Researching Neuroplasticity, Cognitive Neuroscience, and Cognitive Science

Tag: cyborg

Snorkeling ’the shallows’: what’s the cognitive trade-off in internet behavior?

I am quite eager to comment on the recent explosion of e-commentary regarding Nicolas Carr’s new book. Bloggers have already done an excellent job summarizing the response to Carr’s argument. Further, Clay Shirky and Jonah Lehrer have both argued convincingly that there’s not much new about this sort of reasoning. I’ve also argued along these lines, using the example of language itself as a radical departure from pre-linguistic living. Did our predecessors worry about their brains as they learned to represent the world with odd noises and symbols?

Surely they did not. And yet we can also be sure that the brain underwent a massive revolution following the acquisition of language. Chomsky’s linguistics would of course obscure this fact, preferring us to believe that our linguistic abilities are the amalgation of things we already possessed: vision, problem solving, auditory and acoustic control. I’m not going to spend too much time arguing against the modularist view of cognition however; chances are if you are here reading this, you are already pretty convinced that the brain changes in response to cultural adaptations.

It is worth sketching out a stock Chomskyian response however. Strict nativists, like Chomsky, hold that our language abilities are the product of an innate grammar module. Although typically agnostic about the exact source of this module (it could have been a genetic mutation for example), nativists argue that plasticity of the brain has no potential other than slightly enhancing or decreasing our existing abilities. You get a language module, a cognition module, and so on, and you don’t have much choice as to how you use that schema or what it does. The development of anguage on this view wasn’t something radically new that changed the brain of its users but rather a novel adaptation of things we already and still have.

To drive home the point, it’s not suprising that notable nativist Stephen Pinker is quoted as simply not buying the ‘changing our brains’ hypothesis:

“As someone who believes both in human nature and in timeless standards of logic and evidence, I’m skeptical of the common claim that the Internet is changing the way we think. Electronic media aren’t going to revamp the brain’s mechanisms of information processing, nor will they supersede modus ponens or Bayes’ theorem. Claims that the Internet is changing human thought are propelled by a number of forces: the pressure on pundits to announce that this or that “changes everything”; a superficial conception of what “thinking” is that conflates content with process; the neophobic mindset that “if young people do something that I don’t do, the culture is declining.” But I don’t think the claims stand up to scrutiny.”

Pinker makes some good points- I agree that a lot of hype is driven by the kinds of thinking he mentions. Yet, I do not at all agree that electronic media cannot and will not revamp our mechanisms for information processing. In contrast to the nativist account, I think we’ve better reason than ever to suspect that the relation between brain and cognition is not 1:1 but rather dynamic, evolving with us as we develop new tools that stimulate our brains in unique and interesting ways.

The development of language massively altered the functioning of our brain. Given the ability to represent the world externally, we no longer needed to rely on perceptual mechanisms in the same way. Our ability to discriminate amongst various types of plant, or sounds, is clearly sub-par to that of our non-linguistic brethren. And so we come full circle. The things we do change our brains. And it is the case that our brains are incredibly economical. We know for example that only hours after limb amputation, our somatosensory neurons invade the dormant cells, reassigning them rather than letting them die off. The brain is quite massively plastic- Nicolas Carr certainly gets that much right.

Perhaps the best way to approach this question is with an excerpt from social media. I recently asked of my fellow tweeps,

To which an astute follower replied:

Now, I do realize that this is really the central question in the ‘shallows’ debate. Moving from the basic fact that our brains are quite plastic, we all readily accept that we’re becoming the subject of some very intense stimulation. Most social media, or general internet users, shift rapidly from task to task, tweet to tweet. In my own work flow, I may open dozens and dozens of tabs, searching for that one paper or quote that can propel me to a new insight. Sometimes I get confused and forget what I was doing. Yet none of this interferes at all with my ‘deep thinking’. Eventually I go home and read a fantastic sci-fi book like Snowcrash. My imagination of the book is just as good as ever; and I can’t wait to get online and start discussing it. So where is the trade-off?

So there must be a trade-off, right? Tape a kitten’s eyes shut and its visual cortex is re-assigned to other sensory modalities. The brain is a nasty economist, and if we’re stimulating one new thing we must be losing something old. Yet what did we lose with language? Perhaps we lost some vestigial abilities to sense and smell. Yet we gained the power of the sonnet, the persuasion of rhetoric, the imagination of narrative, the ability to travel to the moon and murder the earth.

In the end, I’m just not sure it’s the right kind of stimulation. We’re not going to lose our ability to read in fact, I think I can make an extremely tight argument against the specific hypothesis that the internet robs us of our ability to deep-think. Deep thinking is itself a controversial topic. What exactly do we mean by it? Am I deep thinking if I spend all day shifting between 9 million tasks? Nicolas Carr says no, but how can he be sure those 9 million tasks are not converging around a central creative point?

I believe, contrary to Carr, that internet and social media surfing is a unique form of self stimulation and expression. By interacting together in the millions through networks like twitter and facebook, we’re building a cognitive apparatus that, like language, does not function entirely within the brain. By increasing access to information and the customizability of that access, we’re ensuring that millions of users have access to all kinds of thought-provoking information. In his book, Carr says things like ‘on the internet, there’s no time for deep thought. it’s go go go’. But that is only one particular usage pattern, and it ignores ample research suggesting that posts online may in fact be more reflective and honest than in-person utterances (I promise, I am going to do a lit review post soon!)

Today’s internet user doesn’t have to conform to whatever Carr thinks is the right kind of deep-thought. Rather, we can ‘skim the shallows’ of twitter and facebook for impressions, interactions, and opinions. When I read a researcher, I no longer have to spend years attending conferences to get a personal feel for them. I can instead look at their wikipedia, read the discussion page, see what’s being said on twitter. In short, skimming the shallows makes me better able to choose the topics I want to investigate deeply, and lets me learn about them in whatever temporal pattern I like. Youtube with a side of wikipedia and blog posts? Yes please. It’s a multi-modal whole brain experience that isn’t likely to conform to ‘on/off’ dichotomies. Sure, something may be sacrificed, but it may not be. It might be that digital technology has enough of the old (language, vision, motivation) plus enough of the new that it just might constitute or bring about radically new forms of cognition. These will undoubtably change or cognitive style, perhaps obsoleting Pinker’s Bayesian mechanisms in favor of new digitally referential ones.

So I don’t have an answer for you yet ToddStark. I do know however, that we’re going to have to take a long hard look at the research review by Carr. Further, it seems quite clear that there can be no one-sided view of digital media. It’s not anymore intrinsically good or bad than language. Language can be used to destroy nations just as it can tell a little girl a thoughtful bed time story. If we’re to quick to make up our minds about what internet-cognition is doing to our plastic little brains, we might miss the forest for the trees. The digital media revolution gives us the chance to learn just what happens in the brain when its’ got a shiny new tool. We don’t know the exact nature of the stimulation, and finding out is going to require a look at all the evidence, for and against. Further, it’s a gross oversimplification to talk about internet behavior as ‘shallow’ or ‘deep’. Research on usage and usability tells us this; there are many ways to use the internet, and some of them probably get us thinking much deeper than others.

Zombies or Cyborgs?

On March 9th, I will be giving a talk in collaboration with my colleague Yishay Mor at the London Knowledge Lab. See below for links and the abstract of my upcoming talk

Upcoming talk @ the London Knowledge Lab

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

“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 on the 1st Technocognitive Revolution, Natural Born Cyborgs

While some present the dawn of the social web as a doomsday, we believe that social media technologies represent a secondary revolution to that described above by cyborg cognition theorist Andy Clark. Trapped within this debate lies the brain; recent advances in the neurosciences have thrown open our concept of the brain, revealing a neural substrate that is highly flexible and plastic (Green and Bavelier 2008). This phenomenal level of plasticity likely underpins much of what separates us from the animal kingdom, through a profound enhancement of our ability to use new technologies and their cultural co-products (Clark and Chalmers 1998; Schoenemann, et al. 2005; Shaw, et al. 2006). Yet many fear that this plasticity represents a precise threat to our cognitive stability in light of the technological invasion of Twitter-like websites. By investigating how the brain changes as we undergo profound self alteration via digital meditation, we can begin to unravel the biological mysteries of plasticity that underpin a vast array of issues in the humanities and social sciences.

We propose to investigate functional and structural brain differences between high and low intensity users. Due to the what we view as a primarily folk psychological or narratological nature of SNS usage, we will utilize classical Theory-of-Mind tasks within the functional MRI environment, coupled with exploratory structural and functional connectivity analyses. To characterize differences in social networking behavior, we will utilize cluster-analysis and self-reported usage intensity scales. These will allow us to construct an fMRI task in which the mentalistic capacities for both real world and Facebook-specific friends are compared and contrasted, illuminating the precise impact of digitally mediated interaction on existing theory of mind capacities. We hypothesize that SNS usage intensity will positively correlate with functional brain activity increases in areas associated with theory of mind (MPFC & TPJ). We further suspect that that these measures will co-correlate with structural white matter increases within these regions, and collectively, with default mode network activity within high intensity users. Such findings would indicate that digitally mediated social networking represents a novel form of targeted social-cognitive self stimulation.

Micah Allen (neuroconscience) is a PhD student at √Örhus University, where he is working in collaboration with Interacting Minds and the Danish Center For Functionally Integrative Neuroscience (CFIN). His PhD focus is within Cognitive Neuroscience, specifically on the topic of Cognitive Neuroplasticity or the study of how biological and cognitive adaptation relate to one another. His research examines high-level brain plasticity in response to spiritual, cultural and technological practices, organized under the concept of ‘neurological self stimulation’. This research includes longitudinal investigations of meditation, structural connectivity, and default mode brain activity. Micah’s research is informed by and integrated within philosophies of embodiment, social cognition, enactivism, and cyborg phenomenology.

The Interacting Minds ( project at Aarhus University examines the links between the human capacity for minds to interact and the putative biological substrate, which enables this to happen. It is housed at the Danish National Research Foundation’s Center of Functionally Integrative Neuroscience (CFIN), a cross disciplinary brain research centre at Aarhus University and Aarhus University Hospital. CFIN does both basic research – e.g. on brain metabolism, neuroconnectivity and cognitive neuroscience and applied medical research of different neurological diseases, like Parkinson’s disease, dementia, stroke and depression.

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.

Cognitive Science in Pozna≈Ñ, Poland

I recently had the pleasure of being invited as a guest speaker for the annual Poznan Cognition Forum, a Polish graduate conference in the cognitive sciences. Before I summarize the academic aspects of my trip, I think it’s worth sharing my experience exploring Poznan. As this post is a bit long I will split into two parts, the first relating my general experiences in Poland and the second summarizing my talk.

Part 1: Exploring Poznań


Before arriving in Poland, I did my best to educate myself with a brief trip to wikipedia. Although I knew that the country had once held an impressive empire, and suffered greatly in the two World Wars, I was shocked to learn that they had been under Russian Communism prior to 1980. I guess it says something about American education that I didn’t know this, and I was glad to enter the country slightly less ignorant than before. Overall, my trip was a lovely mixture of business and pleasure; my hosts were extremely gracious (more on them in a bit) and as the other talks were all in Polish, they were kind enough to show me around the city on my free time. Poznan is beautiful, a city rich in stunning architecture and cobble-stone city squares that left me breathless and curious to see more.

While it may have just been the abundant fog and my crash-course wikipedia history lesson, the best way I can sum my experience of Poznan is that she presents the viewer with an intriguing mixture of imperial and old wold grandeur, laced with a quaint yet quietly stern specter of the former Soviet presence. Something about the ghostly imperial streets and plain stone architecture gives one that feeling that Poland is not wholly a western nation. Probing deeper, I found Renaissance era castles and multicolored homes, interlaced with stunning baroque churches glittering with intricate gold adornments. It was first taste of a culture that struck me as both curiously and charmingly alien.

While I love Denmark, Danish architecture can be a bit minimal and homogenous, so it was refreshing to be in a country with a diverse mix of architectural styles and historical backgrounds. Completing the trip was my wonderful hosts, the organizers and attendees of the 5th annual Poznan Cognition Forum.

As astonishing as the mix of old world and modern imperialist cultures I found in Poznan, the group of dedicated young cognitive scientists seemed more impressive still. Here was a small group of perhaps 10 to 15 extremely dedicated, bright, and ambitious researchers who had taken up the charge of establishing one of Poland’s first and only cognitive science research centers. As they related IMG_2439their frustrations I could not help but think of my own early experiences trying to break into cognitive science and being told I was chasing a fools’ errand that could never result in gainful employment.

From what they told me, Polish research politics remain highly conservative, nationally isolated, and disciplinary in nature. Bartoz, a charming researcher who seemed an everyman of practical and academic solutions (of which many where needed from him during my short stay) related to me how himself and another dedicated researcher/organizer, Aga, had fought tooth and nail for the establishment of a cognitive science degree program that had required little more than cooperation between the philosophy and psychology departments at Poznan University which continued to be hostile and unsupportive of their endeavors.

The research community I found in Poznan did not reflect a group down on it’s luck- these bright young minds reminded me more of the Rebel Alliance before the battle of Endor than any remember-the-Alamo martyrs. Confident in their cause and self-sufficient in its’ needs- in some cases even going so far as to go around the administration of their university to secure funds and equipment for a state-of-the-art eye tracking research facility- these researchers seemed poised for success. Not only were they fully capable of dealing with these everyday issues, they were impressively contemporary in their mastery of cognitive science, demonstrating a familiarity with both phenomenological and empirical research that kept me on my toes throughout my stay. I can only hope to work with them again in the future, as they are both eager and fully capable of joining the global research community. If there is one thing Cognitive Science can’t have enough of, it’s the Poznan brand of genuine competence and sober passion.


Link to my Picasa Album of the trip:

Poznan Album

The Collaborative Mind: Poznan Slides

The Collaborative Mind

Neuroplasticity and Cybernetic Social Cognition

Here is the abstract for my upcoming talk at the Poznan Cognition Forum, entitled “The Collaborative Mind: Neuroplasticity and Cybernetic Social Cognition”.

“With the advent of multi-level findings demonstrating neuroplasticity in the adult brain, neuroscience is currently undergoing a decisive paradigm change. Although Ram√≥n y Cajal, the father of the neuron doctrine, first speculated that synaptic neuroplasticity might be the fundamental mechanism of learning, neurogenesis has remained a controversial hypothesis. Recent multi-method research has overturned this dogma, finding dramatic plasticity at cellular, cognitive, developmental, and axonal levels. I review these findings, arguing that neuroplasticity challenges traditional understandings of the mind and cognition while presenting an upcoming fMRI project investigating social-media, cognitive augmentation, and neuroplasticity.”

Stay tuned for links to my presentation, and pictures of Poznan!

Some choice graphics from the talk:


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