Human Identity’s Brain Drain

May 10, 2008 at 4:32 am 5 comments

It reads like the voice-over script for a doomsday-is-eminent-until-Will-Smith-saves-humanity Hollywood produced summer blockbuster:

Human identity, the idea that defines each and every one of us, could be facing an unprecedented crisis.

It is a crisis that would threaten long-held notions of who we are, what we do and how we behave. It goes right to the heart – or the head – of us all.

This crisis could reshape how we interact with each other, alter what makes us happy, and modify our capacity for reaching our full potential as individuals.

And it’s caused by one simple fact: the human brain, that most sensitive of organs, is under threat from the modern world.

So when does the movie come out? I’m hooked!

Uh, not so fast.

This is the intro to recent article by Susan Greenfield, a neuroscientist and researcher at Oxford University. In “The REAL Brain Drain: Modern technology is changing the way our brains work,” published by the UK’s Daily Mail, Greenfield provides a crash-course about the science of brain plasticity; poses some important ethical questions about the technical and medical advances that allow us to perfect our psychological, genetic, and physical make-up; and ruminates about the unintended consequences of a hyper digital world on our neurological functioning.

Our brains are under the influence of an ever- expanding world of new technology: multichannel television, video games, MP3 players, the internet, wireless networks, Bluetooth links – the list goes on and on.

But our modern brains are also having to adapt to other 21st century intrusions, some of which, such as prescribed drugs like Ritalin and Prozac, are supposed to be of benefit, and some of which, such as widely available illegal drugs like cannabis and heroin, are not.

Electronic devices and pharmaceutical drugs all have an impact on the micro- cellular structure and complex biochemistry of our brains. And that, in turn, affects our personality, our behaviour and our characteristics. In short, the modern world could well be altering our human identity.

Nothing less than our unique self-identities are under threat, says Dr. Greenfield

Her article is a rich and thoughtful written “what if” inquiry about science, technology, psychology, society, and identity. In addition to questions about the search for value and meaning in our hedonistic culture, Dr. Greenfield warns us not to be surprised when the effects of violent video games literally reshape the brains of the younger “games-driven generation.”

Coinciding with the moment when technology and pharmaceutical companies are finding ever more ways to have a direct influence on the human brain, pleasure is becoming the sole be-all and end-all of many lives, especially among the young.

We could be raising a hedonistic generation who live only in the thrill of the computer-generated moment, and are in distinct danger of detaching themselves from what the rest of us would consider the real world.

Throw in circumstantial evidence that links a sharp rise in diagnoses of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder and the associated three-fold increase in Ritalin prescriptions over the past ten years with the boom in computer games and you have an immensely worrying scenario.

We are not doomed to become vapid body sacks, however, absent of any original thought, emotion, spirit, soul, meaning, purpose, or passion. More human than human is not (yet) our collective motto. There are significant reasons to worry about the way scientific, medical, and technological stimuli mold our brains, but so long as we are aware of these concerns and engage in the ethical and moral debates surrounding progress in these fields, Dr. Greenfield is hopeful about our individual and collective futures.

I think it possible that we might one day be able to harness outside stimuli in such a way that creativity – surely the ultimate expression of individuality – is actually boosted rather than diminished.

I am optimistic and excited by what future research will reveal into the workings of the human brain, and the extraordinary process by which it is translated into a uniquely individual mind.

For now, though, it’s probably best to drop the video-game controller and head towards the public library to reserve a copy of Dr. Greenfield’s soon-to-be-published book, ID: The Quest for Identity in the 21st Century. Leave your iPod at home.

Play, think…
J.R. Atwood

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5 Comments Add your own

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  • 2. pitbull steroids  |  February 24, 2013 at 1:12 pm

    I usually do not comment, but I looked at a ton of responses on Human Identitys Brain Drain
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Jason R. Atwood

I'm an avid trail runner and doctoral student at U.C. Berkeley who studies motivation and the relationship between the mind and body. This blog is a forum to share research, news, and musings about these topics of interest. More

Play is the beginning of knowledge.

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