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At a recent speech before Britain's House of Lords, famed British neoro-scientist Lady Greenfield warns that social networking sites like Facebook, Twitter, Myspace and Bebo risk 'infantilising' the human mind.
In a Feb. 27 Guardian Article Greenfield, a professor of synaptic pharmacology at Lincoln college, Oxford, and director of the Royal Institution, urges a close examination of how social networking causes short attention spans, sensationalism, inability to empathize and a shaky sense of identity.
Describing these interactive virtual worlds as "devoid of cohesive narrative and long-term significance," she predicts mid- 21st century minds will will be characterized by "short attention spans, sensationalism, inability to empathise and a shaky sense of identity".
So ... are we 'tweeting' too much? Should we be 'tweeting' at all? Should we be 'ommming' while we tweet? Can we simultaneously 'om' and 'tweet'? Hmmmm ... let's see...
Earlier this month, Wired magazine interviewed Maggie Jackson Digital Overload Is Frying Our Brains to discuss her new book Distracted: The Erosion of Attention and the Coming Dark Age.
Jackson believes that our brains are programmed to be hooked on interruptions, that we go for that 'adrenaline jolt' which accompanies orienting ourselves to novel stimuli. Our body, she says, actually rewards us "for paying attention to the new. So in this very fast-paced world, it’s easy and tempting to always react to the new thing."
Her ideas are echoed in the findings of a recent Princeton/Harvard study which suggests accelerated thinking triggers the brain's dopamine-dependent reward systems.
...thinking fast made participants feel more elated, creative and, to a lesser degree, energetic and powerful. Activities that promote fast thinking, then, such as whipping through an easy crossword puzzle or brain-storming quickly about an idea, can boost energy and mood, says psychologist Emily Pronin, the study’s lead author. Pronin notes that rapid-fire thinking can sometimes have negative consequences. For people with bipolar disorder, thoughts can race so quickly that the manic feeling becomes aversive. And based on their own and others’ research, Pronin and a colleague propose in another recent article that although fast and varied thinking causes elation, fast but repetitive thoughts can instead trigger anxiety. (They further suggest that slow, varied thinking leads to the kind of calm, peaceful happiness associated with mindfulness meditation, whereas slow, repetitive thinking tends to sap energy and spur depressive thoughts.)Jackson's book highlights three types of attention:
1. Orienting - visual or the mind's flashlight. Involves the parietal lobe which is associated with sensory processing. In orienting to a new stimulus, two parts of this lobe work in cohort with the frontal eye fields.
2. Response states - the state of being aware ranging from being completely altert to sleepiness.
3. executive attention - the anterior cingulate where higher order thinking skills occur: planning, judgment, conflict resolution, abstraction, non-impulsive.
Our ‘attention-deficient’ society, Jackson says, is "obsessed with staying on top of things and, accordingly, remains trapped in the orientation phase of attention, makes snap judgments and is subject to the whims of cognitive shortcuts." Furthermore, our quasi addiction to being interrupted "is correlated with stress and frustration and lowered creativity ... When you’re scattered and diffuse, you’re less creative. When your times of reflection are always punctured, it’s hard to go deeply into problem-solving, into relating, into thinking."
Without using our powers of deep focus, we engage in more surface skimming black-and-white thinking which in turn leads to deficits in attention.
Mindfulness training And Attention
In a Search Magazine article Changing Our Minds, author Nick Street delves into the synchronistic pairing of neuroscience with ancient Buddhist practices and examines the benefits of mindfulness practice (Jon Kabat-Zin's meditative medicine) in treating post traumatic stress disorder. Street establishes a link between assorted dysfunctions of the attentional-limbic feedback systems -- PTSD, attention-deficit, and mood disorders. Mindfullness practice, he discovers, directly affects our executive attention.
What we’ve learned is that the prefrontal cortex quiets down the amygdala,” said Susan Smalley, a neurogeneticist in the Department of Psychiatry and Biobehavioral Sciences at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), and founder of the university’s Mindful Awareness Research Center. “It’s a feedback system that seems to modulate the whole limbic structure.”After an eight-week comparative study contrasting the impact of meditation on novice and experienced meditators, Jha reported new meditators improved signficantly in their ability to focus or 'orient' whereas seasoned meditators improved in alertness or 'receptive' attention. The result, she says, lends credence to ancient meditation texts which instruct that receptive attention cannot be taught explicitly but rather is "a consequence or natural byproduct of the long-term development of concentrative attention... It looks like mindfulness practice directly affects executive attention in people with ADHD,” she said. “In fact, the more difficulties a child has, the more they were able to benefit from mindfulness practice.”
Amishi Jha, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, calls this system “the matrix of mindfulness.”
“There’s definitely an interface between attention and affective changes,” she said.
Now try to 'tweet' that, why don't you?
Characteristics of executive function
# Working memory and recall (holding facts in mind while manipulating information; accessing facts stored in long-term memory.)
# Activation, arousal, and effort (getting started; paying attention; finishing work)
# Controlling emotions (ability to tolerate frustration; thinking before acting or speaking)
# Internalizing language (using "self-talk" to control one's behavior and direct future actions)
# Taking an issue apart, analyzing the pieces, reconstituting and organizing it into new ideas (complex problem solving)
A shout out to Keven Kelly's The Technium Neo-Amish Drop Outs blogpost in which he discusses a handful of popular net celebrities and who abandoned their online identities, cells phones and all connections with the 'wired' world.
I am interested in heavily mediated folks who drop out. Not partially, only once in a while, on sabbatical, but drop off the internet completely. Are they happy now? Don Knuth seems happy and productive. How do others manage? Do they become a recluse, like the Unabomber? Do they form communities with the like minded? Or, are internet drops so rare that they are simple statistical outliers?