Brain Structure


Is there some kind of structural evolution occurring in the human brain as as result of the proliferation of information technology and its instantiates (cell phones, video games, text chat, video chat, email)?

It has been established that environment, culture and behavior result in modifications to brain structure. Mark Prensky has observed that brain plasticity requires intense concentration for several hours a day, five days a week in order to bring about neural changes — thus musicians constantly practice and the modifications supporting scientific thought requires immersion in an analytical environment or laboratory. Presnky’s hypothesis is that a child’s current environment of videogames, instant messaging, MTV and email is programming his brain for high speed multitasking.

I think back on the “chat” systems of the early 1990’s, primarily inter-relay chat or IRC. It was typical behavior for the cogensi to run multiple conversations. Characteristic of these ‘chats’ were extended periods between responses corresponding to slow networks; ‘net-splits’ where server-to-server links disconnected from each other and conversants disappeared; and the simple fact that the other party was engaged in multiple conversations of their own and was busy typing. As a consequence of these ‘communication channel effects’ one tended to become multi-threaded — that is to say, develop the ability to maintain multiple running conversations simultaneously. This is significantly different from, yet similar to, multi-tasking. Tasks tend to be discrete packages of work that are dispatched as capacity becomes available. A conversation thread has inherently stateful properties such as the mental image being built of the other party through successive messages, the intended strategy for conveying an idea or concept, as well as the past conversation history. People who engaged in IRC activity developed the ability to manage across multiple threads.

Current numbers suggest that a digital native, that is to say a child developing in a digital environment with access to email, cell phones, text chat and videogames has developed this ability as part of a standard development process. It is estimated [Prensky] that a child from birth to age 18 is exposed to 10,000 hours of video games, 20,000 hours of television, and 200,000 hours of email or instant messaging activity. It is not unheard of to observe a child studying from a traditional book while watching television, making a cell phone call or text call, and chatting on a MySpace/Facebook. The ability to effectively do this suggests that a brain structure that supports a multi-threaded environment must exist.

Traditional educators would have the student studying in a quiet environment, absolved from interacting with the usual digital digressions. Indeed, traditional teaching is single threaded, conveying a single concept through the classroom presentation. If the brain structure is evolving through exposure to digital technology, then traditional educational precepts may be incorrect and new methods of teaching will need to be developed.

Visualize a teacher presenting three different sets of problems, related in concept, but of different levels of difficulty, simultaneously and interactively. This would be inherently confusing to a single-threaded student but may provide a method to actually teach content in the NCLB single classroom.

If, in fact, the brain structure is evolving to support multi-threaded operations, there may be other manifestations. One indicator may be an increased prevalence of Attention Deficit [Hyperkinetic]Disorder (AD[H]D) [also HKD]. One analysis of the disorder postulates that the ventral tegmental area (VTA) is insufficiently activated to sustain concentration. This and other disorder models assume that the brain is wired as a single threaded entity. A brain with multiple idle threads waiting in the pool, may begin using some of those idle threads to process some totally unrelated and irrelevant activity with the result of an apparent attention lapse. ADD treatment protocols may work by affecting the reticular activating system (RAS), as stated, but by reducing that number of simultaneous threads available.

What is significant here is that the evolutionary development of a multi-threaded brain structure requires a certain amount of time, which is dependent on the saturation of the digital technology into the culture. The pressure to adapt to a multi-threaded activity environment will be large due to peer pressure and social context. The ability to manage multi-threaded activities will likely lag as management processes, which typically have to be trained by reflection, tend to lag the activities they are managing. As a result, while there is pressure to develop and use these techniques, with the consequent cortical rewiring, there is little understanding of, or methods available for their management. The result of a modified brain structure without the overlying thread management system could easily lead to ADD.

Virtually all of the activities a teenage child is exposed to has characteristics which support a multi-threaded operational state. Cell phone texting, instant messaging, and social networking chats all are subject to the same channel effects mentioned in conjunction with IRC. The delays are shorter due to higher available bandwidth and better technology, but the inherent multi-threaded nature is still there. Email, once viewed as the “instant” replacement for written memos has been relegated to the same status in the new digital age as “snail mail” was in the earlier transition. Video games, multi-player games (WOW) and the like all require a multi-threaded attention span.

This is a wake-up call for educators and health management officials. Efforts need to be made to develop appropriate management techniques for the multi-threaded brain to allow a person to more effectively manage his thought processes in the non-digital environment as well as the digital environment. Educators need to understand how to train train these techniques for the new brain and not rely on drugs to constrain the new structure into a parody of the old single-threaded brain. And sociologists need to be aware that the world has changed yet again, and that the pace is even faster than ever before.