Memory, tradition and myths — Is technology changing our brains?

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Science and technology revolutionise our lives, but memory, tradition and myth frame our response.

— Arthur Schlesinger

Earlier today my Twitter buddy Carl Hendrick tweeted a quote and a link to Sophie MacBain’s thought-provoking piece in New Statesman titled Head in the cloud. Carl chose this quote for his tweet: “By blurring the distinction between our personal and our digital memories, modern technology could encourage intellectual complacency, making people less curious about new information because they feel they already know it, and less likely to pay attention to detail because our computers are remembering it. What if the same could be said for our own lives: are we less attentive to our experiences because we know that computers will record them for us?”

Socrates at The Louvre
Socrates at The Louvre

This struck a chord with me because objections to new technology on the grounds that  technology will make us dumber are not new by any measure. Socrates thought that writing would “create forgetfulness in the learners’ souls, because they will not use their memories; they will trust to the external written characters and not remember of themselves. The specific which you have discovered is an aid not to memory, but to reminiscence, and you give your disciples not truth, but only the semblance of truth; they will be hearers of many things and will have learned nothing; they will appear to be omniscient and will generally know nothing; they will be tiresome company, having the show of wisdom without the reality.” 

Luckily for us Plato did not listen to his teacher and wrote the whole lot down, which is the only reason we know that Socrates said that and many other things in the first place.

The belief that having more information available to us atrophies our brains and that technology is making us stupid – as Nicholas Carr warned in The Shallows – is widespread. But, as Jonah Lehrer put it in his eloquent critique in the New York Times of Carr’s narrative, “there is little doubt that the Internet is changing our brain. Everything changes our brain. What Carr neglects to mention, however, is that the preponderance of scientific evidence suggests that the Internet and related technologies are actually good for the mind.” 

To be fair though, technology is changing us anatomically. It’s been changing us from the very beginning. We are, to a large extent, a product of our technological advances. An alarming thought for Socrates would have been that he actually looked the way he did because of technology.

One of Socrates's ancestors
One of Socrates’s ancestors

It turns out that after mastering the creation of fire hundreds of thousands of years ago, our digestive systems started to adapt to cooked food, so we gradually lost the ability to digest digest raw meat and vegetables efficiently. Cooking food meant that our jaws and teeth gradually shrank, and the ridges on our skulls and brows needed to support heavy chewing musculature started to disappear. Most importantly perhaps, pre-digesting food by cooking it increased the number of calories available to our digestive system and may have been the single most important factor in allowing our brains to grow larger. Increased brain power in turn allowed for the development of new technologies such as agriculture or metallurgy, and, more recently, the printing press and the internet, all of which continue to shape who we are, literally so.

But all of this only happens in evolutionary time scales. “Brain change” of this magnitude does not occur in decades, centuries, or even a few millennia. If we were to dissect Socrates’s brain and compare it to yours, it would be impossible to tell any difference. According to leading neuropsychologists Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons (the folks behind the invisible gorilla experiment) the brain’s anatomy “is determined by genetic programs and biochemical interactions that do most of their work long before a child discovers Facebook and Twitter.” 

Despite all that we know about how the brain actually changes and the benefits that technology continues to have in our development and success as a species, advances in technology are often portrayed as retrograde steps – as humanity’s Achilles heel. Influential academics, such as Susan Greenfield, broadcast vociferously their concerns about the negative impact technologies may have on our cognitive ability, suggesting that we should worry about this in the same way we worry about climate change. Artists too — the very word technology derives from the Greek tekne (art or craft) and logos (account, narrative, study or explanation) — often present a dystopian vision of the future through their work. Some of it is very intelligently and perceptively crafted and the very best of it makes you think hard and reassess your own assumptions and convictions.

But, as Chabris and Simons conclude, “there is simply no experimental evidence to show that living with new technologies fundamentally changes brain organisation”. Technology is not making us dumber, after all. For that we only have ourselves to blame. To paraphrase Steven Pinker, with technology, as with so many other concerns, human nature is the problem, but human nature is also the solution.

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