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How digital culture is rewiring our brains

| September 11, 2012 | 1 Comment

By Susan Greenfield

Our brains are superlatively evolved to adapt to our environment: a process known as neuroplasticity.

The connections between our brain cells will be shaped, strengthened and refined by our individual experiences. It is this personalisation of the physical brain, driven by unique interactions with the external world, that arguably constitutes the biological basis of each mind, so what will happen to that mind if the external world changes in unprecedented ways, for example, with an allpervasive digital technology?

A recent survey in the US showed that more than half of teenagers aged 13 to 17 spend more than 30 hours a week, outside school, using computers and other webconnected devices. If their environment is being transformed for so much of the time into a fast-paced and highly interactive two-dimensional space, the brain will adapt, for good or ill. Professor Michael Merzenich, of the University of California, San Francisco, gives a typical neuroscientific perspective: “There is a massive and unprecedented difference in how [digital natives’] brains are plastically engaged in life compared with those of average individuals from earlier generations and there is little question that the operational characteristics of the average modern brain substantially differ,” he says.

Education policy must factor in adaptations

The implications of such a sweeping ‘mind change’ must surely extend into education policy. Most obviously, time spent in front of a screen is time not spent doing other things. Several studies have already documented a link between the recreational use of computers and a decline in school performance. Perhaps most important of all, we need to understand the full impact of cyber culture on the emotional and cognitive profile of the 21st-century mind.

Inevitably, there is a variety of issues. First, social networking. Eye contact is a pivotal and sophisticated component of human interaction, as is subconscious monitoring of body language and, most powerful of all, physical contact, yet none of these experiences is available on social networking sites. It follows that if a young brain with the evolutionary mandate to adapt to the environment is establishing relationships through the medium of a screen, the skills essential for empathy may not be acquired as naturally as in the past.

In line with this prediction, a recent study from Michigan University of 14 000 college students has reported a decline in empathy over the past 30 years, which was particularly marked over the past decade.

Such data does not, of course, prove a causal link but just as with smoking and cancer some 50 years ago, epidemiologists could investigate any possible connection. The psychologist Sherry Turkle, of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, has argued in her recent book Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other1 that the more continuously connected people are in cyberspace, the more isolated they feel.

Enhanced recklessness possible

Second, video games. Neuropsychological studies suggest frequent and continued playing might lead to enhanced recklessness. Data also indicates reduced attention spans and possible addiction. In line with this, significant chemical and even structural changes are being reported in the brains of obsessional gamers.

No single paper is ever likely to be accepted unanimously as conclusive but a survey of 136 reports using 381 independent tests, and conducted on more than 130 000 participants, concluded that video games led to significant increases in desensitisation, physiological arousal, aggression and a decrease in prosocial behaviour.

Possible effect on cognition

Third, search engines. Can the internet improve cognitive skills and learning, as has been argued? The problem is that efficient information processing is not synonymous with knowledge or understanding. Even the chairman of Google, Eric Schmidt, has said: “I worry that the level of interrupt, the sort of overwhelming rapidity of information – and, especially, of stressful information – is, in fact, affecting cognition. It is, in fact, affecting deeper thinking. I still believe that sitting down and reading a book is the best way to really learn something.”

Fuller picture needed

Given the plasticity of the brain, it is not surprising adapting to a cyber-environment will also lead to positives – for example, enhanced performance in skills that are continuously rehearsed, such as a mental agility similar to that needed in IQ tests or in visuomotor co-ordination. However, we urgently need a fuller picture.

I would like to suggest a ‘mind change’ initiative, involving epidemiological studies that explore the significance of these trends in relation to a screen-based lifestyle, as well as funding for basic brain research into, for example, the neural mechanisms of addiction and attention, the long-term effects of various screen activities on brain structure and function, and the neural processes perhaps underlying deep understanding and creative insight.


1. Turkle, S. (2011) Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other. New York: Basic Books.

Category: e-Education, Featured Articles, Spring 2012

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  1. This is a very interseting article, since on-line learning, and apps for the learning environment are hot topics in education at the moment. As a psychologist I am very interested in the function of the brain and the human factor in the virtual world of learning. I believe we need more discussions and research in this area, and not just accept the every new application or social media site.

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