Some Ethical Implications of the Malleable Mind
What is neuroplasticity? Chapter 2 is largely devoted to explaining two conceptions of the mind- one of fixed rigidity, and one of malleability. Carr gives us insight into the nature of the human mind that has profound (and at times kind of scary) implications…
Neuroplasticity: Ability of the brain to modify its own structure and function following changes within the body or external environment
So in other words: your actions and your thoughts create habits by changing the structure of your brain.
In the digression, Carr brings up the idea that because we don’t have any physical perception of our brains existing, it’s hard to believe that they suffer consequences. The brain seems to be this ethereal thing that exists beyond our control, and we want to believe that’s the truth. But what plasticity means for us is that we have far more accountability for our brains than we think, because we choose our actions, and, to some degree, what we think about, and that affects our wiring. We actually have a degree of control over our thought patterns and feelings. But we typically conceive of these things as beyond our control. Think about it for a second- have you ever been in a difficult situation where you have expressed the sentiment “I can’t help how I feel?” or “That’s just what I believe?”
Neuroplasticity appears to challenge that. Because to some degree, it implies that you can change how you think.
Neuroplasticity is challenging because it has implications for responsibility. We have social obligations to control our behavior, for both our own good and the good of those around us. We’re used the idea that we need to control our actions. But thoughts and reflexes, associations and habits, ultimately control our actions- and we can shape our thoughts and reflexes. So do we have a responsibility to conscientiously engineer how we think? Carr seems to be suggesting that we have to take responsibility for our own minds, if we want to preserve skills and ways of thinking that are replaced by digital adaptation. But what about our duties to others? What can neuroplasticity teach us about social responsibility?
“I’m Not Racist, But…”
You can actually take an association test to see how prejudiced you are.
(Try it! And yes, you probably are a little bit horrible, deep down. Everyone is.)
Would you be surprised to learn that you unconsciously favor one gender or racial group over another? People don’t like to take responsibility for that kind of thinking. They don’t want to admit that they believe detrimental things. When asked whether or not they are racist, sexist or otherwise prejudiced, many take the option to reply otherwise, that they don’t feel that way. Yet when placed in a situation like “who am I afraid of on the sidewalk at night”, your unconscious mind thinks otherwise.
Unconscious bias is a bit like McLuhan’s “watchdog” scenario. Media sneak changes into your brain that you don’t notice. Society sneaks prejudices into your brain that you don’t notice.
Is there evidence of plasticity and learned behaviors in this talk? “That’s my default” (~5:00) sounds a bit like neurological “paths of least resistance” (Carr, pp. 35). According to Vernā, bias is something we’ve been invisibly trained to think. We learn biases and embed them by repeating them over and over again. Sounds like brain circuits that “…want to keep exercising…” (Carr, pp. 34)
Unlike ideological racism, behavior driven by conditioned racism is not necessarily based on conscious beliefs about supposed racial differences. While factors such as skin tone or culture or accent can act as ‘triggers’ for conditioned racism, it is largely our brains’ automated response to anything and anyone perceived as a possible threat or enemy. And our society has insidious ways of teaching us that some people are dangerous, when they are not.
You can discuss neuroplasticity and ethics in a different direction. Unconscious bias is somewhat related to the idea that our societal structure, thoughts and actions can have unintended consequences. In racial bias, our own plastic minds are trained to have unintended, undesired prejudices. Our impressionability makes our brains vulnerable. It would seem true of any detrimental thought pattern.
So our brains are not always predictable. (See the Greenburg quote on pg. 34 of the Shallows.) But what about computers? We’ve been talking about how digital technology shapes us- but how do we shape digital technology? Norman Doidge points out that biological and digital networks are very similar:
“Electronic media are so effective at altering the nervous system because they both work in similar ways and are basically compatible and thus easily linked. Both involve the instantaneous transmission of electric signals to make linkages. Because our nervous system is plastic, it can take advantage of this compatibility and merge with the electronic media, making a single, larger system. Indeed, it is the nature of such systems to merge whether they are biological or man-made.” – Doidge, The Brain that Changes Itself, pp. 311
And keep in mind Carr’s point as well:
“Monkeys, for instance, were taught how to use rakes and pliers to take hold of pieces of food that would otherwise have been out of reach….the rakes and pliers actually came to be incorporated into the brain maps of the animals’ hands. The tools, so far as the animals’ brains were concerned, had become part of their bodies.” – Carr, The Shallows, pp. 32
Some further examples of brain/tool integration:
(A documentary about ‘the singularity’- the fusion of humans with machines. For a particularly interesting example, go to 56:30.)
And of course, more wisdom from McLuhan:
“His first law of media is that all the media are extensions of aspects of man….the computer extends the processing capacities of our central nervous system. He argued that the process of extending our nervous system also alters it.” -Doige, on McLuhan. The Brain that Changes Itself, pp.310
“Now man is beginning to wear his brain outside his skull, and his nerves outside his skin….Today, after more than a century of electric technology, we have extended our central nervous system itself in a global embrace….” McLuhan, quoted in Doige, The Brain that Changes Itself, pp. 311
So the question is, if we can develop intimate relationships with digital systems, based on feedback, can our plasticity manifest in a digital system as well? Carr explains how the brain was once thought to be rigid, fixed, and with each component serving a predictable function, and that computers are generally conceived of the same way. But then, the machine metaphor is broken down for the brain, thanks to the discovery of plasticity- it’s organic and adaptive, and reacts to its environment in ways we do not expect. So could that understanding be incorrect for a computer too?
Essentially what this guy is saying is that we have written code we can no longer control, with effects we cannot predict. And that code is changing its environment to facilitate itself. The technology is a positive feedback loop, just like the “vital paths”. Perhaps we have designed something that is more like ourselves than we realize. We should be responsible for how our technologies behave. Because they ultimately come back to shape us.
Can you think of any situations where your use of digital technology has changed how it behaved? Has your usage had unintended consequences?
Both of these discussions show the changing nature of our mind; your actions have unintended consequences on how you think, and how you think has unintended consequences on your actions. Those consequences are unintended because we aren’t used to the idea of shaping our brains to perform to what we think we believe. We don’t think about the psychological consequences for what we do, feel or experience. We’re not used to paying attention.
And we probably should, because as racial bias and thieving algorithms show us, not all unintended consequences are harmless. As Pascual-Leone says, “…plastic changes may not necessarily represent a behavioral gain for a given subject.” (Carr, pp.34)
We become so addicted to our devices, unknowingly. Just like we become programmed to fear. Our hearts race a when we see the police, and our palms may sweat when we walk down a dark alley with someone of a different racial group. The plasticity that is embedded in us not only changes the way we view the people around us, but also the technologies we have created and unknowingly become so accustomed to. And can’t live without.
So if you recognize a bad thought pattern, how to go about changing it? How do you take advantage of your plasticity to shape your mind for the better?
Have you ever deliberately tried to change how you think? Undo a reflex? Eliminate a bias? Quell an irrational fear?
Vernā has a few strategies in her TED talk, linked earlier.
And so does Jiro.
It’s like Carr says:
“That doesn’t mean that we can’t, with concerted effort, once again redirect our neural signals and rebuild the skills we’ve lost.” (pp.35)
Building neural structures takes work. You can’t unseat a bias in a day. You can’t become a master sushi maker in a day. Changing a “vital path”can be a fairly simple exercise, (see pg. 30 of The Shallows, regarding stroke recovery) but all three of these people iterate that it takes discipline and patience. After all “Plastic does not mean elastic…” (The Shallows, pp.34)
So we leave you with a challenge: identify a thought pattern, an association, a bias- anything that’s been trained into your mind- and see if you can change it. Seek new experience. Imagine what it would be like to feel differently in a given situation. Fire new neurons together. Do it for the rest of the semester and work at it and see what happens. Try engineering your mind.
And the sooner the better, because plasticity doesn’t last uncompromised:
“As we age and plasticity declines, it becomes increasingly difficult for us to change in response to the world, even if we want to. We find familiar types of stimulation pleasurable; we seek out like-minded individuals to associate with, and research shows we tend to ignore or forget, or attempt to discredit, information that does not match our beliefs, or perception of the world, because it is very distressing and difficult to think and perceive in unfamiliar ways. Increasingly, the aging individual acts to preserve the structures within, and when there is a mismatch between his internal neurocognitive structures and the world, he seeks to change the world. In small ways he begins to micromanage his environment, to control it and make it familiar. But this process, writ large, often leads whole cultural groups to try to impose their view of the world on other cultures….” -Doige, The Brain that Changes Itself, on the work of Bruce Wexler (pp. 304-305).
So can you set yourself on a trajectory of thought you might get stuck in? Yikes. If intolerance and colonialism are the product of an inability to neurologically adapt to other people, then teach yourself tolerance, full speed ahead!
Take advantage of your flexible mind. And if you can, bend it into positions that cause more good than harm to those around you, and yourself.
(Did any of you have this poster in a classroom in elementary school? That’s neuroplasticity. Pay attention to your brain.)