25 April 2006

New technology and the brain

Big title for a big topic which Baronness Susan Greenfield discussed in a question (in the House of Lords last Thursday) on changes in information access and education. Jackie Ashley gives the speech a sympathetic review in Monday's Guardian.

I have no doubt that our thinking is shaped by the tools we use (we also choose the tools that suit our thought processes). And it may be that (as easyMoney seems to think) technology shapes our social behaviours too (in the same way there's some choice in there too). So, yes, we need to think about how to get the best out of the technologies available to us (computers, cars, phones, medical technologies etc.).

But I do worry about suggestions (both in Greenfield's speech and Ashley's review) of a causal link between computer use and attention deficit and hyperactivity, no matter how tentatively phrased. Mindhacks points to studies that suggest, at best, ambiguity in the link between computers and ADHD-style symptoms.

It might be worth looking back at Sherry Turkle's 1980's study of MIT computing nerds, The Second Self. Rather than suggest that computers shaped their users' behaviour Turkle showed how computers gave space for behaviours that were already there (obsessive and asocial, and, incidentally, highly focused) to develop.

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