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
‚Äú[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‚Äù.
-The Baroness Greenfield‚ÄúJust 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‚Äù
– 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 (im.net) 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‚Äôs Center of Functionally Integrative Neuroscience (CFIN), a cross disciplinary brain research centre at Aarhus University and Aarhus University Hospital. CFIN does both basic research ‚Äì e.g. on brain metabolism, neuroconnectivity and cognitive neuroscience and applied medical research of different neurological diseases, like Parkinson‚Äôs disease, dementia, stroke and depression.
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‚Äôs 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 Pozna≈Ñ
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‚Äôt 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‚Äôs first and only cognitive science research centers. As they related¬†their 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‚Äô 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‚Äôs 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‚Äô 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‚Äôt have enough of, it‚Äôs the Poznan brand of genuine competence and sober passion.
Link to my Picasa Album of the trip: