Tuesday, November 25, 2008

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.


  1. I think we dismiss these questions far too easily. The suppliers of technology and media are definitely not going to be the ones to examine the issues. And while parents have the responsibility to help lead and nurture their children, I think what we need is more information and study into how technology/media is affecting our psychology. Information that is sorely lacking.

    Great thoughts on this Hank

  2. Suicide baiting isn't a new phenomenon. It's just far more visible on the Internet. When someone's standing on the ledge of a building and a crowd gathers below, the distance between the jumper and the crowd provides enough anonymity for someone to yell jump.

    It seems like there have been a few sociological studies of the phenomenon, but I'm pretty sure it predates any desensitization that could be caused by the information age.

  3. Zachary,

    No behavior is new. It is the volume and virulence that is at issue here. This type of incredibly common behavior in chat rooms, broadly speaking is, I believe, a reflection of new programming. Of course if I am wrong, research will allow us to sleep at night, and we will need to come up with other reasons for the change in behavior. But that exploration is critical.

  4. I have seen the effects of too much television watching and game playing with my niece and nephew. Therefore, I do not turn the television during the week, and the kids and I read for an hour. I also sit down with them and help them with their homework.

    With the suicide of the 19-year old, humans have always been fascinated with the misfortunes of other people. You see it when there is a car accident. People start rubber necking to see if they can see dead bodies or something to that extent. It's nothing new. Sad, but something that has occurred for a long time. It's just like Zachary said. It is just more visible on the net.

  5. "People start rubber necking to see if they can see dead bodies or something to that extent."

    Big difference between looking for dead bodies and a group of people *encouraging* a potential suicide. And again, there have always been people shouting "jump"-- the issue is the frequency of bad anti-social behavior online, not whether or not such behavior existed before. And finally, my thesis is open to being proven wrong. What is not open is the need for serious study of the effects of the technology and what it is doing to us.

  6. I disagree. I think children are pretty much the same as ever.

    The Justin.tv thing is certainly disquieting, but I think it's not due to kids being desensitized. I'd say it's because the Internet is even more of a medium for bullshit -- being so free and uncontrolled -- than most others. So kids are desensitized to the Internet, not really considering it to be real -- not to life in general. Also, certain consequences of semi-anonymity on Internet forums have become ingrained, and tend to bring out the worst in people*.

    I shouldn't be so bold as to contradict your teacher friend outright, but I find it hard to believe that one child in a dozen ever was really interested in reading history. I know in my elementary school in the late 60s and early 70s we didn't have a lot of scholars, and kids mostly read only what they absolutely had to, which wasn't much. Even I, who read an awful lot back then, never read history for fun as a child -- I read novels. Is it possible the teacher's memories of studious and attentive classes were more wishful than real?

    *Go to 4-chan's notorious B channel for an example, if you have a thick skin. All forum posters there are fully anonymous. It's mostly gross and horrible stuff, but some of that stuff (not all, sadly) is clearly just simulated bile, posted in an attempt to join the club, as it were. [As an aside, 4-chan, for all its wretched squalor, ugly pornography, and collegial abuse, is also the source of a surprising number of the funnier and more successful "Internet memes" and fads.] It's hard to imagine most of the distressingly nasty posters who frequent the 4-chan B channel talking that way with their friends and families in person. Most of the 4-chan population is obviously teenaged, and 4-chan was started by a teenager, so its culture may have some bearing on the justin.tv situation.

  7. "I shouldn't be so bold as to contradict your teacher friend outright, but I find it hard to believe that one child in a dozen ever was really interested in reading history."

    You missed the point entirely. As I said in the next paragraph, when I was a kid we were forced to do it. That's part of what training is. And we didn't have so many distractions to make it easier not to. And generally, as someone who spends my life with a soon to be education phd and all of her ed. phd friends, I promise you, kids a *very* different from the way they were when I was a kid, and I presume even when you were a kid. There is little dispute about that among those that study such things, and I must say, from my own non academic perspective, the fact that that the kids I see (I live across the street from a school) are different is painfully obvious. The only question is exactly how and why.

  8. go back and watch Johnny Mnemonic, what caused Nerve Attenuation Syndrome or "The Black Shakes"? it was electronic and information overload.

    i would not be surprised at all if this comes to pass as a real "disease" (of course not epidemic as in the movie) but we are diagnosing crap like ADHD nowadays which kinda makes you think if it's all leading somewhere.

    ADHD is a bullshit "disease" though. stems authoritative figures not being "allowed" to physically discipline children because it causes "psychological damage".

    what a crock...

  9. Alas, the problems you point out have been going on for quite a while now, as described by http://www.neilpostman.org/

  10. It's not the technology, it's *US*! The worst part about this story is the "followers" that egged the poor kid on.

    Ancient Rome didn't have twitter, but they did have Bread and Circuses and they watched people die for sport. There is (sadly) precedent in our human history for people being entertained at the misfortune of others. God help us.

  11. A sort of general aside to the question of whether technology is the motivating factor behind alleged changes in children's behavior.

    Evidently the glass teat is even more addictive now than ever before. Though video games and the Internet may be distractions for some people, it seems that TV is now watched more, not less:

    4.75 hours per person per day!

    If this is equally true of children as of adults (the quoted figure is not specific) then it is no wonder that school academics are suffering. If children really are doing worse in school, or have shorter attention spans, or whatever is claimed, I think it goes back to the parents in particular. While the trend may be societal, I don't think it's attributable to technology. To the extent it proves anything (admittedly debatable), this TV factoid seems to support that notion.

  12. "4.75 hours per person per day!"

    That's pretty shocking if that is true for kids.

  13. We'll have to pick a line to stop, like the Amish, just further along. No doubt they're more sensitive, and maybe strong-willed. But we will or have, discover(ed) that there are limits to what we can take and still feel right, just like them.

  14. I think Laurence Brothers made a really interesting post (Hank has mentioned it on earlier posts) regarding web's anonymity nature.

    4chan is something really wicked, and it just shows how a culture of hate is far easier to inherit to young people. (or as a sick hobby)

    I saw a LOT of T.V. and played a LOT of videogames during my childhood, but I read a LOT as well.

    I believe that is truly deceiving to compare someone born during the 60's to someone born in the 90's. It's just way too many differences between years. (Even between my little sister and me, and are only 13 years in between)

  15. My girlfriend and I constantly debate the effect of technology on society and she pointed me to this quote from Theodor Adorno which I think you'll find interesting and very pertinent to your post:

    Technology is making gestures precise and brutal, and with them men. It expels from movements all hesitation, deliberation, civility. It subjects them to the implacable, as it were ahistorical demands of objects. Thus the ability is lost, for example, to close a door quietly and discreetly, yet firmly. Those of cars and refrigerators have to be slammed, others have the tendency to snap shut by themselves, imposing on those entering the bad manners of not looking behind them, not shielding the interior of the house, which receives them. The new human type cannot be properly understood without awareness of what he is continuously exposed to from the world of things about him, even in his most secret innervations. What does it mean for the subject that there are no more casements windows to open, but only sliding frames to shove, not gentle latches but turntable handles, no forecourt, not doorstep before the street, no wall around the garden? And which driver is not tempted, merely by the power of his engine, to wipe out the vermin of the street, pedestrians, children and cyclists? The movements machines demand of their users already have the violent, hard-hitting, resting jerkiness of Fascist movement. Not least to blame for withering of experience is the fact that things, under the law of pure functionality, assume a form that limits contact with them to mere operation, and tolerates no surplus, either in freedom of conduct or autonomy of things, which would survive as the core of experience, because it is not consumed by the movement of action.

  16. I sometimes feel guilty, living here in Silicon Valley and writing about technology all day, that my almost eight-year-old daughter has not yet used a computer. But not that guilty. Instead of playing video games or participating in online worlds where the makers of the games specifically try to find ways to get kids to spend more time on their sites, she spends her days outside school creating detailed drawings, writing her own books with illustrations, building castles, animals, and other creations with paper and found objects, playing outside and discovering cool new plants, leaves, and bugs ("Daddy, daddy, come look!")

    She might not do all this if she had a different personality, so I don't want to come off high and mighty here. Another child might be stimulating more by online activities. But I find it hard to believe she isn't better off getting grounded through an engagement in the physical world early on and creating things all on her own than staring at a screen, even if that screen invites participation.

    The whole notion that kids today have differently wired brains strikes me as very convenient for the companies pushing these technologies. My daughter will learn to use a computer and the Internet when she needs to. Brains are plastic, and assuming kids need to be immersed in online media early on sells short their intelligence and adaptability.

    My two cents as a tech-savvy but tech-skeptical dad....

  17. Hank,

    I thought this article, The Future of Ephemeral Conversation , was interesting and makes some similar points about how a wired world is changing how we interact, even though we haven't internalized it yet.


    Regarding forcing children to read: I believe that interactivity and critical thinking are *much* more valuable to learning then lectures and memorization. A book can never completely substitute for one-on-one instruction, and nether can videos, or any other one-way medium.

    I'm no educator, but Michael Wesh's keynote at the CIT conference this year made a big impression on me. He had a pretty harsh critique of academia (as he put it "something went horribly wrong,  because today irrelevant things are called 'academic'.")  He said, and I agree, that we need to move towards an education system that values discussion over dogmatism, and "unquestionable" textbooks.  It seems that the internet/collaborative technologies have made this more apparent, and easier to do.  But of course it's a cultural problem, not a technological one.

    Now this isn't to say that discipline has no value, or that people shouldn't be able to buckle down and read books. But I do think that the right answer is to make history something more then boring books -- not to force children to sit still and read them.

    So while children reading less is very disquieting, I'm cautiously hopeful that it's a rocky step in the right direction.

  18. I think the single most important factor for a child's education is for a child to want to read. I think instilling that desire should occur before school begins. Ideally a child should go to nursery school with some reading skills. I understand that this is rare, but it should still be desirable.

    I don't think instilling this basic desire to read has anything to do with technology or society at large, or even with the educational system, because children at that age (2-3 years old) have no contact with any of those things; their worlds are more or less entirely based on their families.

  19. @Rob Hof:
    That's a great job you're doing. Don't sell yourself short, I like reading because of my father (he thought me the love for books).

    I believe that you can become tech savvy easily if you know how to think, but being tech savvy doesn't make you flexible and a thinker.

  20. Nothing has changed in our minds. The Colosseum was built by the Romans to offer instant gratification to the citizens.

    Technology has changes, World of Warcraft has taken the place of the Gladiators. But people are still driven by the same mechanisms.

  21. @ Laurence Brothers:

    Speaking as a kid who randomly started reading voraciously one day in second grade, you are exactly spot on.
    (Maybe I exaggerate. It was possibly first grade, but the point is that I remember a time when I regarded reading as a chore and remember the time I snuck into my parents' room to get at the book they were going to try to get me to read the next day. I'm fuzzier on the time frame of when it was, but the shift was dramatic and pleasantly surprised my parents.)

    I'm not at all sure how this happened with me. I have a feeling it had to do with focusing on the story instead of focusing on how great reading is, because, frankly, reading without a good motivation is one of the most boring and unfun things I've ever done, and this is still the case today when I sometimes find my textbooks fascinating and sometimes find them to be all kinds of boring. (Assuming sufficient time, you can guess which ones won't get read.)

    note: I have since also become an avid, though little-practicing gamer, so I think I can see both sides of that divide pretty clearly... and I still ask for books for Christmas. (I have plenty of computer games already... I don't really need new ones.)

  22. I reackon who did this writing has a really good point with heaps of strong wordz. i believe kids nowadays are to caught up on the labtops and tvs or gameboys and playstations. from my point of view heaps of kids would rather do what everyone else does and we are connecting to the world lesser and theres less face to face contact by that.


  23. It seems like there have been a few sociological studies of the phenomenon, but I'm pretty sure it predates any desensitization that could be caused by the information age.


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