"Bear in mind that the wonderful things you learn in your schools are the work of many generations, produced by enthusiastic effort and infinite labor in every country of the world. All this is put into your hands as your inheritance in order that you may receive it, honor it, add to it, and one day faithfully hand it to your children. Thus do we mortals achieve immortality in the permanent things which we create in common." - Albert Einstein

Saturday, April 13, 2013

This Is Your Brain and This Is Your Brain on Facebook

In 1987, when I was starting my graduate studies in Chicago, Partnership for a Drug-Free America launched a public service announcement that widely captured the attention of viewers. The message was simply vivid. First, a man holds up an egg and says, "This is your brain". Then the man points to a frying pan and says, "This is drugs". Cracking the egg open and adding it to the hot frying pan, the man says, "This is your brain on drugs," and asks, "Any questions?"

Addiction does alter the structure of the brain. The emerging area of neuroimaging provides an inside look at the brain. It has the advantage of physically characterizing the brain unlike behavioral studies. And with drugs, neuroimaging techniques have been quite useful in helping scientists arrive at a physical and chemical understanding of how addiction affects the brain. Kuss and Griffiths surveyed peer-reviewed published studies on internet addiction that have employed neuroimaging. Application of neuroimaging in this area is still at an infant stage. The review, "Internet and Gaming Addiction: A Systematic Literature Review of Neuroimaging Studies", published in Brain Sciences, found only 18 studies. Although the number of studies is quite small, there are trends worth pointing out:
Overall, the studies indicate that Internet and gaming addiction is associated with both changes in function as well as structure of the brain. Therefore, not only does this behavioral addiction increase the activity in brain regions commonly associated with substance-related addictions, but it appears to lead to neuroadaptation in such a way that the brain itself actually changes as a consequence of excessive engagement with the Internet and gaming.
The above is likewise in line with observations that have been reported by neuropsychiatrist Dr. Gray Small, "Neuroimaging studies have shown teens who text light up the same area of the brain as an addict who uses heroin." (CBS-New York). Excessive text messaging, internet usage, and gaming, although do not involve taking drugs, appear to have the same impact on the brain.

An additional angle on these issues, of course, deals with young children and adolescents. Addiction, behaviorally, is related to a desire for instant gratification. Delaying gratification is part of self-control. Moffitt and coworkers have recently concluded a longitudinal study which followed 1000 individuals from birth to the age of 32 years. The study is published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, "A gradient of childhood self-control predicts health, wealth, and public safety". By measuring self-control through observers, teachers, parents, and self-reports while ensuring that these measures are independent of socio-economic class and intelligence, at ages 3, 5, 7, 9 and 11 this longitudinal study shows very strong correlation between a child's self-control and the following future outcomes: health, wealth, single-parenting, and crime at age 32:

"Children with low self-control had poorer health, more wealth problems, more single-parent child rearing, and more criminal convictions than those with high self-control."
What is also noted in the study is that if a child at a young age has very little self-control, but changes over time;
"...those children who became more self-controlled from childhood to young adulthood had better outcomes by the age of 32 y, even after controlling for their initial levels of childhood self-control."

Now, these changes are only seen in the statistics and are not associated with any experimental intervention. It does show that self-control can be learned. Of course, it can likewise be lost. Addiction is not only an effect of lack of self-control, but it does change the structure of the brain, which leads to changes in function. Seeing that overuse of technology leads to similar changes in structure and function of the brain, it may be time to look at a slightly modified version of the public service announcement:

Photo downloaded from Wikipedia

This is your brain,
This is Facebook,
This is your brain on Facebook.
Any questions?

I just happened to come across excerpts from graduation speeches given by Kabataan partylist representative Raymond Vera Palatino. I would like to add the following quote from Palatino (taken from his speech at the St. Mary’s College–Quezon City Auditorium in 2012):
"Since technology is improving rapidly, we must be ready too in applying the new technology in our lives. How? Back to the basics: reading, writing, arithmetic. In today’s Information Age, it’s easy to learn how to open a laptop and surf the internet. But you must have the skills to filter relevant information from the trash. We should only consume information that matters. We should delete the spam and the unproductive software applications that waste our time and energy. 
Don’t equate research with search. Don’t equate reading with the posting of status updates. Don’t equate writing with texting. So future high school students, go to the library not google and wikipedia. Read a novel or a short story, read the classics of literature – they broaden our horizon and imagination; and sabi nga ng DOT, reading is more fun than stalking your friends on Facebook. Write letters in the traditional way and don’t use texting or even jejemon language in your emails. Why? Because letter writing is a basic skill that you can use when you apply a job, when you request something from the government, and even when you compose a love letter. 
Turn off the computer, TV, PSP, and cellphone from time to time. Play outside your home (with permission from your parents) with your offline friends. You can only acquire social skills if you’re interacting in the real world and not in the virtual world."

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