Stone-Age Brains In A Modern World

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A fascinating interview with Jay Giedd, a researcher at the National Institute of Mental Health. Here, he talks about what our brains evolved to do, and how they’ve adapted to a fast-changing world:

“Interviewer: Our brains have been challenged by the effects of multi-tasking in
many ways brought on by the age of social media and use of computer gadgets.

Giedd: The way that we get information, entertain ourselves and interact with each other has changed more in the last ten years than in the previous five hundred—since Gutenberg’s introduction of the printing press. And so these changes are a real challenge for researchers because they happen so rapidly. So, that adolescents today average about eleven and a half hours of media time. And this is up from six and a half hours just five years ago so that the activities of children and teens has been changing so much. We’ve been challenged—how do we keep up with the changing world and how do we assess the impact for good or for bad on the developing brain.

Interviewer: So how well are our children handing multi-tasking in a digital age that changes, seemingly, by the hour? Early evidence suggests: pretty well. In fact, the human brain has a track record of successfully adapting to challenges it wasn’t initially designed to take on—such as reading.

Giedd: It’s sobering to realize most humans that have lived and died have never read. And so, we’ve been able to change what our brain does based on having the written word and having this environment. And so now the questions is will we be able to change to keep up with the new flood of information coming from all kinds of sources. And up until now the human brain has done a great job of changing—adapting to these environments, but there are limitations to this capacity. And so it will be very interesting to see that these so-called digital natives… the children that have grown up never not knowing the multimedia devices… whether their brains will be able to adapt differently than older people.

Interviewer: So, what was the human brain originally developed to do? Dr. Giedd says our brains are fundamentally designed to learn through example.

Giedd: This learning by example is very powerful and that parents are teaching even when they don’t realize they are teaching just by how they handle everyday aspects of their life. How they treat each other as spouses. How they talk about work. When they get stuck in traffic. How they manage their time and their emotions. And this is how most of the teaching is done. It’s not when you set down at these special moments and have a conversation—it’s the everyday moments that really have a huge impact on how the brain forms and adapts.” Read more here.

A good reminder that we live in an environment that is very different from the one in which the human brain evolved, and while our brains are quite flexible and adaptable, there is a limit to that flexibility that we do well to recognize and respect. For example: the brain cannot pay attention to two streams of complex information at once. It must alternate between them, and that switching back and forth has a cognitive cost. That is as true for so-called “digital natives” as it is for everyone else! Human cognition is human cognition, and though we live in the 21st century we still to a large extent have Stone Age brains.

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2 Responses to “Stone-Age Brains In A Modern World”

  1. DDS says:

    Very interesting stuff and good point about so-called digital natives (of which I’m certainly one). We live in a world where we still haven’t evolved properly to understand the value of speech and the written word, how to properly digest modern (carbohydrate-heavy) diets let alone the 20+ years of Internet exposure.

    Frankly the ease with which children and old people can pick up an iPad and get using the web shows how little advantage growing up with it is. The only real advantage is that you (I) are familiar with the assumed conventions of browsers, search engines, website navigation etc. which are (at-the-moment-necessary) abstractions placed between our intentions and the content we want. I.e. they won’t always be there…

  2. Sam K says:

    It is interesting, I guess just like some situations cab be taken advantage of some people irrespective f rich or poorer (not matrimonial commitments) will find it much easier to work with the technology. They will then emerge as the stronger group surpassing some “advantaged” of earlier eras. It’s amazing how brilliant the human species are. The manipulation of symbols to reach higher levels.

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