Just few days ago I attended a think tank team on the topic “Are Social Media and Screens changing our Brain?” organised by Osservatorio Tuttimedia. These the points I offered to the discussion.
Brains, not just the ones filling our humans’ skulls, have evolved through million of years through a process of selection favouring those most able to adapt to their environment (where, for a brain, environment is first the body embedding it and then the external environment detected and affected through senses and actuators. like eyes and muscles). Plants do not have a brain and their adaptation capability is much more limited (they cannot move either, so their environment has a slower rate of change). The brain is what allows a single individual, not a species, to adapt in real time. Species adapt over a much longer period of time. A brain has to adapt to local and sudden changes (guided by the basic imperatives: feed, flee, fight, f….). The more complex a brain is the more tools it has to understand the environment and plan the interaction (responses). A crucial capability is to learn from experience, a second one, requiring more advanced capabilities is to imagine what may come next (also as response to initiated actions). Learning happens by leveraging all information, data, detected by senses and, also, by the ones created through the imagination process. For sure, our human brain can learn and can imagine and learn from imagining (do you remember Einstein’s thought experiments?).
Learning translates into acquired knowledge, either explicit or implicit. As an example of explicit knowledge I can learn differential equations and I can transfer this knowledge to another person. On the other hand I can learn to ride a bike but I cannot transfer this knowledge to another person. That person will have to go through a direct personal experience of trials and failures to internalise that knowledge because that is an implicit knowledge. The explicit knowledge is basically residing in our brain cortex, the area that I have control on (conscious of) whilst the implicit knowledge is tied into deeper areas in our brain (in addition to cortex ones) like the ones involved in the sense of equilibrium, manual dexterity, musical ear and is gained through repeated experience rewiring our deep brain.
This lengthy premise to connect to the topic at hand, the impact of Social networks and Screens on our brain. It is obvious that the human brain is shaped by experience, starting from birth. Our environment and the interactions we have are shaping our brain both.soft (explicit knowledge) and hard (implicit knowledge). Every person can learn geography (explicit knowledge) and tell a tundra from a desert. However Inuits and Berbers are the ones that find their way in the icecaps and in the desert respectively because their brain has been hard wired through repeated experience on the subtle differences in these landscapes. If you were to find yourself in a desert you are likely to feel lost, everything looks the same since we haven’t got the required implicit knowledge. Another example: we are very good to distinguish faces of people but we have problems in distinguishing faces of people belonging to a different ethnic group, like Europeans distinguishing Asian faces and the other way round, as it gets difficult, as you grow up, to distinguish among sounds that you haven’t been exposed to in your youth. These are examples on implicit knowledge resulting from a rewiring of our brain that is a direct consequence of the exposure (particularly in the first years of our life) to specific interactions (stimuli).
What can we say about the easiness of interaction shown by a youngster in using a smartphone and navigating the web compared to the one of an elderly person? Actually, there is no difference at all with the previous examples: today’s youngsters have grown up in a digital ambient where interacting with a smartphone and surfing the web is the normal landscape. Their brains have been rewired in this context acquiring implicit knowledge (see clip).