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Technology “Does“ Us

Birds build their nests instinctively and many animals “know” how to hunt or find food, but human beings have a very simple set of instincts, such as those for suction and for grabbing. Everything else comes from a process of learning, which is very much an embodied process. As Alliance for Childhood writes in Fool’s Gold: A Critical Look at Computers in Childhood:

In kindergarten, therefore, an emphasis on play and social skills – not premature pressure to master reading and arithmetic – seems most likely to prepare children for later academic success. Researchers have documented how much young children learn intuitively through their bodies, and how this lays a critical foundation for later conscious comprehension of the world. The child’s first experience of geometric relationships and physics, for example, is literally a visceral one.

A study published in Nature by the University of California at Santa Cruz’s researchers demonstrated that while animals learn a new task involving motor learning, new connections begin to form between brain cells almost immediately and they become consolidated in a permanent way in the brain. We all know that when we learn something involving the body, as in driving a bicycle, this knowledge stays with us.

On the evolutionary route, we first see the muscles appearing, and then motor functions, as consequences of living in a certain habitat, and later the associated neuro-physiological functions. The motor activity acts on the brain which in turn acts back on the body allowing a more perfected action. The opposability of the thumb and the erect position of human beings came millions of years before the further development of the brain. It was the work that altered the brain, and not vice versa, as Engels perceived what has been later confirmed by fossils (see Genesi dell’uomo-industria for a longer explanation in Italian).

The hand especially, with its subtle movements, shaped our nervous systems more than any other motor activity of the body. The “technologies” of body movements and of manual labor shaped and developed our brains since primitive times. In mutual feedback, our brains shaped our tools in growing complexity until we arrived at contemporary tools which interact almost exclusively with our minds.

In an experiment, researchers used magnetic scanners to read the brain activity of taxi drivers while they navigated their way through a virtual simulation of London’s streets. Through functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scanning, they obtained detailed brain images of 20 taxi drivers as they delivered customers to their destinations. Different brain regions were activated as they were planning their routes, spotting familiar landmarks, or thinking about their customers. The BBC article says that:

Their brains even “grow on the job” as they build up detailed information needed to find their way around London’s labyrinth of streets…earlier studies had shown that taxi drivers have a larger hippocampus – a region of the brain that plays an important role in navigation.

Technologies which interact primarily with our minds have an immediate effect on our neurophysiology. Gary Small writes in Ibrain:

Functional MRI studies of young adults ages eighteen to twenty-six years who average fourteen hours a week playing video games have found that computer games depicting violent scenes activate the amygdala. It is perhaps no accident that many autistic individuals, with their small amygdalas and poor eye contact, are almost compulsively drawn to and mesmerized by television, videos, and computer games (p. 73).

The amygdala is an almond-shaped part of the brain located in the temporal region, considered part of the limbic system, where our emotional reactions take place. It modulates our reactions to threats as well. It could be considered a part of the ancient reptile brain, connected to survival, fear, and aggression.

Other experiments demonstrated that only five days of searching with Google by computer-naive subjects were enough to change their neural circuits, in particular, activating the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex. This part of the brain has an important role in our short-term memory and in the integration of sensory and mnemonic information.

Whether we use IT which interact primarily with our minds or mechanical technologies mainly through our bodies, they affect our body/mind even in permanent ways.

In astrological symbolism, the planet Uranus is associated with the hand, with technology, and with the nervous system in its capacity to transmit information. The symbolical–analogical knowledge of Uranus seems to connect all pieces together in a whole. The human nervous system developed from the subtle movements allowed by the human hand, which in turn developed tools and technology.

Technology, even in our hi-tech era, is still something which keeps a connection, though faint, to our hand. The only body movements we do when we use hi-tech tools are by our hands and fingers, through the mouse, the keyboard or a touch screen. Research published in 2009 by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) demonstrated that hand gestures activate the same brain region of language (the inferior frontal and posterior temporal areas), something which any gesticulating Italian can easily agree with.

Ritual gestures (i.e. of the hands) have always been connected with the activation of inner states of the mind. Hinduism’s mudras are a whole discipline of spiritual gestures formed by the hands and fingers. Ancient disciplines such as the tea ceremony or tai-chi which involve many gestures are visible arts as much as an inner development.

The wider neural connections are between the hand and the brain. Handwriting itself, with its subtle and highly personalized movements, can even give a glimpse of our personality through graphology.

What happens when we use technologies which interact almost exclusively with our minds with no or mininal involvement of the body, apart from the obvious cardio-vascular and obesity risks in sitting for a long time in front of a screen?

We’ve seen that even pure IT in terms of searching with Google’s mold our brains, but is the activation of certain areas of the brain the whole story about the potential of human evolution? Can  it be that our cognitive capacities are as much in our brains and nervous systems as much as in every organ and cell of our bodies, and perhaps even beyond our bodies? Consciousness itself cannot be inferred by neuroimaging, much less locate wisdom or ethics.

As a culture, we didn’t investigate what happens when we substitute all manual with mental labor, which tends to have direct contact between our minds and the instrument. For instance, if London’s taxi drivers develop a part of the brain according to their navigational efforts through London’s streets, what happens when we rely on GPS for our navigation? As a personal anecdote, one of my acquaintances drove his car from the south to the north of Italy. When I asked him which route he took and whether he passed one town I named or another, he answered that he didn’t notice because he just followed GPS indications. Is there a possibility the same brain areas atrophy which become developed in taxi drivers?

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