The plastic brain
A piece today in the Guardian about an address to the Lords by Baroness Susan Greenfield expressing far-reaching fears about the effect on the human brain of the digital world.
The brilliance of Baroness Greenfield's speech is that she wades straight into the dangers posed by this culture. A recent survey of eight-to 18-year-olds, she says, suggests they are spending 6.5 hours a day using electronic media, and multi-tasking (using different devices in parallel) is rocketing. Could this be having an impact on thinking and learning?
She begins by analysing the process of traditional book-reading, which involves following an author through a series of interconnected steps in a logical fashion. We read other narratives and compare them, and so "build up a conceptual framework that enables us to evaluate further journeys... One might argue that this is the basis of education ... It is the building up of a personalised conceptual framework, where we can relate incoming information to what we know already. We can place an isolated fact in a context that gives it significance." Traditional education, she says, enables us to "turn information into knowledge."
Now this is the comment writer's version of the speech, but on her account it does seem to be - as one commenter says - an astonishingly Luddite one.
That was the "basis of education" in the 20th-century, but a historically specific one. It was heavily text-based, but that was a function of relatively cheap print, a trend that began in early modern times, when the equivalent of the Susan Greenfields of the time were of course exclaiming about the dreadful effect on the human mind of all this flood of print.
The brain is an astonishingly plastic organ, and no doubt those of children and adolescents are developing different to they were a couple of decades ago. But it is developing in the world as it is now, FOR it is now. Damn good thing too!
But some aspects of the human psyche probably don't change much. An army major in Australia is commendably trying to save the memory of the men mentally crippled in the trenches of WWI, who suffered just in the ways that veterans of Vietnam and more recent conflicts do.
Madness and the Military: Australia's Experience of the Great War, by Michael Tyquin, is the first comprehensive study on mental illness in World War I. It shatters the stereotype of the tough Anzac, an icon that he argues Australians look up to today - but which never existed.
Major Tyquin says of the soldiers who were "mentally shattered" by the war - some of whom recovered, though many did not - "I think we've erased them from our public memory. We like to celebrate Anzac, and I use 'celebrate' now because I think we're getting away from the original intent.