology from the invention of the stone axe, to writing to the construction of the internet has been a history of human beings performing one experiment (conscious or not) with material culture and indirectly themselves. What is different today is that more of us get the chance to play a role in this experimentation. So let´s not portray us as the zombies of our technology, or foreclose the role we have in turning new technology to our needs and desires.
Throughout October and November, The Independent Online is partnering with the Institute of Ideas’ Battle of Ideas festival to present a series of guest blogs from festival speakers on the key questions of our time.
Dr Robert Clowes is research fellow, philosophy of cognitive science, IFL, at Universita Nova Lisboa; founder member, The Brighton Salon; founder, Lisbon Salon. He is speaking at the Battle Satellite event Is technology making us smarter or dumber? in Brighton on Tuesday 1 November.Tagged in: computers, facebook, internet, opinion, social networking, technology
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