Brain Plasticity Cuts Both Ways: How Does Technology Affect The Brains of Children?For all of us here at Posit Science and, I would imagine, to most of the people who follow the neuroscience behind brain training, the concept of brain plasticity is extremely liberating. The old guard notion of a “hard-wired” brain with little capability of changing beyond puberty has given way to a complete rethinking of its capabilities. We now know that the brain can recover from major damage, learn to store new kinds of information well into old age, and reshape itself according to what we use it for.

But while Posit Science is focused on exploring and expanding upon the positive aspects of this new approach to the brain, some neuroscientists are now using brain plasticity theory to question the way the way the brains of children are forming in a society that’s now utterly dominated by technology. After all, if the brain contours itself according to how we exercise it, how are children developing life-skills when they increasingly learn to interact with others through video games and social networking websites? To put it another way, since we know that we can positively affect our brain plasticity with focused training, could video games and Facebook negatively affect our brain plasticity?

Like most of the young adults who grew up in the Video Game Generation 1.0, I’ve grown accustomed to dismissing these kinds of concerns as the “doom and gloom” predictions of overzealous parents and nothing more. But learning about brain plasticity does place the debate around technology and children in a more foreboding light: maybe all those hours in front of the Playstation did affect me after all?

As it happens, some of the world’s leading neuroscientists are indeed concerned about this. Leading the charge is Susan Greenfield, a former director of the Royal Institution who has spent much of her career researching the brain and searching for a cure for Alzheimer’s disease. Greenfield, arguably Great Britain’s most prominent female scientist wrote in a 2008 Daily Mail article:

“Already, it’s pretty clear that the screen-based, two dimensional world that so many teenagers – and a growing number of adults – choose to inhabit is producing changes in behavior. Attention spans are shorter, personal communication skills are reduced and there’s a marked reduction in the ability to think abstractly.”

She’s especially concerned with how teens and tweens are learning to form their sense of identity and behavior with others through social networking sites. It’s hard enough for most adolescents to comfortably interact with other people, but what happens if they begin using the filter of online chats as a crutch? In another article for the Daily mail, Greenfield says,

“I often wonder whether real conversation in real time may eventually give way to these sanitized and easier screen dialogues, in much the same way as killing, skinning and butchering an animal to eat has been replaced by the convenience of packages of meat on the supermarket shelf… Perhaps future generations will recoil with similar horror at the messiness, unpredictability and immediate personal involvement of a three-dimensional, real-time interaction.”

While she stopped short of correlating the increasing use of computer technology with the rise of autism diagnoses, Greenfield did note that people with autism find it particularly easy to interact via computers.

She’s not alone in her concerns: Dr. Gary Small told Flux Trends that

“overexposure to interactive technologies from a young age may suppress frontal-lobe executive skills, the ability to communicate face-to-face and consequently stunt the maturation process.”

For anyone young enough to remember the awkward, self-absorbed world that most teenagers live in, it’s frightening to imagine a generation of adults stuck in that state of suspended animation.

It bears repeating that I grew up playing plenty of video games and spent far too long chatting with my high school friends on AIM instead of actually hanging out with them. Given all that I think I turned out all right as an adult, and obviously I wouldn’t be working at Posit Science if I thought all computer-based technology was bad for the brain. But it’s worth considering that maybe kids do need to learn the basic boundaries of face-to-face interaction before they start texting instead of talking, that maybe there is a such thing as too much technology in kids’ lives today.

Despite all of this doom and gloom I’m spouting, I do believe that the message of brain plasticity is ultimately a positive one: that it’s never too late to change, whether you’re an adult, a kid, or an adult with a kid’s brain. In fact, I can attest that last one personally.