Tuesday, July 01, 2003

Is the “Culture of Impatience” Short-Circuiting Our Brains?

The New Brain: How the Modern Age Is Rewiring Your Mind

By: Ian H. Robertson, Ph.D.


I am sitting on a plane that has taken off from Dublin on its way to Heathrow Airport in London. Almost everyone around me is reading (newspapers mostly), as Ireland is a literate society, with one of the highest proportional newspaper readerships in the world. Most of the nonreaders are listening to music or dozing. A photograph on the front page of the Irish Times catches my eye. A row of men, women, and children in Monrovia, Liberia, are standing behind a rope in a sports stadium waiting for food from international aid workers. More than 30,000 people have been living there for weeks, fugitives from social chaos and banditry. Every single person in the picture looks utterly miserable.

I look again at my fellow passengers, who I assume can all read, and then back at the faces in the stadium in Monrovia. I guess that many of those Liberians can read only at a rudimentary level, or not at all. Although literacy does not guarantee civil order and decent government, it is almost certainly a prerequisite for it. Literacy also offers some protection from magical thinking and superstition, and without that protection the people of Liberia cannot generate a stable government.

The great neuropsychologists Alexander Luria and Lev Vygotsky witnessed the ruthless industrialization and collectivization of the peasantry of Russia under Joseph Stalin and the dramatic increase in measured cognitive function that occurred when communities moved from peasant to urban living. This increase was almost certainly an extreme example of what has been shown to be occurring throughout the developed world since the first mass use of intelligence tests by the U.S. Army in World War I— the so-called Flynn effect. Named after the New Zealand sociologist James Flynn, who first identified it, the Flynn effect refers to the progressive rise in intelligence, as measured by standard verbal and nonverbal IQ tests, in Western developed countries over the past century. This rise may have leveled off in the past two decades, but a 30-year-old in 1990 had, on average, a much larger vocabulary, significantly better verbal reasoning skills, and superior visual-spatial problem-solving abilities than an equivalent 30-year-old in 1950.

I glance back at my fellow passengers, most still reading their newspapers, and visualize the slowly spreading connections between their brain cells brought about by the repeated stimulation of their high-level language and cognitive centers, brains that a lifetime’s reading and education have produced. Were we to crash now—the Aer Lingus plane is currently in a holding pattern above a congested Heathrow—investigators might do thorough postmortems on us. If they chose to measure the connections between brain cells in the language areas of the left hemisphere, they would find that the more education each passenger had, the richer would be those connections.

The printed word is one of the greatest artifacts of human civilization, and the cognitive demands of learning to read have had a profound effect on the physical development of the human brain. Reading is the vehicle in which the accumulation of knowledge and mental skills is passed down through the culturally evolving intelligence of a civilization. People who do not learn to read show marked differences in certain aspects of their brain organization—just one example of how experience imprints itself physically on the brain’s web of connected cells.


In his book The New Brain: How the Modern Age Is Rewiring Your Mind, Richard Restak argues that modern society is now sculpting that web of neurons in ways that are mostly negative. The first negative effect of modern life, he argues, is a shortening of our attention span and a culturally induced attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). 

Excessive time pressure and the constant need for multitasking, says Restak, have rewired the modern brain in favor of the ability to do things quickly for short periods, but at the price of developing pathologically short attention spans. The tumult of information hammering at the gates of the sensory system, Restak goes on to argue, “requires profound alterations in our brain.” He further asserts, somewhat disconcertingly, that “such alterations come at a cost—a devaluation of the depth and quality of our relationships.”

As I watch my children negotiating PlayStation games that drive their attention at speeds that leave me bewildered, I often wonder if the capacity for quiet sustained attentiveness required for activities such as reading might atrophy in the way that leg muscles do when they are not used. It is a plausible hypothesis. In fact, a recent article in the journal Science showed how visual attention and perception can be enhanced by repeatedly playing certain kinds of computer games. Although they have not been measured, it is likely that observable changes in brain function underpin these changes in visual skills.

So it is worth considering Restak’s proposal that the modern favoring of the hare over the tortoise has rewired the brain at the expense of tortoise-type faculties like sustained attention. The trouble is that I have not found any evidence for this in the scientific literature. True, the rate of diagnosis of ADHD in the United States is at almost epidemic proportions compared with many other developed countries, but then the medicalization—and consequent medication —of a huge range of other behaviors is also much more prevalent in the United States.


On a recent visit to the United States, I watched a Larry King Live program investigating reported sightings of unidentified flying objects (UFOs). One of the people interviewed was an archaeologist from a respected university who had been employed by a UFO society to investigate one supposed crash site for scientific evidence that any such event had occurred. This articulate, media-friendly man began a brief, lucid explanation of how he was planning to investigate and what evidence he would look for. But before he had spoken more than a few words, Larry King broke in impatiently to say, “Don’t get technical, Professor, tell us what you believe.”

Without the ability—the patience—to sustain attention, it is impossible to assimilate or communicate anything but the simplest of ideas. I have no doubt that Larry King could have maintained his attention for the professor’s explanation, but clearly he thought that his audience (and ratings) would not tolerate it. Demanding that the scientist declare his belief before he even gathered the facts seems to be a result of the culture of impatience that Restak describes in his book. And asking people to short-circuit facts and logic by appeal to their belief leads one down the slippery slope to magical thinking. As I noted with respect to the current Liberian tragedy, magical thinking is not good for civil and democratic society. 

Is a high-speed, information-overloaded, short-attention-span society a threat to our brain-wiring, as Restak asserts? I think that perhaps Restak needs a little more of the archaeologist’s caution and a little less of Larry King’s impatient demand for us to believe. It may be that the high rates of impaired attention diagnosed in the United States are due not to any rewiring of peoples’ brains, but in some cases to impatience on the part of parents and teachers with otherwise normal variations in children’s behavior. Perhaps some adults have not taken the time at home or school to help teach patience to restless kids. Of course, some children with ADHD have a strong genetic propensity for inattentiveness —I study this group scientifically myself— and there may be many more who have no such propensity but whose behavior simply does not fit in with the requirements of the time-pressured society that Restak describes.


The problem with arguing that modern society is physically rewiring our brains is that it often rests on evidence from functional brain-imaging studies. But here lies a dangerous trap.

As I wrote this last paragraph, my thoughts wandered to the conference I am traveling to today in Berlin, via London. This thought evoked a strong visual image of a previous visit to Berlin in winter not long after the Wall had fallen: In my mind’s eye, I saw the white wasteland of Potsdamerplatz and the snow-shrouded bleakness of the probable site of Hitler’s bunker. In order to visualize this scene now, I activated neurons toward the back of my brain’s left hemisphere, in the lateral occipital cortex where visual imagery of this type has been shown (by using fMRI) to be localized. Does this mean I have rewired my brain through creating this visual image? Not in any meaningful sense of the word. The activation cannot be equated with rewiring, as it is simply a reflection of the neural activity underpinning a particular mental event. The activation of the neurons and my experience of the visual image were two sides of the same coin, just two levels of analysis of the same phenomenon, with no implications for rewiring.

I am afraid that at times Restak tends to fall rather spectacularly into the trap of such reification. He argues, for instance, that media violence rewires our brains to make us more prone to aggression. He bases this theory largely on an fMRI study of people thinking aggressive thoughts; that study found decreased activity in the lower surfaces of the frontal lobe, the orbitofrontal cortex. This brain region is known to be important in the inhibition of angry impulses. From this study, Restak concludes that “there is a relationship between watching violent images, thinking about acting violently[,] and subsequent violent behavior.”

Let me suggest an alternative: If someone asks you to think aggressive thoughts while lying in a brain scanner, the only way you can do this with any realism is by lifting the inhibition on the brain’s anger centers that the orbitofrontal cortex typically provides. In other words, just as I imagined snow-covered Berlin through the activity of the neurons in my left hemisphere, so the people imaging aggression may have done so by dampening down the inhibitory activity in their orbitofrontal lobes. In no sense can we conclude from these temporary—and tiny (usually less than 5 percent difference)— changes in neuronal activity that the brain has been “rewired.”

It is plausible, of course, to say that were these people to make a habit of imagining violent acts day after day for years, then their propensity both to feel and to behave aggressively might be increased. That was the inference I made about my fellow newspaper-reading passengers, but I drew on experiments that showed that people who have not learned to read show different patterns of brain activation than people who have, even in non-reading situations such as listening to sounds.

For Restak to support his argument that violent images and imaginings actually do rewire our brain, he would have to find evidence showing that people prone to aggressive imaginings and exposed to violent images show different brain responses to a range of different stimuli than do people who have not been so exposed. Such a study has not yet been done, at least to my knowledge. This experiment would be very difficult to carry out, because people prone to violence for genetic or other reasons very likely seek out more aggressive thoughts and images. For them, viewing violent images might be a consequence, rather than a cause, of their violent propensities.


“Cosmetic psychopharmacology” is the term Restak uses to describe the proliferation of lifestyle drugs to modify thoughts, emotions, and behaviors that were earlier seen as normal variations in human experience and personality. Whether these drugs be mood enhancers such as antidepressants, new types of stay-awake drugs such as modafinil, or memory-enhancing compounds, Restak rightly rings alarm bells about a range of possible unforeseen side effects of what he calls “biobabble.”

Where is the raw authenticity of the human life fully lived through joy and grief, pain, and pleasure, if these states can be chemically short-circuited, he asks? What happens to our free will if we can medicate our deepest emotions and intentions as easily as we can treat our athlete’s foot?

Restak is clearly concerned about the world of cosmetic psychiatry that is almost upon us—indeed, that some would argue is already here. Personally, I would like to take a drug that reverses some of the age-related memory decline that affects nearly everyone. Given that no drug is free of side effects, a cognitive cosmetic would have to be very important to me before I started medicating myself every day. Memory, though, might just be one such exception.

The development of drugs tailored to our genetic profiles is also imminent, which may reduce the side effects of the tools of cosmetic psychiatry. But the brain is a complex ecosystem, and, as in the case of its counterpart on the earth, inducing changes in one part of the system can produce often- unforeseen changes in another. Is it desirable, Restak asks, to chemically dampen the pain of grief, for instance, when that pain is an essential part of the readjustment to the loss of a loved one?


In The New Brain, Restak is rightly worried about the consequences of chemically rewiring the brain. He is also right that civilization has rewired our brains— particularly through the written word. Only time and patient scientific inquiry will tell, however, whether the nonpharmacological technologies of the past 20 years have had any significant effects on our brain wiring.  


From The New Brain: How the Modern Age Is Rewiring Your Mind, by Richard Restak. © 2003 by Richard Restak. Reprinted with permission of St. Martin’s Press.

The absence of the “time to listen” isn’t simply the result of increased workloads (although this certainly plays a role) but from a reorganization of our brains. Sensory overload is the psychological term for the process, but you don’t have to be a psychologist to understand it. Our brain is being forced to manage increasing amounts of information within shorter and shorter time intervals. Since not everyone is capable of making that transition, experiences like my patient’s are becoming increasingly common.

“Don’t tell me anything that is going to take more than 30 seconds for you to get out,” as one of my adult friends with ADD told his wife in response to what he considered her rambling. In fact, she was only taking the time required to explain a complicated matter in appropriate detail. 

“The blistering pace of life today, driven by technology and the business imperative to improve efficiency, is something to behold,” writes David Shenk in his influential book Data Smog. “We often feel life going by much, much faster than we wish, as we are carried forward from meeting to meeting, call to call, errand to errand. We have less time to ourselves, and we are expected to improve our performance and output year after year.” 

Regarding technology’s influence on us, Jacques Barzun, in his best-seller, From Dawn to Decadence, comments, “The machine makes us its captive servants—by its rhythm, by its convenience, by the cost of stopping it or the drawbacks of not using it. As captives we come to resemble it in its pace, rigidity, and uniform expectations” [emphasis added].

Whether you agree that we’re beginning to resemble machines, I’m certain you can readily bring to mind examples of the effect of communication technology on identity and behavior. For instance, cinematography provides us with many of our reference points and a vocabulary for describing and even experiencing our personal reality.

While driving to work in the morning we “fast-forward” a half-hour in our mind to the upcoming office meeting. We reenact in our imagination a series of “scenarios” that could potentially take place. A few minutes later, while entering the garage, we experience a “flashback” of the awkward “scene” that took place during last week’s meeting and “dub in” a more pleasing “take.”

Of course using the vocabulary of the latest technology in conversation isn’t new. Soon after their introduction, railways, telegraphs, and telephone switchboards provided useful metaphors for describing everyday experiences: People spoke of someone “telegraphing” their intentions, or of a person being “plugged in” to the latest fashions.  

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Scientific Advisory Board
Joseph T. Coyle, M.D., Harvard Medical School
Pierre J. Magistretti, M.D., Ph.D., University of Lausanne Medical School and Hospital
Helen Mayberg, M.D., Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai 
Bruce S. McEwen, Ph.D., The Rockefeller University
Donald Price, M.D., The Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine
Charles Zorumski, M.D., Washington University School of Medicine

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