Is the internet making us more intelligent?

cyber_girl.jpgCNET has put the first in a series of articles online about whether new technology is making us more intelligent.

There are several ways of asking the question:

Is the use of new technology shaping our minds and brains so they are better able to process information in all situations ? Essentially this is the ‘technology as a mental gym’ idea.

Alternatively, perhaps technology doesn’t change our basic mental performance at all, but gives us practice solving problems that provides techniques that can be applied more widely. For example, selecting the most appropriate keywords for a web search might involve quickly summarising a topic into some key concepts – something that is useful in everything from day-to-day conversation to public speaking to writing essays.

Another approach is asking whether technology simply makes us pragmatically more intelligent. For example, we can ‘remember’ more because we can offload a lot of the work to personal organisers or we ‘know’ more because we have instant access to the web and Wikipedia.

The CNET article has quotes from technology leaders who, perhaps understandably, plug the benefits of technology. Psychologists also chime in, and conclude that technology itself does nothing except give us useful tools, rather than boost our brains specifically.

The article does raise some interesting questions, however, particularly in light of evidence suggesting that mental ‘exercise’ can prevent cognitive decline in the elderly.

Link to CNET article ‘Intelligence in the Internet age’

Madness in literature

sebastian_faulks.jpgIn light of the new book by novelist Sebastian Faulks that focuses on psychiatry and madness, the BBC have put a piece online about the history of mental disturbance in literature.

Many highly regard authors have been diagnosed with some form of mental illness, not least of whom is Faulks himself, who has been treated for depression in the past.

Other famous examples, such as poet Sylvia Plath and novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky, wrote about their own experiences and played a significant part in de-stigmatising mental distrsss.

Faulks discusses his own experiences and the development of his new novel, entitled Human Traces, in a recent newspaper article.

Link to BBC article ” Literature’s love affair with the mind”
Link to article and interview with Faulks.

Focus on the cerebellum

cerebellum.jpgToday’s featured article on Wikipedia is a fantastic piece on one of the most mysterious areas of the brain – the cerebellum.

There are more connections in the cerebellum than in the whole of the rest of the brain put together, yet it is still not clear what sort of contribution it makes to thought and behaviour.

It is known that it is essential for movement, as damage to this area can produce tremor and other movement disorders – such as a condition called cerebellar ataxia.

Curiously, it also seems to be involved in almost every other form of mental activity.

If you want a reliable way of annoying anyone presenting results from a brain scanning study, put your hand up and ask what the activity in the cerebellum signifies. It almost always occurs, but is very difficult to explain with our current understanding.

The Wikipedia article is a great summary of current knowledge though, and gives an insight into an area where neuroscience is increasingly going to focus its sights as time goes on.

Link to Wikipedia article on the cerebellum.

2005-09-16 Spike activity

Quick links from the past week in mind and brain news:


Survey finds that women are more likely to try bisexuality, particularly in their late teens and early twenties.

Keeping your emotions in check during a distressing event may impair memory for the details.

People who score highly on measures of schizotypy show greater right hemisphere activation, and are branded ‘weird’, ‘odd’, ‘quirky’ and ‘awkward’ by a clumsy write-up.

Science News discusses research on links between brain areas implicated in experiencing pain and the thought of pain.

Older people are less tactful suggests new study.

Physically abused children remain sensitive to even subtle signs of anger and find it hard to ‘relax’ even after the situtation has resolved.

The ‘inchoate’ science of consciousness

brick_head.jpgNeuroscientist Christof Koch manages to write an odd article on consciousness and gets an obscure word into the title of a piece published in The Scientist.

Apparently ‘inchoate’ (I had to look it up) means “partially but not fully in existence”, which pretty much sums up the article.

It starts with a brief overview of the history of consciousness and then gives a few snapshots of recent research projects, all of which seems fine until there’s a strange paragraph on a study of mice who have had their nicotine receptors altered…

While the β2 knockout animals move rapidly through a novel terrain with little exploration, animals in which nicotinic transmission has been restored in the VTA [ventral tegmental area] show more adaptive behavior that, if observed in humans, would be associated with planning and consciousness.

Quite how exploratory behaviour in laboratory mice is ‘associated’ with human consciousness eludes me right now.

As one of the few talking mice in existence, perhaps we should ask Mickey about his conscious experience and extrapolate to his smaller cousins?

Link to article ‘The Inchoate Science of Consciousness’.

The art and expression of mental distress

Ryan_Hooper_image.jpgUK mental health charity Mind challenged their members to express the contradictions of mental turmoil and the self through artwork. The resulting pictures are colourful, diverse and striking.

As the initiators were Mind Cymru, the Welsh branch of the charity, the artwork was exhibited at the National Eisteddfod of Wales, Europe’s oldest cultural festival.

Link to Mind Cymru Art Gallery 2005.

Addicted to food?

can_opened.jpgScience News has an article on studies suggesting increasing links in the brain process involved in drug addiction and obesity, also suggesting that some of the treatments for drug abuse may also be of use in overeating.

When Volkow and her colleagues looked at the brains of 10 obese people, the team found a dopamine-receptor deficiency identical to that in drug addicts. Volkow stresses that obesity seems to be a significantly more complex disorder than drug abuse because many unrelated factors, such as glandular problems, lack of exercise, or a genetic predisposition to storing fat, can lead to weight gain. However, the brains of several of the obese volunteers in Volkow’s study seemed to be telling another story: “These people were compulsively driven to eat as if food were their stimulus of choice,” she says.

More information on the neuroscience of obesity is available in an issue of Nature Neuroscience made available online as an open-access publication.

Link to article ‘Food Fix’.
Link to Nature Neuroscience on ‘Feeding regulation and obesity’.