Brain Health: Is the Virtual World Creating a Virtual Brain?

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The other day the television stopped working suddenly. I spent almost an hour trying to figure out how to fix it. Then my 17-year-old daughter walked in, took the remote from my hand, and had the thing working again in about a New York nanosecond. I have known, for years now, because of similar experiences with computers, cell phones and cameras, that my daughter’s brain operates in a wholly different way than my own. When any of these electronic devices stop doing what they’re supposed to be doing, I can spend hours trying to figure out how to reprogram them (if that is even the right word) — all to no avail. It won’t matter how much time I take to attend to the task. I won’t figure it out. And my daughter will.
Does my daughter text on her cell phone? All the time. Does she play video games? Every day. Does she read? Only when she has to (for school) and never for pleasure. Has she changed the structure of her brain by growing up being essentially a non-reader, and by spending hours a day living electronically and remotely? I think so. Is it for better or worse? Is she improving civilization or moving it toward its logical end? The jury is still out on those questions.

One of the signs of verbal fluency in a literate society is the degree to which people are interested in reading complex, thoughtful material. It takes exposition, which itself takes time, to think about and discuss complex issues. According to a report by the National Endowment for the Arts, fewer than half of Americans over 18 read novels, short stories, plays or poetry. Even a cursory look at any newsstand in the country will reveal what people are reading: magazines that are more like television than reading material; reading material is flipped through much as one surfs through television channels or the Internet. This generation of my daughter’s does not know, as I do, the pleasure of opening a book in eager anticipation precisely because it is long, and because I know I am going to be lost in its world for weeks to come.

As any elementary textbook in brain physiology tells us, the brain consists of two hemispheres that perform different functions. The right side is the visual and emotional side; the left side is the verbal and logical side. Largely because of television first, then the computer, and now cell phones (as mini-computers), we have become a society that functions primarily from the right side. No one seems to mind. There was even a bestselling book a few years back, “Drawing from the Right Side of Your Brain,” extolling the virtues of accessing the visual hemisphere (as though we don’t already do enough of that).As James Glick says in “Faster: the Acceleration of Just About Everything”: “We have learned a visual language made up of images and movements instead of words and syllables.”

The virtual world may be creating a virtual brain. In the virtual world, we see spoon-fed menu options as opposed to free-ranging inquiry. Contracted text messaging lacks the verbs and conditional structures that are essential for complex thinking. Our children have not learned to think linearly or conceptually nor in a layered way. They are right-brain geniuses; but they are akin to idiot savants in the limited capacity of their left brain operations for the “fine grained analysis,” as Richard Restak says, that is important for thinking logically and conceptually.

Nine-tenths of the writing today takes place in the business world, and it is done on a computer. The computer, like television, consists of a mosaic of images, back lit screens and near instantaneous speed. These attributes engage the right hemisphere. Yet, when we are reading or writing printed material, we are employing language, which engages the left hemisphere. Restak posits that when we use words on the computer — reading or writing — both hemispheres are stimulated, but not in an integrated way. Rather, the hemispheres are conflicting — even competing — with one another. To the brain, reading and writing on a computer is an entirely different activity — neurologically disorganizing — than reading and writing using paper, which is a neurologically organizing activity. (And, in spite of my being no good at reprogramming television glitches, my brain has apparently re-framed itself into 21st century capability sufficiently such that I am writing these words, thinking about them, organizing my thoughts, as I am looking at my computer screen. It took a while for me to retrain my brain to think in this way since I acquired my first computer 30 years ago, but I have thankfully succeeded.)

It is possible that the trade-off for the brain’s adaptability may be severe. Research conducted by David Snowdon, in the study that has come to be known as the “Nun Study,” shows us the relationship between Alzheimer’s and thinking capability. With 90 percent accuracy, Snowdon was able to predict which nuns would suffer from Alzheimer’s. He looked at the nuns’ writings from when they were young women, and found that those with the simplest sentence structure, and with the fewest ideas, were the ones who were most likely to develop Alzheimer’s later in life. David Snowdon was not looking at what had been learned over the course of the educational experiences of these nuns. He was looking at the very organization of the brain. He was looking at the linguistic expression of the nuns’ sequencing ability. The ability to think, to draw connections, to extend memory from the beginning to the end of a complicated sentence or paragraph, to develop a complex idea: these are all aspects of good left-brain sequencing and functioning.