What we care to look at in this talk is an exiting question that not just interest scientists but also interest parents, employers, and indeed, and the citizens of the 21st century. And the reason is that concerns the brain. I like this picture of the brain where you can see someone actually holding a human brain because it brings home to you just how special you are and yet how mysterious the brain is. It reminds me of when I was student in Oxford and we had to dissect a human brain and these brains are wheeled in and in pots on trolleys, and you are wearing cloves because the brain is in a fixative that preserves it so you wouldn’t cut it up. But I do remember, on this very special day, when I was holding the brain, thinking, if I was not wearing gloves and I got a little nit of brain tissue under my fingernail – would that be a bit somebody loved with? Would that be a memory? Would that be a hope? How could you have a hope under your fingernail? And it was this idea of this very boring, sludgy, very uninteresting object that you could hold in one hand and how that translated into all the things we feel special about ourselves, and about our emotions, and about humanity generally. How the one linked to the other.
So what we care to look at in this talk is not just how the brain translates into a unique human person but more how that person, how that individual might be changing, might be being affected by new technologies. Is this the fate of our children and your grandchildren. Are we going to be transformed into dysfunctional creatures with now emotion? Or are we going to be experiencing for the first time the real potential of human individuality, whatever that is.
Let us start by really looking at the basics to try and understand what it is that really makes you so special. And in this talk what I have done is to number the key conclusions so that whatever happens you will know that sooner or later our conclusion is going to come along.
The first conclusion is that the environment is the key. It is important in making you the person that you are. The wonderful thing about being born a human being is that you are born with pretty much all the brain cells you will ever have. But it is a growth of the connections between the brain cells that are counted for the growth of the brain after birth. Why is this interesting or important? We do not run particularly fast as the species, we do not see particularly well, we are not particularly strong, and yet, we occupy more ecological niches than any other species on the planet. Thanks to so called plasticity of our brains. Plasticity comes from the Greek ‘plastikos’ — to be modeled. It does not mean our brains are made of plastic. And here you can see what happens in the first two years of life. The blobby bits are brain cells and the stringy beets are the connections between them. So we can see that at three months, fifteen months, and two years there is an astonishing change in the growth of the connections between the brain cells. This means, because it happens after birth, that you can adapt to your individual experiences after birth.
So even if you are a clone, an identical twin therefore, you are going to have a unique brain because only you will have unique experiences. This is why you can transplant hearts, you can transplant lungs or livers with increasing ease nowadays, but eve if it was technically possible, you could not transplant brain because the brain is the essence of a person.
Let us look and see just how sensitive your brain is to be modified by the environment.
There is a wonderful experiment involving three groups of adult human volunteers none of whom at the beginning of this experiment could play the piano. It is a five day experiment. If ever you get a chance to volunteer for an experiment like this, a word of advice, try not to be in the control group. Anyway, what happened is the first group, the controls, had to just stare at the piano for five days. But there was a second group and they learnt five finger piano exercises. But the most exiting group was the third group because this group had to imagine they were playing the piano. And here is what happened. In the controls over five days the brain is literally unimpressed. Nothing has happened to the scans. However in the group who were learning with physical practice, the five finger piano exercises, you can see the astonishing change in functional brain territory related to the digits. Te third group, those who imagined playing the piano, their brain scans are pretty much similar the ones who were physically having the movements.
So what does it tell us? A lot of things: The first is this brilliant quotation from the man who developed the treatment for Parkinson’s disease: ‘Thinking is the movement confined to the brain’. And we will come back to that towards the end of the talk. But this is exactly what has happened to the second and the third group. The only difference between the two groups is that one was imaginary and one was literally taking place. But what is important, as far as the brain is concerned, is not the contraction of the muscles. It is the thought that has come before, the thought that has preceded it: The thinking of the movement, not the movement itself.
It also shows how it is wrong, as the people at the past have done, to draw the distinction between mental and physical, between mind and brain. It is not as if thoughts are out there in the air around somewhere and our brains are like satellite dishes picking them up. Somehow, among the brain cells and their connections and all the chemicals we are going to look at, somewhere you have a thought. And even that will modify and change the brain cell connections.
In order to understand how this happens in the brain, we have to go from people playing the piano to rats. Because what we are going to now is actually look and see how the environment, hoe the interaction with the environment can actually modify and changes brain cell connections. In order to do that with rats, who obviously will not play the piano, we will look at the effects of an environment that encourages them to be very exploratory, to be stimulated, a so called enriched environment.
Enrichment for rat does not mean that they come on to joint interesting conferences on digital media. For a rat, what they have to do is explore little ladders, branches, and wheels. We can see how happy they look. Now if you look at a single brain cell from an animal who was not quite so lucky, as when they were assigning the group someone was just in an ordinary lab cage, this is the kind of brain cell that you see: there are branches that are coming out of the blobby part of the cell, the main part of the cell. We can compare these branches in an animal that was in a simple cage condition to the comparable branches in an animal in the cage with ladders and wheels. We can see that the branches in the second case are much bigger. Why is this interesting or important? Everyone is familiar with the fact that when you exercise muscle it gets bigger and stronger. And if you do not exercise muscle it tends to get weaker and to atrophy. You use it or you loose it. This is what happens in the brain. If a brain cell is very active, like with muscle, it will respond to continuous use. The more active it is, the more it will grow these branches. That is how it responds.
Why is it important? By having more branches you have a greater surface area. By having a greater surface area you make more cell connections. The more stimulating and exiting is the environment even for a rat, the harder the brain cells work, the more active, they respond over time by growing more branches and these branches enable them to make more connections. The more stimulating environment is, the more connections you can make.
Let us think about what that means for us, humans.
You were born, in the words of the great psychologist William James, into a booming buzzing confusion. What can you do when you are a little baby? You evaluate the world in sensory terms: how sweet, how fast, how cold, how bright. But as the days turn into weeks, turn into months, slowly the sensory world, abstract pattern of colors and shapes, accompanied by meaningless sounds and smells and textures, gradually this sensory confusion will form patterns that are recognizable because your connections now are responding to the inputs that they are receiving through the senses. So now, instead of it being an abstract visual pattern, it will be your mother’s face. And that will have a meaning. We call this ‘cognitive’ from the Latin ‘cognitio’- ‘I think’. And if your mother features again, again, and again in your life, the more she features, the more associations and connections will form. Like with the piano playing. Because you are experiencing and interacting with her all the time, and this will leave the mark on your brain. Your mother will have a significance to you that she does not have to anyone else.
Let us look at an example here. These are colleagues of mine. They will mean nothing to you. You will see these people as white middle-aged men in suits and ties. I see them as David, and Chris, and Martine. I remember the very day this photograph was taken. We just signed a very interesting agreement with the university, very important agreement. I remember this day, it means a lot to me, as the individuals shown here, one of them sadly now who has died. But I know their wives, how many children they have, when they hold their holidays. We have shared successes together and failures together, so they mean a lot to me, in a way they mean nothing to you, because you do not know them, because you just see them generically. Similarly, you can put in your colleagues, your family and I will see them in a generic way, as men, women, and children. For you they may be the most important people in you live because of the associations that have been formed.
So, connections give people, indeed objects, a meaning of a time, a significance to you by virtue of the experiences you have had with them.
Let us turn to another example. Think of a wedding ring. When children are very small they would not understand what it is, it would not mean anything. But they are attracted to it because of its sensory properties. The fact that it is shiny and gold, the fact that they can roll it on the surface, the fact that they can put things through the middle. They might even try to put it into their mouths. As the children age however, they realizes that it is a ring. And rings are the things you put on fingers. As they get older they also realize that there is a difference between a wedding ring and other types of rings. And gradually, according to the culture they live in, wedding rings and weddings might have special meanings to them. And then, as they are getting older, they might have wedding rings of their own. And the views on that personal wedding ring will vary as they go from their honey-moon, possibly, if sadly it goes to divorce, the attitudes to their particular wedding rings will be different. So, that has come in a long way from something shiny you put into your mouth, and yet it is the same object. And yet it is all to do with how your brain is reacting to the sight of this wedding ring. According to what stage you are on in your live, what culture you live in, and how you view and interact with this particular object. It gives this object a meaning.
Let us think there is someone who is dressed up in a ghost costume. Hopefully no adult can find it particularly frightening. They might find it a bit silly. But if a two-year-old child saw someone come in dressed like this or, indeed, a person with dementia, they would feel very frightened by this strange-looking creature that is coming in. however an adult will not feel frightened because they have checks and balances. They have the associations; they have the experience to realize that this is someone just dressed up as a ghost.
Connections not only give things a meaning, they help you to understand what you are seeing; to make sense of what you are seeing. So you do not react in an emotional way, you can react, as we will say, cognitively. By drawing on your experiences in the past, it helps you to understand what you are experiencing in the present. This is why we are so successful as a species in surviving on the planet.
And I think connections do something else for us. They help us to see one thing in terms of something else. As you could see with a candle. It reminds me of when my brother was only three and I was sixteen, and I used to enjoy torturing him. One of the tortures was when I forced him to learn Shakespeare when he was three years old. Some of you may know that in ‘Macbeth’, a famous play, there is a line: ‘Out, out, brief candle! Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player, That struts and frets his hour upon the stage…’. How would you ask a small boy what does it mean? Do you understand this line of Shakespeare’s ‘Out, out brief candle!’? He would have said: ‘Well, of course, I have a candle on my birthday cake. And I can blow it out’. He could not have seen it as a metaphor for death. How could he? He was only three years old. This is only by realizing the power of those words reasoned not in the literal image of the candle but in the fact there is parallel between the extinction of candle and the extinction of life.
Connections enable you to see the meaning in objects around you and people; to understand what is happening to you and what you are experiencing; and to see one thing in terms of something else, to be able to think symbolically.
I would like to suggest you therefore, that the biological basis of the mind is the personalization of the brain through these unique ever-changing dynamic connections between neurons that are driven by your own unique experience. That is why you have a unique brain. Because you are constantly interacting the world. You start off in this one way street – how sweet, how fast, how cold, how bright. But gradually as you bump out it with the information you are getting in, slowly the associations will form that reflect that experience, so as you get older, as things are coming now, you will evaluate them in terms of what is there already, so the ‘one way street’ has become a ‘two way street’.
It is this wonderful dialogue with the outside world in your brain that makes you the person you are and enables you to evolve as a person as you go through life. Here is a picture in my presentation. Everyone here is doing their own thing. Every person in this picture has unique coordinate in space and time. Unique trajectory of our beginning, middle and ends of our lives where there is causal link. One thing leads to something else and this is what we call our life-story. In your life-story if you have passed an exam, you can not un-pass such exam. Maybe you do not make the most of your education, it might be that you have failed other exams, it does not matter. No one can take away from you that you have passed that exam. And that therefore will have consequences within your life such as contributed to your identity, to making you the person that you are.
All these events that are linked however indirectly, in whatever ramifications, are leaving their marks permanently on your brain cell connections. You have up to a hundred thousand connections converging onto one brain cell.
So this thing is the mind and I hope I have convinced you that it is influenced massively by the interaction with the environment. My second conclusion is that the environment of the twenty-first century is unprecedented in changing how that mind is going to work, how we going to think and feel.
What will happen to the next generation of so called digital natives? An important issue many studies are currently coming about is how much time young people spend in front of the screen per week. And this is one study showing the situation in the United States in 2010, here 54 percent of children between thirteen and seventeen spend 30+ hours a week in front of the screen. And this is in recreational use, not doing home works and assignment at school. This is 5 hours a day plus working with digital media when doing anything else. I think the most neuroscientists will not automatically say whether it is good or bad but everyone will say it is a given that the brain will change. How can it now change if it is evolutionary mandate in to adapt to an environment. And if five hours a day you are in a new type of an environment then you will have a new way of thinking and seeing the world. What we need to do is to work out what that will be.
Just to show that I am not a complete pessimist let me suggest to you the book by Steven Johnson. The title of it speaks for itself: ‘Everything Bad is Good to You’. What he has written here is all the benefits of screen technologies. For example they improve sensory and motor coordination and something in particular, that is surely desirable, arise an IQ. And he argues very persuasively that there have been arising IQ scores in different societies in the western world over the last few decades and this could be due to the rehearsal of computer games. Because the computer games are similar to the IQ tests: you need very fast mental agility, you need to see connections, you have to get to a fixed answer within a certain period of time. So if you are rehearsing and practicing computer games then if you are asked to do an IQ test you will be probably be good at because you bare in mind your own rehearses, using it or losing it, you will be better than anyone who has never done it before. Surely this is good. But again, he argues that just because we have seen an increase in agility in IQ tests, this is not being accompanied by an increasing insight into the economic problems of the world or the Middle East crises. So just because you can process the information quickly does not mean to say that you automatically have a better understanding of it. We need to distinguish between information and knowledge. These are not the same things. This does not mean that information is a bad thing or information processing is a bad thing. But we do need to keep it distinct. Surely in human beings we need both.
Let us look at different aspects of the screen environment to see what might be good and what might be bad, if we are to shape the best environment possible for your children and for your grandchildren. The issue with screen technology that people often forget is that it breaks down into lots of different questions. One is the issue of social networking. Let us think a little bit about social networking. When people communicate with each other face to face surprisingly words have only ten percent of impact. Eye contact is vital important. We all know hoe frightening it is to talk to someone who is not looking in your eyes at all. Or conversely to someone who stares at you continuously and does not let the eyes go to one side or the other. Eye contact along with body language therefore, not surprisingly, has a huge impact. How we interpret someone crossing their arms, how we interpret them turning away slightly, opening their body and so on. All these things are registered by us as giving clues to what someone is feeling, enabling us to empathize. Similarly voice, you do not have to speak a language to know if someone is angry or happy. The tone of their voice, the rate at which they are speaking, the volume they are using, all this is very important in conveying emotions and it counts for thirty five percent of the impact. No one has measured pheromones, these are the sneaky chemicals which give you a feeling of liking or disliking someone. Or, indeed, perhaps the most powerful form of communication of all – physical contact. And yet non of these are available on Facebook. On Facebook and on other social networking sites one is left just to exchange words. Non of the opportunities and the skills that we have for practicing empathy are possible and just not available.
Is it surprising therefore that we are seeing a declining empathy in the particular study which was with 14,000 college students over last 30 years. They have shown in the last 10 years in particular there has been a sharp decline in empathy. Someone could say this is merely a correlation, this is merely one trend and the rise of digital nation is another trend. And that is true. Like people in early 1950s said: ‘Look! There are people dying of lung cancer and people who have increased in their smoking habits’. It took a long time for the epidemiologists to come and actually prove in a convincing way that the smoking was causing the cancer. Similarly here we will await epidemiology, and I would like to see this happened, where by someone can see to what extend this societal trend of being in digital world so much can actually impact on empathy. My own view is that it would be hard to see how it could not be effected in some way.
Another issue with empathy and the screen technologies is to look at people with autistic spectrum disorders where what you see is what you get. They interpret someone’s behavior just in terms of their actions. They find it very hard to actually pick up on voice tone or body language or other skills we just considered as not available on social networking sites. Is it surprising therefore that people who have autism are very comfortable; in fact, they prefer to be in a digital world. I would like to suggest you it is because when we are all engaged in cyber world we are all effectively autistic. We are not using the skills we have learnt of interpersonal communication. We are merely judging someone in two dimensions on the screen by the movements of the behaviors that they are generating.
So could we see therefore another reason for thinking this reduction empathy is being linked to screen technologies? And if so then how does that impact on the kind of person that you are? What kind of identity might you have? If you are constantly defining yourself as someone who is constantly in touch with other people, who is defining yourself in terms of the numbers of hits or the amount of recognition you get from other people, continuously online – where do you end and other people begin? How do you see yourself as an independent entity if you are constantly involved in twitting and blogging and social networking sites without necessarily having time to be distant from other people.
If we just think about the history of blogging I think this example is very titling 1995: ‘I just have to tell about this thing my cat did today’ from Blogger; 2004: ‘Oh my God! Cat pictures!’ from Flicker; YouTube 2005: ‘Moving cat pictures!’; 2007 (this is really taking off) Twitter: ‘1 PM: My cat just sneezed. 1.02 PM: My cat sneezed again. 1.04 PM: Cat hasn’t sneezed recently. Getting worried’. It does really raise an issue of ‘Who cares?’. Why do people feel it is important to tell the other people what they have for breakfast, what they are doing in that very moment? And I feel there are two issues here. One is if you are so busy reading out to other people, you are not really enjoying the moment for yourself. And also if you are doing that, you are not doing other things, perhaps, defining you. You are someone living for the eyes of others. It is very important for such people to describe their experience in terms of how it would look on Facebook, how they would look as a brand.
My own fear is that the people that are like this are perhaps in some kind of existential crises. It reminds me very much of a little child: ‘Look at me, Mom! I am putting on one sock. Look at me, Mom! I am putting on another sock’. Because if you do not look at me how do I know I exist. So the effects of social networking are reduced empathy and less robust notion of identity.
What about gaming? This is a big business at the moment. Here are two little boys. They are very busy playing a game with each other but they are not communicating with each other. They are playing with a screen. And we should all ask ourselves why is it that the screen which has only two-dimensions, as opposed to the tree-dimensional real world, which only accesses are sound and vision, not all five senses, why is it so attractive compared to real life? Presumably, it is because the screen is brighter, faster, and louder then the real world is. The interaction is therefore more exiting. Fitting in with that idea is another trend that we need to look at with greater detail. This issue is the rise in prescriptions for a drug you may not recognize, Methylphenidate but you may recognize the brand name Ritalin which in the West is given for attentional problems. I know that in Russia it is illegal. However you can see that in the Western countries the prescriptions for this drug, which is dopamine and amphetamine based drug, are escalating hugely. Could it be that doctors are prescribing more liberally or could it be that condition for attentional problems is being recognized as medical condition or could it just be, and it is not mutually exclusive, that if you put a young brain in an environment where we have seen its evolutionary mandate to adapt to this environment, and that environment is brighter, faster and noisier, the young brain will adapt to that. When a child goes to school they are asked to live in three dimensions, which accesses all five senses but everything is much slower, less dramatic, less exiting, and the child will have attentional problems and then they will be given this drug. Again I repeat that this is the kind of issue that we need to explore.
So what could be the effects of gaming? The fragmented attention and shorter attention span. What about something else? If you are playing a game and you kill someone, unlike in real life, they can become undead. I was saying in the beginning of this talk that in real life you can not reverse things; you can not un-pass the exam. But in computer world you can reverse things, you can make someone undead. So therefore if you are playing a computer game and you get into the habit that actions do not have consequences, will that change you attitudes to risk? Might it make you more reckless?
If you talk about risk taking to a neuroscientist, what they will do is always point to neurological cases where, because of brain damage, the patient will present with increased recklessness. And the first person who did this was, in 1860s, the man who owns his page in history called Phineas Gage. He lived in the States, in Vermont; he was a forman on the rollway gang. It was his job to use a big rod called a tamping iron to push down explosives so that they could get rid of all the rocks and debris that was enabling them to lay the rollway track going from the East to the West coast. And one day what happened was that there was a premature explosion such that the formidable rod was driven from through the frontal part of Phineas’s brain. So you can imagine this is a very sad story that silly severe injure would have damaged Phineas if not killed him. Why am I telling this story? Amazingly after few moments he regained consciousness and could see, and walk, and talk just fine! And at that time there was no provision for people with brain injuries. And he actually got back to work. There was only weeks turn into months that his colleagues noticed a serious difference. Once he could walk, and talk, and see, and hear, they did notice that he became short-tempered like a child but, above all, very reckless which was not good if you were working with explosives. In the end he had to leave his job and become a fairground freak where he earned his living by showing out his wound. Nevertheless, he paid neuroscientists a great contribution by showing that this frontal part of the brain might in some way be linked to taking risks.
What do we know about this frontal part of the brain? In humans it occupies a very large area, 33% of the brain, and only 17% in chimps. We know from other cases of shrapnel damage during the wars that when it is damaged you get this so called ‘frontal syndrome’ which includes increased recklessness. These other situations where the prefrontal cortex is not working as fully as in normal cases, one is in people who are very heavy, who have a high body mass index. In such individuals, the heavier they are, the less active is their prefrontal cortex. As we are aware, in the West obesity is a great problem, not least related to the lifestyle of children sitting in front of the screen. What is very interesting, people who are obese are more reckless according to the results of the research. So we know there is a link between under-active prefrontal cortex, recklessness and obesity.
Another condition is schizophrenia, when the frontal part of the brain is less active then in normal people. What do we know about schizophrenia? It is not a split personality. More it is a split from reality. A person behaves in a different way, rather like a child actually. A schizophrenia person is very easily distracted by the outside world. They feel that things are imploding in on them, that people can see inside their heads and their thoughts. They have a short attention span because they are constantly reacting to everything around them. They can not see one thing in terms of another. They are indeed like children, like my little brother was who did not understand ‘Out, out brief candle’; he thought it was literally a candle. If you say to a schizophrenic person that there is a proverb ‘People who live in glass houses should not throw stones’ and you ask what that means, this person will say: ‘If you live in a house made of glass and I throw a stone in it, the house will break’. And finally schizophrenics have an under-active prefrontal cortex as the children.
As for children, the prefrontal cortex is only fully active in later age years, in early twenties. It is one of those very famous scenarios where individual development reflects evolution, or as people used to say, where ontogeny reflects phylogeny.
Let us think about what all these different cases could have in common, the link in under-activity in prefrontal cortex.
Anyone who eats know the consequences of eating but the thrill of the food for someone who is obese has trumped the consequences they will put on weight. Anyone who gambles knows the consequences of gambling but the thrill of the roulette wheel and roll of the dice, that excitement trumps the consequences they may lose all their money. The clue comes perhaps from the schizophrenia. There is a very famous series of paintings of a cat by a schizophrenic person. The cat was easily recognized by anyone at the beginning of the illness and no one could recognize it towards the end. What we see here is the transition from cognitive and meaningful through to something purely sensory.
Could it be that what these different conditions have in common is that whether you are a child, an obese, a gambler or a schizophrenic, now you are in the world where the senses, the input of the moment is more important then the consequences.
If that is so, then how does that impact on computer games? The was an article in The Telegraph sometime ago, the title was ‘Children Who Love Video Game Have Brains Like Gamblers’. What the authors found was that this particular area of the brain, so called nucleus accumbens, is enlarged in people who like to play computer games, rather like in the brains of gamblers. Could that be a link and what link could that be?
When I was given a talk to a journalist about 18 months ago, I said ‘Could that be a world where people say ‘yak’, and ‘wow’, and ‘yak and wow’ and they just live in the moment without any consequences. Because I talk quickly, she misheard it and wrote ‘yaka-wow’ which was a meaningless word but nevertheless, it started a craze, such as there were 75,000 hit on Google within 24 hours. Someone actually was entrepreneurial enough to decide to take out the domain name on market T-shirts and to create the first church of ‘yaka-wow’.
But the point is the words ‘world without consequences’. Is this the world of a gamer? Let us think about it. It is very exiting world where you are aroused. Many find it addictive and, by definition, many would find it rewarding. What do we know about these conditions in brain terms?
There is one chemical messenger that helps with all these different mint sets: with being exited, with being addicted, and indeed with reward. It is not a chemical for addiction or for reward, but it puts the brain into a certain state that actually relates to these conditions. That chemical is called dopamine. What do we know about the dopamine?
We know that it come from a very basic part of the brain and it does many things, i.e. it is important in the control of movement. We know that all psychotropic drugs ill be associated finally with the release of dopamine and addiction. We also know that reward processes are on someway linked with the release of dopamine. And finally we know that dopamine inhabits the prefrontal cortex. So, where does that place us?
We can imagine therefore with gaming a continuous cycle where intense stimulation of the screen gives a very fast excited respond. Therefore you are highly aroused and dopamine is released as the result of your arousal levels. This is similar to the reward seeking addictive behavior, so more dopamine is released. This inhabits the prefrontal cortex. And we have seen that the prefrontal cortex is associated with conditions of schizophrenia, obesity and childhood. And in terms of these conditions have one thing in common that there is a drive for sensation, for the immediate thrill of the moment over cognition, over consequences. That means that a screen offers a world which is more appealing than the real world.
Just to show that these are having long term changes in brains, the recent paper come off from China, showing long term changes in the brain of adolescent people who have got Internet addiction disorders.
Finally, let us look at search engines. Again, a separate issue entirely. Let us take a word like ‘honor’ which is a very abstract word; it is something that is hard to show as an image. I googled on ‘honor’, and remember – it is a British Google, and the first thing I got was the Queen and then I saw the images. If you showed these images to someone from Mars, they would have no idea what ‘honor’ was. In order to understand ‘honor’ you surely have to see it in different context, you have to see it at work, you do not just see pictures. In order truly understand what it is images are not enough.
What are the effects of search engines? It is very hard to convey an abstract concept of ‘honor’ just as it is hard to convey the ideas of ‘Out, out brief candle’ or people who live in houses made of glass. That is the first problem.
The next one is seeing one thing in terms of another. For example, here is an old Play Station advert for rescuing the Noble Princess Yukihime in ‘a world of darkness and magic, power hungry warlords battle for the chaos, the Noble Princess Yukihime is kidnapped’. I bet you do not care about Princess Yukihime. Not in the same way how you would care about the Princess Mary, the character of ‘War and Peace’ as I am sure many Russians have read Tolstoy Why? The Princess Mary has a past, a present, and a future. Just as like you. And she has friend, just like you. Therefore she has significance in a meaning because she has a context of her life, she has a life story, just like you. And tat is why you care on turning off the pages. Not because staring at the page is exiting. It is because of the images that come into your imagination and the significance they have that keeps you reading the book. The Princess Yukihime does not have this significance because she has no context other than she is something to get to rescue.
Just to show that I am not alone in these worries, here is the words of Eric Schmidt, who was the CEO of Google: ‘I worry that the level of interrupt, the sort of overwhelming rapidity of information … is in fact affecting cognition. It is affecting deeper thinking. I still believe that sitting down and reading a book is the best way of learning something. And I am worrying that we are losing that…’.
So, what is ‘thinking’? Here is my third conclusion, the final one. Harnessing the 21st century technologies id important because we could now promote original thinking, named ‘creativity’. What do we mean by this?
Let us think about the people who live for the moment. I am sure that in Russia there are also night clubs where the thrill is on the sensory input, the bit of the music, brightness of the light, the sound of the music, not the words or the meaning of the words, not the past or the future. As we say in English ‘Let oneself go’. We are having ‘a sensational time’. You do not say ‘Let us go out and have a cognitive time’. One could say that this is a raw feeling. I do not think that people in clubs do much thinking.
One could think of the two different modes that we put ourselves in. You could call it ‘mindless’ and ‘meaningful’. On the one hand – strong feelings. On the other – thinking dominating. On one side – strongly sensory. On another – cognitive. Mindless – you are in the ‘here and now, yak and wow’, you are living for the moment. Meaningful – you have a past and a present, a future or a fantasy. In the mindless state you are having distractions form the outside world, in the meaningful state you are interacting with the world, you evaluate it in terms of what happened in the past and what will happen in the future. In the mindless state there is a reduced sense of self, you have let yourself go, you have blown your mind. Whereas in the meaningful state there is a very strong feeling of self, you are acting in your life story. In the mindless state there is no space or time, you are just in the moment. In the meaningful world there are strong space and time references. The first state is more dopamine, the second is less dopamine.
What we can do as adults is putting ourselves in environment of ‘wine, women, and song’ or ‘drugs, and sex, and rock-and-roll’ which disables the connections between brain cells and blows our mind temporarily. And my concern is that although we have done this since we have evolved as a species, and we have had this balance between letting ourselves go and creating an identity, that now what we are doing with computer games is developing an environment that shifts us asymmetrically to stay in this mindless state which would match up with under-functional prefrontal cortex.
That scenario, some people could claim, is surely related to creativity. And this is an interesting thought. Kind of people that might paint pictures are creative. Or the children. And we know that their connections are still growing. Schizophrenics are renowned for writing poetry or painting pictures. And they have dysfunctional connections due to the dopamine level. We know that drugs impair connections and still people on drugs are often highly creative. But these conditions do not guarantee creativity. I am sure that one can know of children, or schizophrenics, or people who have taken drugs, who are not creative at all. And I am sure that you have known of creative people who are not children, not schizophrenics, and have not taken drugs.
I think it shows us a possible link, but one that may be necessary without being sufficient and can be reached in different ways where one is challenging dogma, deconstructing the world, not seeing automatic associations between one thing and something else.
What are the conditions of creativity? The first one is premium on de-constructing to abstract sensations. To see the world not as a bottle of water, not as a glass, but as a series of textures and light that you can de-construct and try to reproduce. We also know that you have to have an unusual association. Schizophrenics would have what is called ‘word salads’, unusual words that come together. Artists will pain the things that are unusual, that you are not used to seeing.
Here is the painting of a sheep made by a girl and let us think why it is not a work of art. She has painted an unusual sheep, with an unusually colored red body, and still it is not hanging in any art gallery in the world. Here is another sheep by Damien Hirst. It is in formaldehyde and hailed as work of art by some. What is the difference between these two sheep? In both cases the authors have challenged dogma and they had unusual associations. The difference is that Hirst’s sheep has shown that these new associations can activate more extensive associations so that they have meaning in self and the others. And what that means is that suddenly you see the world in a new way. Suddenly you can see a person, or a sheep even, in a way that you never saw that sheep before. In the case of science or in literature you can have an idea about life that you never had before. But it is not enough that it is something new or unusual. It has to tap in to a meaning. And by doing that it has to recruit new associations between your brain cells.
We said at the beginning that neuronal connections give connections an even deeper meaning as with the candle. How does that help to understand the world around us? There are connections in space where one can see one thing in terms of something else. But for me thinking involves connections over time. As I said earlier, thinking is movement confined to the brain. Perhaps this could be the essence of thinking. Thinking always has a time sequence, like a rational argument, showing that two equals one, or a business plan which shows how one thing leads to another, or a little story with the beginning and the end. Whatever happens, you always go ‘beginning-middle-end’. It is always sequence of steps. You can not access it in random. Like a sentence is a sequence. Like you life is. It goes from your childhood, to your work, to eventually your retirement: all that is making you the unique person that you are. You cannot reverse things; you cannot muddle up the order of those things. This is in a way what we call‘cognition’. That is what ‘thinking’ is following a particular sequence, telling you a story, and that story gives you your identity.
Stories are essential for creative insight, because this needs meaning and spatial sequence, so that it would have significance. It enables thinking because you have to have a temporal sequence. It gives you an identity that is a meaning over time. That is why the print and broadcast media are also essential because I thing that what you are in the business of doing ultimately, whether it is a fact or fiction, is you are in the business of telling stories.