Mind change – a moral choice?

The human brain
Image via Wikipedia

Ian Sample wrote yesterday in the Guardian about Lady Greenfield’s appeal for an investigation into the effects of computer games, the internet and social networking sites such as Twitter on the human brain (see Oxford scientist calls for research on brain change).

Lady Greenfield has coined the term “mind change” to describe differences that arise in the brain as a result of spending long periods of time on a computer. Many scientists believe it is too early to know whether these changes are a cause for concern.

“We need to recognise this is an issue rather than sweeping it under the carpet,” Greenfield said. “We should acknowledge that it is bringing an unprecedented change in our lives and we have to work out whether it is for good or bad.”

Everything we do causes changes in the brain and the things we do a lot are most likely to cause long term changes. What is unclear is how modern technology influences the brain and the consequences this has.

“For me, this is almost as important as climate change,” said Greenfield. “Whilst of course it doesn’t threaten the existence of the planet like climate change, I think the quality of our existence is threatened and the kind of people we might be in the future.”

Lady Greenfield was talking at the British Science Festival in Birmingham before a speech at the Tory party conference next month. She said possible benefits of modern technology included higher IQ and faster processing of information, but using internet search engines to find facts may affect people’s ability to learn. Computer games in which characters get multiple lives might even foster recklessness, she said.

Is this alarmist?

I have heard her talk before about the influence of new technology on the human brain. This was on Car Pool (see Baroness Greenfield on CarPool). At the time she seemed to be denying any charges that she was being alarmist. Rather she was just pointing out the fact that our environment and activity has an inevitable influence on brain development and changes.

Now, however, I think she is being alarmist. Her claim that there is a problem “almost as important as climate change” is extremely one-sided. And, unfortunately, it will be accepted uncritically by many, including parents and educators, who are technophobic or consider computers, social media and electronic games are “bad” because they are differ from their own experience as children.

Of course our technology will influence our brain development. That’s normal during human development and even the mature human’s brain has a degree of plasticity. On the whole, that is just as well. It enables us to adapt so that our lives are more comfortable and of greater quality as technology changes.

Obsession changes mind and body

And yes obsessive use of any technology could change one’s mind in a way that makes interaction with the rest of society problematic. This is also true for obsessive use of pornography, politics, sport and religion, for example. Just consider how problematic many politicians and bible-bashers are in there interactions with society.

One could also ask the question how desirable it is to range one’s children to excel at a particular sport or even an intellectual pursuit. If this is done obsessively it will change the mind and body. And this could influence how the child interacts with society now and in future.

However many in society consider this acceptable, even desirable. Others may not.

By all means lets have more research on the effects of new technology on our brains and minds. Let’s also include the effects of other things we do obsessively. But we shouldn’t consider these effects will be bad just because they are new.

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2 responses to “Mind change – a moral choice?

  1. In The beginning of wisdom 3.0 I argue that brain changes or cognitive influences caused by video gaming could, if the games were appropriately designed, be very constructive. In fact, I suggest video games as a delivery system for a whole spectrum of positive cognitive re-engineering efforts addressing such issues as “predictable irrationality”, “cognitive self-defense”, cognitive self-assessment, cognitive therapy, etc.

    “A spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down.”

    As we all know, video games can be extremely compelling (if not addictive), and users can obsess over them for hours and days at a time. If a game meets enough of the criteria needed to make it compelling to a target audience, users can be expected to gladly consume any educational content embedded int the game. This is well-established and has already been extensively exploited in a broad range of educational software and interactive video products.

    I advocate robust research and development efforts aimed at producing state-of-the-art video games designed to teach actual cognitive skills and abilities, with or without explicit, factual educational content.

    At the simplest level, games might be designed to train users in critical reasoning skills such as the use of sound logic and argument or the recognition of logical fallacies.

    On a deeper level, games might be designed to reveal a user’s implicit associations and unconscious cognitive biases and even to assist the user in altering such biases.

    On a deeper level yet, information gleaned from cognitive neuroscience might be applied to correct pathologies, compensate for deficits, or improve a wide variety of targeted cognitive or neural processes.

    The psychological and neural consequences of using video games may very well be undesirable or even harmful if some or all of the impacts are arbitrary, unintended, and unexamined. On the other hand, if the impacts are intentional and constructive, video games might help us fix a whole panoply of thorny problems. They could become a virtual panacea for any and all correctable neuro-cognitive disorders of thinking, reasoning, and behavior.

    Poor Richard

    Poor Richard’s Almanack 2010


  2. Pingback: The beginning of wisdom 3.0 « Poor Richard's Almanack 2010

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