Something is Happening To Our Brains

There are few who at this point have not heard about the suicide of Abraham Biggs on Justin.tv. There are few that don’t know that visitors to the chat room associated with the Justin.tv video feed egged him on. There are few that are not disgusted by the thought, no, the horror of what happened.

But there is a bigger picture here. And it is not a bigger picture about the horrors of the Internet. Behavior of the type that was displayed in the chat room is, I think, a symptom of a much larger issue.

Something is happening to our brains.

Our younger generations have, I think, become more desensitized to their surroundings. There is a hunger for instant gratification. There is a hunger for stimulation – what some of us might call overstimulation. Through video games, and instant messaging, and texting we are becoming a society of instant expectations. And through canvases like Facebook on which you can, and are expected to, with no shame, share everything about yourself. There is no shame in sharing acts that in the past might have appropriately been considered shameful. Everything that can be shall be. Or is. Or *should* be.

But I am not here, like some troglodyte, to suggest that we should not be playing video games or IMing or using these technologies. They have great value. But unfortunately, we have not yet had time or perhaps the impetus to study the social and psychological implications of the technology that surrounds us. This is critical because it is affecting us in ways that we, on a day-to-day basis, are having a hard time taking the measure of. And so we are not crafting social policy and appropriate frameworks for how we allow technology to integrate into our lives.

For example, what kind of rules *should* a parent impose on their child with regard to technology? How should parents be engaging with their children around these issues? How can schools use technology to maximally enhance brain function and focus?

I recently had a conversation with an elementary school teacher who just returned to the profession after taking off several years to get her masters. In going away and coming back, she has a perspective that because it is not incremental, is particularly instructive. When she left the profession, kids were one way. Now, having returned they are different.

One of the things she said that struck me is that children seem to have shorter attention spans for things that are critical to learning. For example, there is much less interest in reading, and particularly reading history. I suspect the same sort of focused attention requirements that math have are incongruous with a generation with a shorter attention.

When I was growing up, parents essentially forced kids to sit still and study. But there wasn’t that much else to do. There were no computers or cell phones, or IM. The most exciting thing I could do was go outside and play for a while, which at least generally involved running – another thing kids don’t get enough of a chance to do today. The only electronic entertainment in the house was a TV. But there was no cable so there were only a few channels, and I was never allowed to watch it until I had done my homework.

Today it seems as though one needs an extraordinary level of parental vigilance in an era when the economics of the time makes such vigilance even less likely.

And so while I do not believe that technology is evil, I do believe we need to study the impact it is having on our brains. I believe that the desensitization, and the need for immediacy and instant gratification are all changes that are slowly, collectively being made to our cerebral processes. And I would like to figure out how not to throw the baby out with the bath water.

But figuring this out is a task for psychologists and sociologists, and maybe even at this point anthropologists. As I see it, this is one of the most important issues facing our planet. And as far as I can tell, no one is seriously addressing with academic rigor what is really happening, much less what we should do. That really needs to change.

Post Author: Ruby H. Rosenbaum

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