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Computers are rewiring our kids’ brains: how does that myth work?

I’ve just posted about some online material which has been distorted to fit the ‘computers are rewiring our kids’ brains’ myth, so I thought it might be useful to talk about how that fits with the ‘myth-making principles’ I’ll be talking about in my lecture later this term. (Also see the previous post on the myth of water.)

In that lecture, I’ll say we keep on repeating myths because:

  • They’re partly true
  • People thought they were true once
  • They express things we think are true, really
  • They express things we think ought to be true
  • We like confirmatory stuff
  • They help us to make sense of psychology
  • They help us to help you to make sense of psychology

Partly true: It is possible to trace changes in brain chemistry or activity as a result of experience – though we’re not very sure how that works or what it means, and the brain may be just as ‘rewired’ by eating a can of baked beans as by playing Grand Theft Auto – and learning and singing the alto part to Mozart’s Requiem is likely to rewire you even more.
People thought they were true once: well, since this is new technology, there can’t be a historical explanation – though it’s worth pointing out that novels, movies, horror comics and death metal have all been proposed as things which will ruin our children (the ‘rewiring’ bit is more recent: it’s not a concept they used much in the anti-novel backlash)
Express things we think are true, really: seems likely that working and communicating in different ways might change how we think and react
Express things we think ought to be true: The world is going to pot; kids are getting dumber (and ruder); there’s no regard for Proper Culture any more. This must be true, because generation after generation have felt this way for thousands of years (you will too, just wait) – and since it’s obviously not the fault of the universities, schools, BBC4, etc, it’s got to be the fault of either computer games or the Daily Mail.
We like confirmatory stuff: How much press coverage would a story like: What rats see doesn’t change their brains much, it turns out or Computer Games probably a waste of time, but completely harmless get? Actually the rat story in the previous post didn’t tell us anything about the reduced attention span* of today’s kids, but it could be spun so it did give confirmation to the ‘rewiring’ myth – and so it gets picked up.
Help us make sense of psychology (or the world generally): Well, given all the problems noted above, we need some explanation – doesn’t this sound like a good one? All those bankers, too: they’re like that because they played Space Invaders too much. Once we have a population of bankers who’ve had their brains rewired by Doom, we’ll be in real trouble.

*’reuced attention span’ could be re-interpretated as ‘quick-witted’, ‘capable of doing several things at once’ or ‘doesn’t pay attention to anything I say’.


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