The digital central nervous system
January 26, 2011 4:53 PM   Subscribe

Is earlier interaction with technology creating new and different neurological structures in children’s brains? PBS has featured an interesting series of programs on just this question: one with Miles O’Brien, previously CNN’s science correspondent, who also talks to his kids about their use of tech. Digital Nation is a massive related site on Frontline exploring the ethnography of so-called "digital natives" that includes some interesting celebrity interviews; the site is the sequel to the earlier Growing Up Online [previously].
posted by Bora Horza Gobuchul (40 comments total) 12 users marked this as a favorite

 
I have an iPad and a two-year-old (not necessarily in that order), and he is completely comfortable with the iPad. It really does freak me out, because he can find the icon he wants and touch it and start interacting without any help from me.

I think it's a good thing, because he seems to enjoy it. But it's a totally unfamiliar thing to me. So I worry about it. On the positive side, I hope it creates new and different neurological structures in his brain. On the negative side, I worry that it creates new and different neurological structures in his brain.
posted by twoleftfeet at 5:03 PM on January 26, 2011 [5 favorites]


Kids are so smart in adapting to new technology these days.
posted by periphery at 5:14 PM on January 26, 2011 [1 favorite]


As someone who's read a bit in cognitive neuroscience and been to a few conferences, I have absolutely no idea what "creating new and different neurological structures in children's brains" might actually mean. But since PBS has already created a series of programs on this question, I guess the answer is yes?
posted by Nomyte at 5:15 PM on January 26, 2011


I think it's a good thing, because he seems to enjoy it. But it's a totally unfamiliar thing to me. So I worry about it. On the positive side, I hope it creates new and different neurological structures in his brain. On the negative side, I worry that it creates new and different neurological structures in his brain.

A couple hundred years ago, people were saying the same thing about the new genre of children's books, though not in the same words. Today, we'd frown upon anyone who didn't introduce their child to books by the age of two.

Plus ça change...
posted by vorfeed at 5:17 PM on January 26, 2011 [3 favorites]


Is earlier interaction with _______ creating new and different neurological structures in children’s brains?

Yes.
posted by mek at 5:22 PM on January 26, 2011 [3 favorites]


A couple hundred years ago, people were saying the same thing about the new genre of children's books, though not in the same words. Today, we'd frown upon anyone who didn't introduce their child to books by the age of two.

Except an iPad isn't a book. It may be benign, it may not be.

Maybe a better example: I think kids should learn how to ride mountain bikes. I don't think two-year olds should learn how to ride mountain bikes.
posted by regicide is good for you at 5:29 PM on January 26, 2011


A couple hundred years ago, people were saying the same thing about the new genre of children's books...

Nice anecdote. One of my own: a few decades ago people were worrying about DDT. They were right.
posted by AlsoMike at 5:31 PM on January 26, 2011 [2 favorites]


On my phone, so I can't watch the video. But I can't wait to see how little Molly has grown up. Hope Keiko makes an appearance, too.
posted by Eideteker at 5:32 PM on January 26, 2011 [6 favorites]


On the negative side, I worry that it creates new and different neurological structures in his brain.

All new tools change our brains in some forms or another. Everything from the stone axe, the alphabet (rather than pictograms), to the steam engine (which changed the available DNA pool by the ease of transportation), to television has changed us somewhat.

What's so special about how our brains are right now, that requires a certain level of fear-of-change motivated concern?

Observe the differences, analyze and compare? Absolutely.

Be extremely wary and/or prevent any possible change by removing stimulus that is different than what it was like when one was a child? Really? Is this what is wanted?
posted by chambers at 5:35 PM on January 26, 2011 [2 favorites]


Nice anecdote. One of my own: a few decades ago people were worrying about DDT. They were right.

Both the book and the iPad are communication technologies. DDT is not. Therefore, your analogy appears unsuccessful.
posted by Nomyte at 5:40 PM on January 26, 2011 [10 favorites]


I suppose it's all about balance really. As the brain is a subtle optimisation machine, whatever it is exposed to on a regular basis, it will adapt to.

Compared to television, interactive technology is probably less dangerous to developing structures.

However, we all must remember that essentially, the human brain is designed to habituate very quickly to stimuli. This is intentional so that the man can see the leopard before the leopard eats the man. If the man registered all unchanged information with the same weight as new information, he would be McDinner.

Thus, how it is so easy to get sucked into endless wikipedia links or countless hours of television. All that information running through the Big Fat Visual Pipe straight into the cortex activates the part of the brain that thrives on new stimulation.

I guess the short version is make sure the two year old gets equal time with the dog, the sun, other tiny people, other larger people, grass, air, tactile sensations, books, etc. as the iPad. At that age, it is probably more important how someone interacts with the world than what the content of that interaction is.

This applies to adults too. If you're an internet addict and find yourself far more attached to perceived value of content over balanced forms of interaction (same list applies for us as for tiny people), have a whirl around the track with a low information diet

As with all unbalanced indulgences, most people feel better when they're balanced out a bit. And as far as tiny people go, it's much easier to never gain the weight by learning healthy, balanced habits than to lose the weight later.
posted by nickrussell at 5:45 PM on January 26, 2011 [2 favorites]


(low information diet link)
posted by nickrussell at 5:47 PM on January 26, 2011


Miles O'Brien is concerned about the neurological changes brought on by early Holodeck use.
posted by furiousxgeorge at 6:01 PM on January 26, 2011 [6 favorites]


"New neurological structures" means nothing. I buy that technology today might be affecting child development in heretofore unknown ways... but those changes should be described in psychological vocabulary, not neurological vocabulary.

I was pretty amazed that my friend's pre-linguistic baby was able to intentionally unlock my iPhone (and then put it up to his head like he was speaking on it). Very cute, and at times, very annoying. I also enjoyed how he would play on an iPad but occasionally pick it up and look behind it to see where the images were coming from. I'm not convinced that this sort of thing isn't going to mess that baby up.
posted by painquale at 6:02 PM on January 26, 2011


My almost-four-year-old nephew is significantly autistic, and mostly nonverbal, poor motor control, and the like.

I got an iPad back in September for my own software development work, and had heard some stories about autistic kids taking to it like a duck to water. So I dug around the store a little bit, found some programs I thought might be simple enough to try, bought and loaded them up.

He watches me do a new program for a few minutes, then takes over, completely comfortable. Not everything is perfect (we're currently trying to teach him the idea behind Memory card games), but pretty close. He's also been able to then take the stuff he plays with on the iPad - which is probably once a week or so for 30-40 minutes - and apply it to real-world games and exercises. Unfortunately he's finally figured out what the Home button does, so it can be a struggle to keep attention focused now that he knows he can wander around. And yes, he knows what all the different icons are, knows which are his and which are mine. The next step is getting the money together for one of his own, and probably Proloquo2Go as well.

I can't tell you what a tremendous feeling it was to see him matching up letter tiles in FirstWords and finally having real, concrete proof that stuff was happening, even if it was locked up where we couldn't see it and he couldn't express it. If technology is creating new and different neurological structures in his brain, thank goodness.
posted by curious nu at 6:05 PM on January 26, 2011 [9 favorites]


I also enjoyed how he would play on an iPad but occasionally pick it up and look behind it to see where the images were coming from. I'm not convinced that this sort of thing isn't going to mess that baby up.

For the same reason, we should all be very concerned about the game of peek-a-boo.
posted by Nomyte at 6:06 PM on January 26, 2011 [7 favorites]


Both the book and the iPad are communication technologies.

So then you're claiming that communication technology cannot ever cause harm to users? Many people, often motivated by profit, claim technology will Totally Change Everything. But the moment anyone finds a problem, this hubris is instantly converted into modesty. Somehow, revolutionary technology will transform the world and nothing will be the same, but it's also very boring and ordinary, no different from a book or maybe a telephone.
posted by AlsoMike at 6:11 PM on January 26, 2011 [2 favorites]


When the availability to read and write was held by only the fewest of few, history, news, education, and such were all verbally taught from memory, hence the use of simple mnemonics like rhyming (red sky at night, sailor's delight, etc...), numbered groups (10 commandments, 4 noble truths, 8 fold path, etc.).

They didn't know it, but mass literacy was not a free gift without consequence. People traded their skill at memorizing for it. You don't absolutely need to remember it if it's written down.

That was a fundamental change in our brain structure, based on availability of a technological advancement.

Should we not have done that? Could it even have been stopped if you tried at the time? History has shown they tried damn hard at times. Look where that got them.

Humans adapt. The kids are adapting. It's what we do. Its not something that you can choose not to participate in, or for that matter make the choice for someone else, easily.
posted by chambers at 6:25 PM on January 26, 2011 [1 favorite]



So then you're claiming that communication technology cannot ever cause harm to users?


I think the message is that the potential harm is in the content, not the delivery system.
posted by furiousxgeorge at 6:27 PM on January 26, 2011


So then you're claiming that communication technology cannot ever cause harm to users?

There's much fascinating stuff written about cognitive skills that developed as a result of new communication technologies. For instance, here is a history of the emergence of the skill of silent reading, which was for great lengths of time unknown and unpracticed. I'll readily admit that new technologies change society and human behavior in subtle and profound ways. If you're making value judgments, I will admit that from a certain perspective, some of those changes are for the better and some for the worse. I mean, silent reading, just imagine!

But the kind of generalized "harm" that is the province of dangerous chemicals and physical hazards, the sort of harm you're talking about, seems to be a red herring. You might as well ask, "will iPads cause children to grow extra limbs and develop x-ray eyes," with the hint that the answer might be yes. The answer is no.

It is also disingenuous to toss about scientific-sounding terminology about "neurological structures" (and this is not aimed at anyone in particular in this thread), with the implicit or explicit hope of lending one's otherwise nebulously founded arguments a heightened air of credibility.
posted by Nomyte at 6:28 PM on January 26, 2011 [5 favorites]


"Is earlier interaction with technology creating new and different neurological structures in children’s brains?"

"New and different neurological structures" is a very very strange way of putting this idea. It sounds translated from French, almost. The brain's certainly rather plastic, especially at a young age, but I don't think using an iPad is going to give a child new thalamic nuclei, or what have you.
posted by IjonTichy at 6:43 PM on January 26, 2011 [1 favorite]


As someone who's read a bit in cognitive neuroscience and been to a few conferences, I have absolutely no idea what "creating new and different neurological structures in children's brains" might actually mean.

I sense a bootstrapping problem. If you spent less time reading up on cognitive neuroscience and going to conferences, and started spending more time glued to your iThingy, you'd already have the new and different neurological structures in question and would understand what the rest of us were talking about.
posted by sebastienbailard at 7:07 PM on January 26, 2011 [1 favorite]


Christ I hate digital native rhetoric. Spend any amount of time with teenagers who are not your special snowflake of a child and discover that they are not tech geniuses any more than you are.

My mother wad comfortable with an iPad when I first dropped one in her lap. She's 68. (The elderly are the new yech geniuses! Behold!)
posted by Hildegarde at 7:10 PM on January 26, 2011 [2 favorites]


Um...iPhone typing. And three glasses of barley wine. Oops.
posted by Hildegarde at 7:12 PM on January 26, 2011 [2 favorites]


My son is nonverbal MR. In his classroom they have a tool called a "smartboard" that is basically a huge iPad. He can work that thing so fast your head will spin. I cried the first time I saw him do it.
posted by 8-bit floozy at 7:19 PM on January 26, 2011 [1 favorite]


Previously on mefi, this is an ok link (and a decent discussion) for all the "oooh, it happens in the brain!" nonsense. Not sure I agree that perceptual psychology (my field) is as mature and ideal as Bulger pictures it, but the simple neurobabble is not helping anybody.
posted by cogpsychprof at 7:43 PM on January 26, 2011 [1 favorite]


But the kind of generalized "harm" that is the province of dangerous chemicals and physical hazards, the sort of harm you're talking about, seems to be a red herring.

It seems relevant to point out that technology can have unforeseen effects.

There's much fascinating stuff written about cognitive skills that developed as a result of new communication technologies... It is also disingenuous to toss about scientific-sounding terminology about "neurological structures"...

Why? You agree that technology can cause unforeseen neurological changes. What's disingenuous about using simple terminology for a lay audience? I can see why this kind of question would be threatening to techno-optimists, because their optimism depends on the belief that people wouldn't use technology if it wasn't good. And so the question of whether we can know all the unforeseen consequences is problematic. But also, if there are neurological effects, then what if using technology affects your ability to choose? This is even more problematic. We hear that technology is morally neutral, it depends on what moral choices the users make. But what if we turn the question around and ask how is technology using us?
posted by AlsoMike at 7:50 PM on January 26, 2011


Except an iPad isn't a book. It may be benign, it may not be.

Books aren't "benign" or "not benign" in and of themselves. They're inanimate objects. Likewise, reading is "benign" rather than "not benign" simply because we say it is: because we have decided to apply ourselves to reading and to give it positive value within our society. If we're going to do the same with technologies like the iPad -- and it sure looks like we're going to -- then early adaptation to the iPad will be considered benign just as early adaptation to the book is.

Maybe a better example: I think kids should learn how to ride mountain bikes. I don't think two-year olds should learn how to ride mountain bikes.

Yes, well, there's a clear reason for that. I see no clear reason to put the word "iPad" into the same sentences.

So then you're claiming that communication technology cannot ever cause harm to users?

Of course it can cause harm to users. You know what else can cause harm to users? Water. Food. Exercise. The sun. The ground. Sunscreen. Most things, really, especially for infants. We don't raise our kids by isolating them from things that can (as opposed to "are likely to") harm them, though; for the most part, we introduce them to the things that fill our world, and we keep an eye on them to make sure they don't overdo things or hurt themselves with them. I see very little reason not to take the same approach with computers, iPads, or what have you.
posted by vorfeed at 7:55 PM on January 26, 2011 [1 favorite]


you'd already have the new and different neurological structures in question and would understand what the rest of us were talking about

Sorry, but "creating new and different neurological structures" is pretty much devoid of any real meaning. It's the equivalent of saying "synergizing outside of the box just in time b2b paradigm."

A better question is to see if children growing up with these new technologies, which may cause plastic changes in communication and cognition pathways, have any negative psychological effects. An off-the-cuff hypothesis would be that since these iThingies respond so reliably and predictably, there might be socialization problems when dealing with non-machines. Or being so used to these reliably predictable responses (which may alter dopamine spike-timing), these children may not get as much of a kick out of gambling. And perhaps a side effect is risk aversion or reduced risk assessment.
posted by porpoise at 7:58 PM on January 26, 2011


Why? You agree that technology can cause unforeseen neurological changes.

No, I don't agree. In fact, this is the exact opposite of everything I wrote. I'm not sure how you could have arrived at your conclusion. A couple guesses:
posted by Nomyte at 8:07 PM on January 26, 2011


But also, if there are neurological effects, then what if using technology affects your ability to choose? This is even more problematic. We hear that technology is morally neutral, it depends on what moral choices the users make. But what if we turn the question around and ask how is technology using us?

Well, what if using technology does affect your ability to choose? What if it does? In a thousand years we'll be... what? Cyborgs who don't choose? Followers of the Universal AC?

Frankly, as long as we don't become so maladaptive that we die out, I don't think that's necessarily a bad thing. We get to the end of the movie and it turns out we're Agent Smith or CLU, ready to make Earth into the perfect system: so? Maybe we'll be better off that way, and maybe not; same as it ever was.

Funny how we rarely ask how choice (or freedom, or morality, or what have you) is "using us". We love what we are and we are what we know; I doubt that'll change even if it turns out friends are electric.
posted by vorfeed at 8:37 PM on January 26, 2011 [1 favorite]


As someone who's read a bit in cognitive neuroscience and been to a few conferences, I have absolutely no idea what "creating new and different neurological structures in children's brains"
Yeah... everything you do creates 'new and different neurological structures'
Maybe a better example: I think kids should learn how to ride mountain bikes. I don't think two-year olds should learn how to ride mountain bikes.
Totally the same.
Nice anecdote. One of my own: a few decades ago people were worrying about DDT. They were right.

They were also worried about UFOs.
The brain's certainly rather plastic, especially at a young age, but I don't think using an iPad is going to give a child new thalamic nuclei, or what have you.
I figured getting an backup amygdala would help me relax but since then I've been a wreck.
posted by delmoi at 9:59 PM on January 26, 2011 [1 favorite]


I love Patrick Stewart.
posted by cman at 11:04 PM on January 26, 2011


Well, what if using technology does affect your ability to choose?

All kinds of things in our society depend on the assumption that humans are able to choose. If something can alter your brain and shape your preferences without you knowing about it so they aren't really yours, this seems like a bit of a problem. Here's an analogy: geologists have marked a new geological epoch called the anthropocene, where humans are the most significant global force on the planet - global warming, fossil fuels, mass extinctions, altering ecosystems, etc. Some mark the beginning of the anthropocene at the industrial revolution, others put it 15,000 years ago with the advent of agriculture, but either way, the important thing is that by the time we noticed what was happening, it was too late. This is another sense in which our ability to choose is threatened - no-one chose to enter the anthropocene, it happened because we had no idea what the consequences would be. The people who were skeptical about the industrial revolution didn't know, and even if we had followed their advice, it would have happened anyway.

The same is true of the impacts of today's technology. You have this kind of false opposition between pro- and anti-technology camps, false because both betray a deep conservatism. The techno-optimists are conservative in the sense that they think nothing significant can really happen, just like Sarah Palin believes that human impact on the planet could not possibly alter ecosystems. The anti-technology side are conservative reactionaries, believing that there is a past that we can return to and if we don't buy iPads and don't watch TV, we will be spared. But the problem is much more radical: against the techno-optimists, things will really change. And against the techno-pessimists, we won't know how until well after it's too late to avoid it.
posted by AlsoMike at 11:42 PM on January 26, 2011 [1 favorite]


But the problem is much more radical: against the techno-optimists, things will really change. And against the techno-pessimists, we won't know how until well after it's too late to avoid it.

Well, yes, I agree. I just don't see how this is necessarily a bad thing.

All kinds of things in our society depend on the assumption that humans are able to choose, just as all kinds of things in pre-anthropocene society depended on the assumption that humans couldn't significantly alter nature, but things in the next society may be different. Hell, maybe we'll de-choice ourselves right out of the anthropocene and into the mechanopocene. Or maybe the Next Big Thing will come out of nowhere and make the very idea of technology seem quaint. Or maybe we'll actually anthropocene our civilization to death, and then the remaining 10% of us will be really into sand sculptures. Who knows?

Given this, I see no more reason to fear technology than to fear exploration, or philosophy, or politics, or economics, or anything else which might be a game-changer. We don't know what the new game will look like, and we can't know, so why should I be specifically worried that giving a two-year-old an iPad is going to make it happen?
posted by vorfeed at 12:07 AM on January 27, 2011 [3 favorites]


lol - I saw Miles O'Brien and thought this would be about Deep Space 9.
posted by AZNsupermarket at 12:53 AM on January 27, 2011


...and this is why kids in the future will be even fatter than kids today.
posted by dickasso at 5:35 AM on January 27, 2011


...and this is why kids in the future will be even fatter than kids today.

not their diets or anything like that...
posted by thsmchnekllsfascists at 8:00 AM on January 27, 2011


Spend any amount of time with teenagers who are not your special snowflake of a child and discover that they are not tech geniuses any more than you are.

You've never seen one of the bionic-thumbed freaks texting then.
posted by fullerine at 11:13 AM on January 27, 2011


You've never seen one of the bionic-thumbed freaks texting then.

Yeah, we got really good at that. How come you guys text so slow?
posted by thsmchnekllsfascists at 11:37 AM on January 27, 2011


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