I-MINDS: HOW CELL PHONES COMPUTERS, GAMING AND SOCIAL MEDIA ARE CHANGING OUR BRAINS, OUR BEHAVIOR AND THE EVOLUTION OF OUR SPECIES

i-Minds: A Review Article

T. David Gordon

i-Minds: How Cell Phones, Computers, Gaming, and Social Media Are Changing Our Brains, Our Behavior, and the Evolution of Our Species, by Mari K. Swingle. Gabriola Island, British Colombia, Canada: New Society, 2016, xix + 242 pages, $19.95, paper.

For a decade or two, the digital technologies largely received a “free pass.” Commercial forces routinely advocated their purchase on the ostensible ground that these technologies would radically alter human experience for the better. And, until there was enough experience with these technologies to assess their influence, those of us who were more cautionary were ordinarily dismissed as curmudgeons, cranks, or both. Our reservations were ordinarily more modest than our detractors thought; we merely observed that all benefits have costs, and/or that we already have a Messiah, to whom we look for the true re-creating of the present mortal and sinful order, and therefore do not need to open the field to ostensible competition. The “free pass” phase of digital technology is now well behind us; the jury is in, and author after author presents evidence that the cost for these benefits is a good deal higher than we had supposed.[1]

Enter Dr. Mari K. Swingle, a Canadian Neurotherapist, whose research and clinical specialty is in the neurology of brain waves, and how such neurology affects human behavior. On the Swingle Clinic website, they describe their discipline as follows: “Clinical psychoneurophysiology is a biological approach to healing and wellness … Neurophysiological treatment does not involve pharmaceuticals or other potentially dangerous or ineffective drugs.” Dr. Swingle’s father, Dr. Paul G. Swingle, is considered one of the founders of neurophysiology. Note that neurophysiology is a “biological approach,” an approach grounded in the use of EEG (“electroencephalography”) technology to measure brainwaves. Dr. Swingle is not, therefore, a mere essayist; she is a behavioral scientist, whose own practice and research have persuaded her that for many individuals, the digital world is having significant negative impact on behavior:

For children, adolescents, and youth, excessive usage of digital media is now highly associated with learning disabilities, emotional dysregulation, as well as conduct or behavioral disorders. For adults, it is highly correlated with anxiety, depression, sexual dysfunction and sexual deviation, insomnia, social isolation, disaffected pair bonding, marital conflict, and compromised work performance. In clinical practice, I am also starting to note some rather frightening connections with thwarted emotional and cognitive development in the very young. (xii)
The fifteen chapters that constitute the book (including the fifteenth itself, on iAddiction) contain what Dr. Swingle (and other neurologists) have learned from their research and clinical practice. Those interested in the science will appreciate the rich bibliography supplied in the 234 endnotes.

Two principles recur in the book as the criteria by which Dr. Swingle assesses i-tech (the concept not the company). First, she constantly raises the question about the extent to which we are “immersed” in digital technologies (and why). Second, she repeatedly distinguishes integration from interference: when and how digital technology becomes integrated into a healthy and productive life, and/or when and how it interferes with a healthy and productive life. She likens digital dis-integration (problematic digital experience) to food disorders. People with food disorders cannot simply go “cold turkey” as other addicts can, because we have a biological need for sustenance. Likewise, Dr. Swingle argues that the digital world is such a large aspect of most professional life that people simply cannot choose to opt out entirely; they must, rather, learn how to integrate digital tech into their lives without permitting digital tech to interfere with their lives.

Dr. Swingle intends for the work to be accessible to non-scientists, to which end she has a number of places in the book set aside by different type, and entitled “Scientific Corner.” For those less interested, these portions can be skipped. Early in the book, however, she does have a section entitled “Electroencephalography 101,” which is in the text itself, because this brief introduction is necessary to understanding so much of the other material in the book. Even this section is as non-technical as possible.

Because Dr. Swingle is a clinician, her research (and her book) are not merely technical; she is very much concerned about human behavior, to which end she (refreshingly) permits herself to express the occasional value judgment, and she always does so self-consciously, so that the reader can distinguish those comments that have been substantiated empirically from those that have not. This reviewer considers this candor to be an asset, not a liability. She candidly acknowledges, for example, that most clinicians believe that there should be no use of digital technologies before the age of four, whereas she believes that the age should extend to six.

The chapter on addiction is one of the more fascinating ones, because many of us have observed (in ourselves or others) digital behaviors that appear to be analogous to addictive behaviors. Dr. Swingle has observed that many studies examined the more obviously dangerous or damaging uses of digital technology: “second life” websites that become, for many, their first life; pornography; digital bullying, etc. But she has discovered that one of the most addictive behaviors surrounds the more-neutral-appearing process of digital searching: “One hundred percent of my participants reported using the Internet compulsively for searching” (199). She likens such searching to gambling, where part of the attraction is to the unknown, the unpredictable. That is, she distinguishes digital content from digital process, arguing that the process itself is (or should be) the primary concern:

Gaming, gambling, stock watching and trading, e-mailing and texting, auction shopping, as well as pornography are all addictions that can be driven by both content and process as supplied by the medium, the Internet. This last classification appears to be the classification of most threat. Technological addiction is all about process, and more and more of us are succumbing to it. (198, emphasis mine)
If Dr. Swingle is even partly right, much of our approach to the digital world has been extremely inadequate: educators, parents, clergy, mental health officials, et al., have primarily addressed the content of digital technologies (gambling, pornography, violence, bullying); we have been much less likely to discuss the process of surfing the web itself, and how such searching alters our brainwaves:

What is evident is there is just something bewitching about the buzz, the ring, and now the endless possibility for more: instant accessibility both in content and material, attainable. Like Pavlov’s dog, we have conditioned ourselves to salivate to the bell; like lab rats, we push and push on the lever for the food pellet of pleasure, of intrigue, of more. What we have forgotten to ask is what is happening to our brains in this great experiment of life on i-tech. (208)
Dr. Swingle is not a theist, or, apparently, a religious person: “Although I am not crazy about the religious framing of his work, one author, Struthers, has some very powerful points in his book Wired for Intimacy” (171). Swingle therefore does not address or answer every question that religious people would address; however, in her epilogue, where she provides some succinct advice, much of it is remarkably common-sensical, and therefore consistent with what we would ordinarily call natural theology. Consider some of her advice (and try to ignore some of her non-Sunday-school nomenclature):

I do not reply to work emails past a specific hour or on week-ends.
Take back play and don’t get caught in the organization and the capitalism of it all.
Fight like hell to have sport, music, and art reintroduced in schools during the curriculum.
Bring back hobbies where, by definition, being good or bad at them is irrelevant!
In formal education ensure that the integration of technologies serves a true educational purpose, and is not merely introduced because of novelty, convenience, or vested external interests.
Get back to your beds as opposed to your computers together. Snuggle, touch, and be touched by people, by each other.
Play! Play with your children, your partners, your friends, your pets and any and all non-tech objects around you. (211–13)
Perhaps the group who would most benefit (and be most disturbed) from reading i-Minds is parents. The book concentrates substantially on how digital technologies (unless used in extreme moderation) retard emotional, intellectual, moral, and creative development in the years most critical to developing a healthy neurology (e.g., who would have thought that eight-to-sixteen-month-old infants who watched “educational” videos to develop vocabulary actually learned eight words per hour less than infants who were not exposed to such videos?). Several times in the book, she repeats the counsel she gives to her clients: “No more than one hour of screen time a day for older children, absolutely none until the age of four; and waiting until six is notably healthier” (145). Also repeated is this maxim: “Nothing wrong with a little, a lot wrong with a lot” (144).

Twenty years ago, those of us who issued cautions about digital technology were largely dismissed as cranks. After all, we had no scientific “proof” for our claims, and indeed, there can be no scientific proof of things that will happen in the future. While we did not understand the biology, we did (or so we thought) know something about human nature, and we made our predictions and warnings on that basis. The jury is now in; the digital world can no longer resist scrutiny by dwelling in the future; it is now part of our present and part of our recent past, and its affects on human behavior and experience have now been subjected to rigorous scientific scrutiny (and will continue to be so). A consensus is emerging: the digital technologies enable us to perform some tasks more rapidly or economically; but they do not tend to make us fuller or richer humans. The sheer weight of empirical study that Dr. Swingle has read and/or conducted is now staggering, and the commercial forces can no longer foist their digital wares on an unknowing or unsuspecting public.

Endnote

[1] Mark Bauerlein, The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes our Future (Or, Don’t Trust Anyone under Thirty) (New York: Tarcher, 2008); Nicholas Carr, The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains (New York: Norton, 2010); Winifred Gallagher, Rapt: Attention and the Focused Life (New York: Penguin, 2009); Maggie Jackson, Distracted: The Erosion of Attention and the Coming Dark Age (New York: Prometheus, 2008); Jaron Lanier You Are Not a Gadget: A Manifesto (New York: Knopf, 2010); Sherry Turkle, Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age (New York: Penguin, 2015); Maryanne Wolf, Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain (New York: Harper, 2007).

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T. David Gordon is a minister in the Presbyterian Church in America and serves as professor of Religion and Greek at Grove City College, Grove City, Pennsylvania. He also teaches courses on Media Ecology.

Ordained Servant Online, October 2016.

 

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