The Very Spring and Root

An engineer's adventures in education (and other musings).

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Boskone: Is the Internet Reprogramming Our Brains?

 

Is the Internet Reprogramming Our Brains?
Short attention span? Hyperdistraction? Googlecrutching? But parallel multiprocessing? Outsourced memory hyperaccessiblity? Superinfotegration? Let’s chat, C if anything clicks.
James Patrick Kelly (M), Justine Graykin, Jerry Pournelle, John P. Murphy, Charles Gannon

Gannon opens with the observation that the internet has increased the speed at which debate and negotiation can move forward. A query or proposition can be researched to a shallow extent very quickly and responded to in minutes or seconds. This is now the speed of business. It is like a cold war if information speed… if you can’t respond faster than the competition you may lose the deal. So this is driving shallowly researched dialogue.

Kelly comments on information hopping and how distracting it is to look up something and then get fascinated by a whole trail of information and find himself hours later reading about something totally different.

Graykin says the internet has greatly improved her research, reduced her patience, and reduced her reflection. She finds herself wanting things instantly, even not on the internet.

Pournelle opens with a sociopolitical tack, quoting someone that a sufficient condition for the end of a totalitarian state is the fere exchange of information within it. Proposes a gameshow of sorts for Iran called “Name That Prophet” in which all the winners and everyone else wins ipads that can’t be blocked (say via satellite link). Then liberate the minds of the people using them as a “cultural weapon of mass destruction”. (No public comment, but as Gannon said in a later session, “silence is not consent”.)

Gannon changes the direction and cites a Pew study in which 73% of people thought that the internet will make us smarter, with enhanced intelligence over time. Murphy responds that he doesn’t think that it’s making anyone smarter, but it is increasing access to the tools necessary to do so. Pournelle points out that the internet allows access to information from anywhere, so that smart people even in the middle of nowhere can now access knowledge, and further that the internet will “make the smart people smarter.”

Gannon says that technology is like a lens, amplifying whatever trends are already there. Draws analogy to a supermarket. If everyone had unlimited access to a supermarket, you wouldn’t get a population that was healthier. People already disposed to eating healthy might be eating the healthy food, but you’ll find most Americans in a pre-diabetic coma in the Twinkie aisle. As a professor he observes that the depth of analysis and thinking of his students has gone down over time, but the number of ideas and threads that they can hold in parallel and combine at once is higher.

Graykin notes that IQ tests can be biased and only really measure the ability to take an IQ test. Gannon seems to agree by making a comment about how it definitely depends on what we claim intelligence is.

Pournelle speaks disdainfully of political correctness and goes off on a rant about how IQ tests are the best single measure of human potential ever invented. This rant last several minutes. (Again, I don’t really think I need to comment here.)

Murphy tries to bring the panel back to less polemical topics by trying to segue into the marshmallow test (kids who could resist instant gratification ended up doing better later on), and trying to connect that to how the neuroplasticity of our brains is possibly changing our response to stimuli.

Pournelle responds with another rant about how there is no credible evidence for Head Start.

Kelly steps in as moderator and diverts the conversation to depth of thought and distraction, which Gannon is quick to back him up on with a brief discussion of ADD/ADHD and a balanced summary of its increased prevalence in society. Graykin tries to join in by remarking that flipping focus is physiologically stressful and these hormones can have negative effects.

Gannon recommends two books for further reading, The Shallows and Cognitive Surplus,

Opened up for audience questions. I ask Graykin (since I had heard the least from her) what observations she can lend to a science teacher. She lit up and responded with great advice. Firstly, to ignore quasi-intellectuals and polemicals and get to the real science, which is moving faster than any textbook can be. Passing on facts in the age of the internet is redundant, but the need for the mental skills necessary to filter, process, analyze, and synthesize that information is more in need than ever before. (Note: See What is 21st Century Education? for related thoughts.)

Questions I didn’t get to ask: What is the role of the digital divide in this? If the internet is truly changing our brains, then does that mean that those who do not have access (or choose not to have access) are not changing, and what are the social consequences for this phenomenon?  Also, what about the homogenizing effect resulting from the fact that a single cultural hegemony controls a disproportionate level of the discourse and media on the internet?



Mechanisms of white matter changes induced by meditation.

Link: Mechanisms of white matter changes induced by meditation.

neuroticthought:

by Deric Bownds

Diffusion tensor imaging (DTI) is a noninvasive MRI-based technique that can delineate white matter fibers in vivo, measure white matter’s structural plasticity to demonstrate that training or learning alters brain white matter. Fractional anisotropy (FA) is an important index for measuring the integrity of white matter fibers. In general, a higher FA value has been related to improved performance, and reduced FA has been found in normal aging and in neurological or psychiatric disorders. 

Just to be a little more clear, DTI is used to image the diffusion of molecules, particularly water, in the brain. FA is a measure of how directional the diffusion is at any one point. Because diffusion is directed by cell membranes, this is very useful for understanding the structure of the brain.

Posner and collaborators now show more details about changes that occur with only 4 weeks of meditation training (One suspects these changes might reverse after cessation of meditation practice?):

Using diffusion tensor imaging, several recent studies have shown that training results in changes in white matter efficiency as measured by fractional anisotropy (FA). In our work, we found that a form of mindfulness meditation, integrative body–mind training (IBMT), improved FA in areas surrounding the anterior cingulate cortex after 4-wk training more than controls given relaxation training. Reductions in radial diffusivity (RD) have been interpreted as improved myelin but reductions in axial diffusivity (AD) involve other mechanisms, such as axonal density. We now report that after 4-wk training with IBMT, both RD and AD decrease accompanied by increased FA, indicating improved efficiency of white matter involves increased myelin as well as other axonal changes. However, 2-wk IBMT reduced AD, but not RD or FA, and improved moods. Our results demonstrate the time-course of white matter neuroplasticity in short-term meditation. This dynamic pattern of white matter change involving the anterior cingulate cortex, a part of the brain network related to self-regulation, could provide a means for intervention to improve or prevent mental disorders.

Here is their description of the integrative body-mind training (IBMT) used:

IBMT involves body relaxation, mental imagery, and mindfulness training, accompanied by selected music background. Cooperation between the body and the mind is emphasized in facilitating and achieving a meditative state. The trainees concentrated on achieving a balanced state of body and mind guided by an IBMT coach and the compact disk. The method stresses no effort to control thoughts, but instead a state of restful alertness that allows a high degree of awareness of body, mind, and external instructions (5, 16, 19). RT involves the relaxing of different muscle groups over the face, head, shoulders, arms, legs, chest, back, and abdomen, guided by a tutor and compact disk. With eyes closed and in a sequential pattern, one is forced to concentrate on the sensation of relaxation, such as the feelings of warmth and heaviness. This progressive training helps the participant achieve physical and mental relaxation and calmness.

Large increases in FA were primarily observed in the corpus callosum – the bundle of nerves connecting the two brain hemispheres – and surrounding areas (ACC). In other words, meditation seems to lead to increased communication between the two hemispheres.



Eat, Smoke, Meditate: Why Your Brain Cares How You Cope

Link: Eat, Smoke, Meditate: Why Your Brain Cares How You Cope

mindfulwellness:

Great article! 

Most people do what they have to do to get through the day. Though this may sound dire, let’s face it, it’s the human condition. Given the number of people who are depressed or anxious, it’s not surprising that big pharma is doing as well as it is. But for millennia before we turned to government-approved drugs, humans devised clever ways of coping: Taking a walk, eating psychedelic mushrooms, breathing deeply, snorting things, praying, running, smoking, and meditating are just some of the inventive ways humans have found to deal with the unhappy rovings of their minds.

Most people would agree that a lot of our unhappiness comes from the mind’s annoying chatter, which includes obsessions, worries, drifts from this stress to that stress, and our compulsive and exhausting need to anticipate the future. Not surprisingly, the goal of most adults is to get the mind to shut up, calm down, and chill out. For this reason, we turn to our diverse array of feel-good tools (cigarettes, deep breathing, and what have you). Some are healthier and more effective than others, and researchers are finally understanding why certain methods break the cycle and others exacerbate it.But which methods actually work?

Last year, a Harvard study confirmed that there’s a clear connection between mind wandering and unhappiness. Not only did  the study find that if you’re awake, your mind is wandering almost half the time, it also found that this wandering is linked to a less happy state. (You can actually use the iPhone app used in the study to track your own happiness.) This is not surprising, since when your mind is wandering, it’s not generally to the sweet things in your life: More likely, it’s to thoughts like why your electric bill was so high, why your boss was rude to you today, or why your ex-husband is being so difficult.

Another study found that mind wandering is linked to activation of network of brain cells called the default mode network (DMN), which is active not when we’re doing high-level processing, but when we’re drifting about in “self-referential” thoughts (read: when our brain is flitting from one life-worry to the next).

Meditation is an interesting method for increasing one’s sense of happiness because not only has it stood the test of time, but it’s also been tested quite extensively in the lab. Part of the effect of mindfulness meditation is to quiet the mind by acknowledging non-judgmentally and then relinquishing (rather than obsessing about) unhappy or stress-inducing thoughts.

New research by Judson Brewer, MD, PhD and his group at Yale Universityhas found that experienced meditators not only report less mind wandering during meditation, but actually have markedly decreased activity in their DMN. Earlier research had shown that meditators have less activity in regions governing thoughts about the self, like the medial prefrontal cortex: Brewer says that what’s likely going on in experienced meditators is that these “‘me’ centers of the brain are being deactivated.

They also found that when the brain’s “me” centers were being activated, meditators also co-activated areas important in self-monitoring and cognitive control, which may indicate that they are on the constant lookout for “me” thoughts or mind-wandering – and when their minds do wander, they bring them back to the present moment. Even better, meditators not only did this during meditation, but when not being told to do anything in particular. This suggests that they may have formed a new default mode: one that is more present-centered (and less “me”-centered), no matter what they are doing.

“This is really cool,” Brewer says.” As far as we know, nobody has seen this type of connectivity pattern before. These networks have previously been shown to be anti-correlated.”

So is being happy all about shifting our tendency away from focus on ourselves? Research in other areas, like neurotheology (literally the neurology of religion), suggests that there may be something to this. Andy Newberg, MD at the University of Pennsylvania has found that both in meditating monks and in praying nuns, areas of the brain important in concentration and attention were activated, while areas that govern how a person relates to the external world were deactivated. These findings may suggest that for people who practice meditation or prayer, the focus becomes less on the self as a distinct entity from the external world, and more on connection between the two.  This reflects the idea discussed earlier where shifting attention from inside to outside is at least part of what quells unhappiness.

What about using other tools like cigarettes, food, or alcohol, as a method for finding pleasure and calming the mind? Don’t these things take a person outside of him or herself, and move the focus from the inner world of stressful thoughts to something outside, or “other”? Looking forward to the next hit of caffeine, nicotine, or coke might seem like a valid method of moving attention from the inside to the outside, but if you look closer, it actually intensifies the unpleasantness.

Brewer uses the example of smoking to illustrate why addiction fuels negative thoughts rather than abates them. In addition to the pleasurable associations, smoking actually creates a negative feedback loop, where you are linking stress and craving with the oh-so-good act of smoking. So whenever you experience a negative emotion, craving returns and intensifies over time, so that you are actually even less happy than before. A cigarette may quiet the mind temporarily – during the act of smoking – but in between cigarettes is where things get bad, because craving creeps in. Though we’re using craving as the example, unhappiness, self-referential thoughts, or everyday worries can all be substituted in.


So if you’re dealing with unhappiness of any kind, whether it’s every day worries, or more severe depression or anxiety, the method you choose for coping matters. Finding one that solves the problem – breaking the cycle, rather than masking it – is crucial.
Substituting a carrot stick or other behavior for your actual craving (or other form of unhappiness) is a typical method of treatment, but it doesn’t often work, says Brewer, because the feedback loop is still there. Addressing the process itself with other methods (like meditation), which allow you to ride out the craving/unhappiness by attending to it and accepting it, and then letting it go, has been more successful, because it actually breaks the cycle rather than masks it.

What type of coping method do you use?




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