Thursday, March 12, 2009

Children’s brains may evolve for Information Age

If TV doesn’t rot your child’s brain, the Internet will, according to the latest scary speculation.

Susan Greenfield, an Oxford University neuroscientist, says exposure to social networking Web sites like Facebook and Twitter, along with video games and fast-paced TV shows, may be rewiring children’s brains.

I can think of two reasonable responses to this claim: “So what?” and “So what?”

At one level, this is exactly the sort of thumb-sucking response that has always greeted new media. Since the 1930s, do-gooders have blamed jazz, comic books, rock ’n’ roll, television, and now video games and the Internet, for everything wrong with “the children” — even when there isn’t anything wrong with children.

Like Paul Lynde in the Broadway musical “Bye Bye Birdie,” they ask, “Why can’t they be like we were, perfect in every way? What’s the matter with kids today?”

Juvenile crime across the board is down compared to 10 years ago. Fewer teens are having sex, and the ones who do are more likely to use protection. Fewer teens are getting abortions.

OK. I give. What exactly is the matter with kids today? If online social networking is bad for them, it hasn’t shown up in the statistics yet.

But let’s assume MySpace and Facebook really are rewiring children’s brains. In fact, I would be surprised if that were not the case. The real question is “Why is this a problem?”

This isn’t the first time the environment has rewired our brains. Before our ancestors developed written languages, they had excellent memories. But writing has taken away our ability to remember epics like “The Iliad.” Still, that seems a good trade-off.

Adults often complain that change happens too quickly and that the world is becoming too fast-paced. If children’s brains are adapting to the pace of modern society, that seems like a net plus. A brain that is better at filtering information from many different sources in a short span of time is a brain that is better suited to the Information Age.

How fast-paced is the world today? One useful measure is the length of the average movie shot. An average shot in a major motion picture today is 2 or 3 seconds long. By comparison, film critic Roger Ebert notes, the average shot in “Citizen Kane” (1941) is 11.4 seconds. By today’s standards, “Pulp Fiction” is a slow movie, which isn’t surprising given that Quentin Tarantino is, in many respects, an old-fashioned filmmaker. The average shot in “Pulp Fiction” is 7.9 seconds.

There is a question of cause and effect here. Are movies contributing to children’s shorter attention spans by rewiring their brains? Maybe, but I doubt that’s the whole answer. I suspect, instead, that movies are mainly catering to the shorter attention spans that have resulted from the quickening pace of life in general, with movies being a small part of that.

Phil Edholm, chief technology officer at Nortel, created a minor stir last year when he suggested that Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, at least in its mild form, may be an evolutionary adaptation for multitasking in the digital era. Parents of ADHD children where not amused. But maybe there is some truth to his speculation.

Scientists at Northwestern University have discovered that a genetic variation associated with ADHD seems to help people in nomadic cultures survive. The variation also seems to encourage novelty-seeking behavior. The researchers speculate that some ADHD-associated traits may have been beneficial in our prehistoric past.

If modern society is taking on attributes that make it more like our hunter-gatherer past — for example, greater mobility and a faster pace than agricultural societies — then genetic traits that were advantageous in the past could reassert themselves.

If so, that’s not cause for alarm. That might be just evolution.

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