Brain Plasticity, Distributed Social Cognition, and the Luddite Notion.

With the integration of Facebook, Twitter, Wikipedia, and Google, the web has stepped closer still to being a social media technology. These tools have spread throughout the structure of the net and are currently enjoying widespread adoption by all sectors of developed society. As the elderly invade Facebook (with embarrassing consequences) and youth abandon traditional forms of media, many are wondering what some of the consequences might be. Will twitter make us stupid? I think the following excerpt has some great insights:

The above is a snippet from Merlin Donald’s excellent book, The Origins of The Modern Mind, taken from Andy Clark’s also sublime Natural Born Cyborgs. There are several very interesting aspects of this text that I think are relevant for my research and this blog. The first is the striking resemblance of Donald’s imagined drama to that which is currently unfolding concerning the emergence of social media technologies (SMTs). See for example, the Baroness Greenfield’s recent diatribe against all things Twitter and Facebook:

‚Äú[Social networking sites] are devoid of cohesive narrative and long-term significance. As a consequence, the mid-21st century mind might almost be infantilised, characterised by short attention spans, sensationalism, inability to empathise and a shaky sense of identity”- Baroness Greenfield

These kinds of claims have been echoed across the popular press and blogosphere. They amount to an exact approximation of the ‚Äúfear that [language] was sure to encourage great laziness and to stop people from thinking for themselves‚Äù. The similarity continues- ‚Äúif you could ask someone for the answer, who would bother to learn anything.‚Äù These fears clearly trade on the same metaphors. They are couched in a basic recognition that like language, the social media is profoundly altering the way we create, store, and share knowledge. In fact, part of what makes social media so interesting is the precise way in which it enables and enhances our language abilities. Social media lets millions of users contribute small bits of linguistic intelligence to an otherwise ‘dumb’ repository of information. The collective tagging, sharing, ranking, blogging, and evaluating of the web results in a collective knowledge base that reshapes our possibilities for action. This is not unlike the role of language in Merlin’s example, or in Andy Clark’s famous examples of how wrist watches or notepads reshape our ability to plan actiond and coordinate with one another.

“The process of which Donald speaks is the public, collective version of the kind of scaffolded thinking and reasoning described earlier. Just as I might use pen and paper to freeze my own half-baked thoughts, turning them into stable objects for further thought and reflection, so we (as a society) learned to use the written word to power a process of collective thinking and critical reason. The tools of text… thus allow us at multiple scales, to create new stable objects for critical activity… With speech, text, and the tradition of using them as critical tools under our belts, humankind entered the first phase of its cyborg existence (Andy Clark in Natural Born Cyborgs).

So should we be worried? I think it depends largely on your ethical and political stance on technology. Some, perhaps those most inspired by a Kazinski-esque desire to return to some basic primitive lifestyle, seem to embrace a basic notion that technology is the root of all evil. My own stance is that such a view is brazenly ignorant of reality. We cannot go back- the mind of modern man has been revolutionized not only by the emergence of language and analytic thinking, but by the products- the artifacts and tools that have come about as a direct consequence of the radical transformation in our mental fabric, brought about by symbolic language. I would like to suggest that the emergence of the internet, and its’ refinement via social technology, represents a new stage of cognitive development- using Merlin’s terms, a revolutionary synthesis of mythic, narrative, and analytic thinking- but that is the subject for another post.

Back to the topic at hand. Simply put, everything changes our brains. Research now suggests that across the human brain, both synapses and somas are profoundly capable of adaptation to new experiences [1]. Andy Clark argues that human brains have evolved such remarkable plasticity to make use of new tools in ways that other animals cannot, via the actual integration of tools into our distributed cognitive system. An accurate metaphor is found in embodiment- we typically do not pay reflective attention to our bodies. Rather, we use them as fluid extensions of our intentions. Tool use is also like this- the hammer in the hand of a skilled carpenter becomes transparent. Recent neuroscience backs this up, as Andy points out, with studies demonstrating that the visual receptive fields of monkeys will instantly extend to include the length of a stick when it is used by the animal. The tool-world-mind relationship is thus dynamic- the brain/mind integrates tools into its’ very fabric. We are natural born cyborgs, distributed cognitive systems of flesh and tool. Thus, the introduction of agriculture brought about alterations in diet that no doubt influenced our metabolism and facilitated new and divergent brain growth. Social media alarmism is just another iteration of technological conservatism, and in its’ current form really only blinds us to the real benefits and pitfalls of these technologies.

What about the brain? Pre-frontal connectivity (prevalence of white matter) is perhaps a singular anatomical marker of brain difference between human and chimpanzee [2]. Further studies in neurobiology indicate that the degree of plasticity may be greater within axonal white matter than any other neural component [3].

If you follow Clark‚Äôs line of argument, then the brain is essentially a plasticity mechanism, forming the flexible center-piece in a brain-tool-world distributed loop. The profound neuroplasticity found in the human brain is thus both product and enabler of technocultural advances. We should no more fear the introduction of social media than we can go back and undo the development of language, or the innovation of common garden tools. Rather, we should begin to examine these new tools, and the other products of the digital era- video games, blogs, social networks, crowdsourcing, and googling, as the next revolution in cognitive innovation. By appreciating the full scope of SMTs, I believe we can open a new era of neurocognitive research. Does Facebook give us ADHD? Probably not- but you can be sure its doing something to our basic cognitive abilities. Look for many more posts on this topic from Neuroconscience, and eventually… some actual data on this highly speculative debate! You read it here first ;)


[1] Green CS, Bavelier D. (2008): Exercising your brain: a review of human brain plasticity and training-induced learning. Psychology and aging 23(4):692-701.

[2] Schoenemann PT, Sheehan MJ, Glotzer LD. (2005): Prefrontal white matter volume is disproportionately larger in humans than in other primates. Nat Neurosci 8(2):242-52.

[3] Stettler DD, Yamahachi H, Li W, Denk W, Gilbert CD. (2006): Axons and synaptic boutons are highly dynamic in adult visual cortex. Neuron 49(6):877-87.

6 thoughts on “Brain Plasticity, Distributed Social Cognition, and the Luddite Notion.

  1. Insightful post. Found through I appreciate your inclusion of the two “sublime” literary references. I will be sure to check them out!

  2. Thanks for the feedback guys! Jordan, if you have never read Andy Clark, you are in for a treat. He is very clear and concise with a wholly unique viewpoint in cognitive science. Merlin Donald is also very good, but can be a bit rambling. If you are looking for more reading material, there is also a shared rss feed on my resources page.

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