Monday, April 25, 2011

The Internet and our brain

One of the most important inventions at the end of the 20th has been the Internet. It broadens our environment by giving us entry to a world that before its existence was hardly known to us, and when it was it was difficult for us to reach, at least in practice. This extension of our view is not only passive in the sense that the Internet gives us merely entrance to a world made by others but it is also active because it gives us the possibility to send our own contributions to the world by making our own websites, by blogging, e-mailing, twittering, YouTube and so on. Seen in this way, the Internet looks simply a continuation of things we have always done, especially in the field of communication, but with a wider range. But is the Internet merely more of the same or does it also shape us in some way?
The British neuroscientist Susan Greenfield has pointed out that it is quite well possible that this happens. 50% of our communication with other people, she says, consists of body language and eye contact. Yet another 30% is done by our voice. And the importance of direct body contact like hugging or shaking hands is still unknown. Just such from-person-to-person contacts do not exist when we communicate on the Internet, by Facebook, by chatting or in another virtual way. Then this bodily communication is absent, which does not only limit our assessment of how other people react on us, but which restricts also our own reactions. We do not see whether our words hurt our conversation partner; we do not learn to look into someone’s eyes on the Internet; we do not need to blush when we say something stupid, so Greenfield. This can hardly be without consequences for the persons we are. As the German philosopher Thomas Metzinger points out: in the end practice changes our brain, the way we look at the world. The difference between the structure of the brain and its contents is not as clear as often thought. Meaning can change the brain structure. Conversely, this structure determines how we experience the world. And this is what Greenfield is afraid of: that we can become less empathic; that we do not recognize the suffering we do to others; and in case we do, that we ignore it and shrug our shoulders. It is not only a supposition, for we see it already in the phenomenon of happy slapping: knock someone down, record it with your mobile camera and upload it to YouTube. For fun. Until now it is maybe “not more” than a kind of excess, but, in view of what Metzinger says, who knows whether once, this insensitivity, this lack of  a still normal empathy, will become structured in our brain.

No comments: