Thursday, May 26, 2005

Your Brain and Technology

For some reason I have been interested in brain science lately. So when I saw the book The New Brain: How the Modern Age is Rewiring Your Mind by Richard Restak on a table at my favorite bookstore I was curious. Already carrying an armload of books I decided I'd check my library for this one. The cover of The New Brain has a boy sitting with a computer on his lap in what appears to be a school hallway. Being somewhat of a geek I got excited thinking the book would be about how the use of technology is changing the way our brains work and how we think. I expected a discussion on video games and movies, the internet, our increasing desire for things to go faster and faster. I got some of that, but most of the book turned out to be about all the great things technology is doing to help in the study of the human brain. The book does not focus on any one coherent line of thought. Instead it jumps around from topic to topic, hardly penetrating the surface. It's as if the book suffers from the culturally induced ADD it briefly mentions. Culturally induced ADD turns out to be one of the few topics that actually relate to the title of the book. We all multi-task, we all have busy schedules, and if you're reading this, count yourself as technologically connected. Have you ever found yourself talking on the phone and reading your email at the same time? How'd that work out for you? Probably not very well. Appearances to the contrary, our brains are designed to do one thing at a time. To talk on the phone and read email at the same time keeps you from focusing fully on either task. Then toss someone walking into your office to ask you a question and you are nearing overload. But you get used to it and then when you find yourself alone and somewhere quiet it verges on the unbearable until you "unwind". But some people find they can no longer unwind. We are losing our ability to focus, to be "in the now." If you think it is bad for adults who grew up in a somewhat slower world, think what affect it is having on our children. If we aren't careful, in a decade or two no one will be "stopping to smell the flowers" anymore. If that isn't enough to worry about this. It is becoming increasingly possible to create personalized drugs. Using new DNA techniques, doctors can mix a psychopharmacological cocktail just for you. That's great if you're suffering from a legitimate mental illness, but what if you're shy, or get stage fright before a presentation, or travel frequently across different time zones and have sleeping problems, want to improve your memory or forget an event that has made you sad? There are drugs currently available that can help you with these things and people are using them in greater numbers. There are drugs that will help you not feel sad at the death of a loved one. Drugs that will help you become a more optimistic person. And drugs that will give you an outgoing personality. The frightening thing about these drugs is that once they start to become commonplace what kind of expectations will crop up? Will employers require their employees to take drugs to make them happy workers? Or keep them working longer hours at a higher level of performance? Will being "blue" precipitate the popping of a pill? My imagination spirals out of control into a horrific black and white vision of a Twilight Zone future. But have no fear, the newly created field of neuroethics is here. I think. A neuroethicist's job is to attempt to "predict and respond to the social consequences of future advances in neuroscience." Whether or not they are doing that and what arguments are being tossed about I don't know since this gets only the shortest of mentions at the very end of the book. The New Brain had so much potential. If you are looking for a general, easy to read book about current brain research and technology then you will find this book interesting. If you are looking for a book that discusses "How the Modern Age is Rewiring Your Mind," then look elsewhere.