Between The Skin and The Skull

Beyond the NSA and the Patriot Act, the dangers of “Big Brother” are beginning to extend outside the realm of the state and into that of the personal. Presently, the Big Brother of digital technology is actively taking away our free will.  Digital culture is reshaping the neural architecture of our brains and rewiring how we think, act, and live—for the worse. 

How can the brain be reshaped? Your brain can change itself in response to physical and psychological interactions with your body and your environment. If you understand how and when the brain adapts, you can proactively change your conscious experience. The human brain has an estimated hundred billion neurons, connected to other neurons through synapses. Our synaptic connections can be altered by changes in behavior or environment. They can weaken or strengthen, can be pruned or newly constructed. This phenomenon is called neuroplasticity. It is the brain’s incredible design feature that underlies learning and memory. For example, literacy is not innate, but learned, and must be practiced to achieve proficiency. When a child learns to read, neurons in the relevant brain areas—perceptual, linguistic, and cognitive regions—are activated. These areas are relatively far away from one another. When these neurons are activated in close temporal proximity, they form synaptic connections with each other— “neurons that fire together, wire together.” Once these synaptic connections form, the perceptual, linguistic, and cognitive regions can then communicate, integrate information, and bring about the emergent property that is reading and comprehension. As a child continues to practice, these interregional synaptic connections are strengthened. The next time the child reads, activated neurons in this neural circuit will be more effective in transmitting information in the already—strengthened pathways. In other words, it is the neuroplasticity of these neural circuits that allows them to be strengthened, and these functional and structural changes lay the foundation for proficient, fluent reading.

With enough practice in literacy, humans can develop the ability of deep reading, an “array of sophisticated processes that propels comprehension and can include inferential and deductive reasoning, analogical skills, critical analysis, reflection, and insight” (Wolf & Barzillai 2009). Deep reading enables people to construct sophisticated meaning from a text by using higher-order cognitive skills, such as analyzing, integrating concepts by associating ideas within networks of learned semantics, and building upon these concepts meta-cognitively. Such skills require the activation of brain areas responsible for higher-order cognition. So, the process of deep reading takes a lot of time—it starts with the visual perception of the text and ends with the propagation of neural signals from brain region to brain region. It takes time for signals to propagate along these interregional pathways, especially if the involved regions are distant from each other. As we now know, repeated practice of deep reading will strengthen these pathways and improve the efficiency and speed of the deep reading process. For example, it probably takes a child significantly longer to extract meaning from a scholarly passage than it does a well-read adult. But even expert readers require a few hundred milliseconds in order to activate the extensive network of the involved brain regions (Keller et al., 2001). It is here that technology and digital media are exploiting neuroplasticity and changing our brains and behavior for the worse. 

The digital introduces a multimodal medium through which an immense amount of information is readily available and easily accessible. Though this technology presents the opportunity to immerse ourselves in information-rich new media, the immediacy and sheer volume of information exploits the brain’s inclination to pursue novelty. Through search engines, we can access any desirable piece of information with the literal click of a button. Social media allows us to constantly share our lives and stay connected with others of interest. According to Plato, Socrates was afraid that literacy would mislead people to believe that they could access true knowledge by merely reading literature. Similarly, digital media may delude people into believing that they already possess all the knowledge that they need, diminishing the motivation to dig deeper and engage in profound, intellectual thought and to expand existing ideas. We live in a perpetual state of fragmented awareness and our cognitive bandwidth is spread so thin that we lack the self-control to maintain sustained attention on a single, meaningful stimulus. We fall into a vicious feedback loop that consistently rewards and reinforces these rapid shifts in attention. This habitual behavior may “short-circuit” the development of the neural pathways underlying deep reading (Wolf & Barzillai, 2009).

Recall that expert readers require a few hundred milliseconds to deep read comprehensively. Rapidly shifting our attention and passively perceiving information without extensively processing the input impedes the slow, immersive process that is necessary for the activation of the many brain regions involved in deep reading and comprehension. In the context of neuroplasticity, we’re cementing the neural circuitry that supports hyperawareness and hyper-excitability while simultaneously suppressing the pathways that permit deep reading, deep thought, and the associated higher-level cognitive skills.

In 1998, Linda Stone, a Microsoft executive, coined the term continuous partial attention (CPA) to describe a state in which an “individual does not focus on one thing in reality while he or she is engaged in and follows everything” (Firat 2013). It seems that the digital era has subjected Millennials to a perpetual state of CPA. Our brains are in a heightened state of stress, under constant cognitive overload, and are powerfully motivated to be a “LIVE node on the network” (Firat 2013). Reading this quotation for the first time was a sobering experience.  It embodies my subjective experience almost too perfectly, and I’m confident that I’m not the only one that feels pressured to be a LIVE node on the digital network.  It’s as if I pay continuous partial attention so that I don’t miss anything. This pressure means that I, among the masses of my age group, am constantly on my devices.  I’ll be on my phone, with my fingers rapidly interacting with the interface with so much automation that the whole process practically precludes conscious awareness. At this point, are my gestures (or even my thoughts) in my own possession anymore? I’d argue they are not. People look at their phones and have no idea why they’ve turned it on or why they’re on a particular app. “Did I just check my phone? I don’t even remember. Why am I on this app? I guess I’ll check it again.” At this point, we’ve already lost the freedom to control conscious experience, and gestures have become habits - reflexive, sensorimotor responses to stimuli. The triggering of habits doesn’t require conscious awareness (Childress 2008). Without conscious awareness, can we still own our actions and thoughts? Or have they become abstractions of the smartphone? Philosopher and cognitive scientist David Chalmers argues that objects in our environment can serve as extensions of the mind as long as they function with the same purpose as an internal mental process—a philosophy known as active externalism. In other words, it is arbitrary to restrict the mind to the boundary of skin and skull. The brain and the environment comprise a coupled system that is the mind. Now, seriously consider your mind to be a product of interactions between your brain and the environment. Is a smartphone, then, an extension of your brain, or is your brain an extension of the smartphone? If you’re not even conscious of your habitual interactions with your cellphone, isn’t your cellphone in control, at least partially, of these interactions?

There have yet to be any published studies on the effects of digital media and CPA on high-level cognition associated with literacy. But in my life as a Millennial, I have experienced the transition from a non-digital to a primarily digital culture. I can attest to the notion that digital media has the adverse side effect of CPA. It seems like the digital age is actually changing the culture of the human consciousness and its phenomenal experience. Now, the focus seems to be on maintaining one’s status as a LIVE node on the network… constantly overwhelmed and undernourished.

The brain’s neuroplasticity is also its Achilles’ heel. Digital media is exploiting this weakness by strengthening the neural architectures underlying the constant desire for stimulation and rapid shifts in attention. A scattered attentional capacity creates a shallow conscious experience. It is true that digital media provides an invaluable opportunity to immerse ourselves in rich, multimodal knowledge and information. But we cannot let digital media reduce our conscious experience to a passive, distant spectatorship. When I hear powerful statements, I never really remember them verbatim. But at the last lecture of one of my psychology courses, Professor Tse said something that I think about nearly every day.  He wrote it in big letters on the board: “If you are to take away one thing from this class, it is to pay attention to your conscious experience.”

 

Childress, AR, et al. "Prelude to Passion: Limbic Activation by "Unseen" Drug and Sexual Cues." PLOS ONE 3.1 (2008): e1506.

Firat, Mehmet. "Multitasking Or Continuous Partial Attention: A Critical Bottleneck for Digital Natives." Turkish Online Journal of Distance Education 14.1 (2013): 266-72

Keller, TA, PA Carpenter, and MA Just. "The Neural Bases of Sentence Comprehension: A fMRI Examination of Syntactic and Lexical Processing." CEREBRAL CORTEX 11.3 (2001): 223-37.

Wolf, M., and M. Barzillai. The Importance of Deep Reading. 66 Vol. ALEXANDRIA: ASSOC SUPERVISION CURRICULUM DEVELOPMENT, 2009.