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October 23, 2011

Technology: Virtue or Vice to Our Brains?


It is undeniable that our daily lives are inundated with technology. Our society and this world work hand in hand with technology on a close, almost dependent level. It is only in the last few decades that we have become so co oriented with technology, and it is becoming a more pressing issue than ever that we question the effects of this change. As humans, who we are is shaped by our experiences, and knowing and acknowledging this fact means we have to question both the pros and cons of such a new and close relationship with technology. When looking at this relationship it is not a question of whether or not humans are being affected by technology but how technology is affecting us.

Technology includes a multitude of different things and cannot be considered one single entity. Because it is so multidimensional it is not necessarily a good or a bad thing; a greater breakdown is necessary to determine potentially harmful technology from proven positive facets of technology. It is verified that technology as a whole has the ability to manipulate mood and arousal. It has also been proven that attention, and vision and motor skills can be enhanced while using technology. These improvements are highly dependent based on the type of technology being used and whether or not there is active or passive interaction.

Television has been around for more than sixty years but it's relevance to everyday lives and learning has never been so great. There are learning benefits to technology but three reoccurring traits have surfaced in accordance with being wired. Studies have shown that people are more likely to be violent, exhibit addictive behavior, and get distracted easier. Once again the context of the technology must be taken in to consideration. Influences of technology are starting at earlier and earlier ages these days. In children the television show Telletubbies, research showed a decrease in language proficiency in children who watched this show. However, there was a language proficiency increase seen in children who watched Dora the Explorer.

These numerous concerns and detrimental findings in research also have a flip side. New research shows indications that playing video games is associated with a number of improvements in attention, cognition, vision, and motor control. Playing video games heightens ability to pinpoint small details in chaotic scenes. Playing video games and improving these skills has shown to help people in careers such as pilots or surgeons.
Part of making technology more beneficial than detrimental is learning how to use it and how to allow it to challenge and improve our brains as opposed to letting it become a route to mindlessness. We are seeing that the attractive features of video games such as emotional context, arousing experiences, and richly structured scenarios are what boost our intellectual brain and educational technology tends to exploit the repetitive nature of practice makes perfect. Making moves to shift educational technology toward the more interactive nature of technology could only improve our relationship with technology. It is difficult to study the ways that technology affects the human brain but considering the growing reliability and interaction humans have with it, research in this field is both necessary and critical to society.

Full article can be found at http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0896627310006781
Posted by      Bethany B. at 9:41 PM MDT
  Joseph Crawford  says:
The post explores technology: virtue or vice to our brains. The article mentions that it is confirmed that technology as a whole has the capability to influence mood and arousal. It has also been verified that concentration, and vision and motor skills can be improved while using technology.

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July 30, 2011

Saying No to the Death Penalty: The Excuses of Adolescence


Most adolescents spend their time going to school. But some adolescents spend their time murdering people.
Most adults spend their time working. But some adults also spend their time murdering people. In many states, these adults are often executed.
So where, and more importantly, with what reasoning, do we draw the line between adolescent and adult? And, especially in cases of murder, what should that line mean?

Usually in cases such as this we want to turn to scientific evidence. But in issues of law it is never that simple.

Although the U.S. Supreme Court has made many rulings regarding the death penalty, there have been two prominent cases regarding juveniles. Thompson vs. Oklahoma (1988) outlawed the death penalty for individuals who were under sixteen when a crime was committed, and Roper vs. Simmons (2005) outlawed the death penalty for individuals who were under eighteen when a crime was committed. With Roper vs. Simmons, the courts finally had some scientific data (although still not completely conclusive) to work with. But the issue of the death penalty is far from over. That ruling was 5-4.

"Crime, Culpability, and the Adolescent Brain" is an article written for "Science" in 2004 by Mary Beckman, just before the Roper vs. Simmons decision was made. It clearly outlines the neurological data compiled to support the case of Christopher Simmons.
Although there is more data relevant to the case now, this article is particularly interesting because we can look at the 2005 ruling that followed.
His case was quite grisly, involving robbing, tying up, and throwing a woman off of a bridge.

The defense presented the argument that the death penalty was cruel and unusual because the defendant's brain was not functionally identical to that of an adult. The article states, "Structurally, the brain is still growing and maturing during adolescence, beginning its final push around 16 or 17" (Beckman, 2004). Neural connections of adulthood are shaped during the teen years, involving a decrease in gray matter and an increase in white matter. Perhaps the most significant data presented was that on frontal lobe maturation. There is an apparent, "wave of brain change moving forward into the front of the brain", seen using MRIs in an NIMH study (Beckman, 2004). This is integral to the case because the frontal lobe is linked to impulse control. Erratic behavior is also more prevalent in adolescents; "the brain switches from relying heavily on local regions in childhood to more distributive and collaborative interactions among distant regions in adulthood" (Beckman, 2004).

Arguments for and against the death penalty always seem to be a muddled combination of personal belief, religion, experience, science, and history. And to complicate the matter, we're talking about some very grisly crimes. In the 2005 opinion, Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote, "The age of 18 is the point where society draws the line for many purposes between childhood and adulthood. It is, we conclude, the age at which the line for death eligibility ought to rest" (Kennedy, 2005). There is no doubt that the scientific evidence presented had an effect on the ruling. But, unfortunately, it is not likely that such evidence will ever provide us with an infallible answer. The 2004 article ends with a quote from neuroscientist Elizabeth Sowell of UCLA, "We couldn't do a scan on a kid and decide if they should be tried as an adult" (Beckman, 2004). Six years later we have more data, but this remains true.

Beckman, Mary. "Crime, Culpability, and the Adolescent Brain." Sciencemag.org. AAAS, 30 July 2004. Web. 30 July 2011. .
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A Clockwork Character: Molding the Mozg


It is not hard to imagine a futuristic dystopian society. Constructing dystopias seems to be one of the main methods by which those of a sci-fi persuasion can offer poignant social commentary. However, some of these dystopias are far more horrific than others. One would be hard pressed to find a dystopia more controversial than the one presented in Stanley Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange (adapted from Anthony Burgess's novel of the same name); watching Alex DeLarge and his small gang of droogs terrorize futuristic Britain with "ultra-violence" is more than enough to make your insides squirm in revulsion. In perhaps the film's most infamous scene, Alex and his droogs beat a man so severely as to cripple him for life, and then proceed to rape his wife - all while happily singing "Singin' in the Rain". And yet there's hope for this futuristic Britain, a way to clean ultra-violence from the streets by rehabilitating those delinquent youths like Alex: an experimental aversion therapy called the Ludovico technique. If you were in charge of such a dystopia as the one depicted in A Clockwork Orange, where the fabric of society was being viciously ripped apart by rampant ultra-violence, wouldn't you be desperate for a way to stop it? And rather than just locking up criminals and social delinquents, wouldn't it be better if you could help those individuals by eradicating their anti-social behavior? Wouldn't this allow your dystopia to rapidly evolve into a utopia?

For those familiar with the film, we know that it's not just the use of ultra-violence that makes the film so controversial. Controversy also lies in the film's social commentary on morality and behavioral psychology, which is far too deep and expansive of a discussion for the scopes of this post. However, A Clockwork Orange does raise an interesting question (in fact, it raises many interesting questions): how close are scientists to understanding human behavior? Are they close enough to know which parts of the brain are responsible for certain behaviors? Are they close enough to actually control behavior?

The answer: yes. Scientists can switch social behaviors on and off as easily as flicking a light switch, at least in mice.

In an effort to understand what causes social-behavior deficits in humans, particularly those with social disorders like autism and schizophrenia, researchers from Stanford University are using pulses of light to toggle social behaviors on and off in mice. Led by Dr. Karl Deisseroth, researchers used optogenetics to test an established yet untested hypothesis about social dysfunction: that "elevation of in the ratio of cortical cellular excitation to inhibition (cellular E/I balance), for example through increased activity in excitatory neurons or reduction in inhibitory neuron function, could give rise to the social and cognitive deficits observed in diseases such as autism" (Yizhar et al, Nature, 2011). So, "when facing social stimulus people with social disorders experience an imbalance wherein too many excitatory nerves fire (or not enough inhibitory nerves fire) resulting in a kind of over-responsiveness" (Dillow, Popular Science). In order to test this theory, scientists used optogenetics to bioengineer excitatory and inhibitory nerve cells in the parts of the brain responsible for social function to fire on command. Specifically, the researchers looked at excitatory and inhibitory nerve cells in the medial prefrontal cortex, which is involved in processes such as planning, execution, personality and social behavior. When compared to normal mice, the experimental mice exhibited no difference in their anxiety levels, their tendency to move around, or their curiosity about new objects. However, the experimental mice whose medial prefrontal cortex excitability had been optogenetically stimulated lost all interest in engaging with other mice. Their social behavior was largely abolished. Further, the brains of these mice showed the same gamma-oscillation pattern that is observed among many autistic and schizophrenic patients, meaning that this study could have implications in getting to the root of the behavior seen in those with social deficits, like those with autism. It's possible that this research could provide valuable information for finding a treatment for behavioral disorders like autism and schizophrenia.

Researchers at CalTech, too, have been altering mouse behavior. They have located the brain's trigger for aggression, a cluster of cells in the ventromedial hypothalamus (VMH), an area that previous studies have associated with sexual behavior. It's not so surprising that aggressive and sexual behavior stem from the same area of the brain (at least, it's not so surprising when considered in the context of A Clockwork Orange); they come from intermingled yet separate clusters of neurons in the VMH. By identifying these clusters of neurons in the VMH, scientists found that aggression is triggered by a specific tangle of neurons, which they could turn on and off in mice by using light (after making the region photosensitive via a process of inserting custom-made viruses carrying a modified piece of DNA into the brain). When the nerve cluster was excited, no matter what they put in the cage with the experimental mouse, the mouse would attack - be it another male mouse, a female mouse, or even a dummy mouse. The opposite also held true; when the nerve cluster was silenced, the experimental mouse was completely non-aggressive, even in the presence of a threatening male. And, because mice have cognitive function and physiology that is quite similar to ours, then perhaps aggression in humans, too, could be toggled on and off like a light switch.

These findings could have quite the positive potential for us humans. Not only does it allow us to better understand our own minds, but it could offer cures for behavioral disorders like autism and schizophrenia. And in the future, who knows? Maybe scientists will discover switches for other behavioral problems as well, such as anxiety or phobias or OCD or ADHD.

And yet, we shouldn't ignore the warnings provided to us through (albeit potentially paranoid) social commentary. Though A Clockwork Orange offers an extreme example of behavioral modification, it is still an example of behavioral modification nonetheless, and a real possibility of what could happen if scientific advancements are taken out of control and used to pursue corrupt political agendas. On what A Clockwork Orange is all about, Kubrick said the following: that it is "a social satire dealing with the question of whether behavioral psychology and psychological conditioning are dangerous new weapons for a totalitarian government to use to impose vast controls on its citizens and turn them into little more than robots." Again, extreme. We shouldn't live in a paranoid static state of fear that every scientific discovery made could lend itself to ultimately crippling humanity in some manner. The pursuit of knowledge should not be hindered by fear or ignorance; finding cures for behavioral disorders like autism and schizophrenia would be ultimately beneficial, and would help many people live better, more fulfilling lives. However, it should always by the obligation of the scientist to make sure that the truths they discover are not somehow corrupted to advance personal agendas, and to make sure that they educate the public as to their discoveries. To combine the words of Francis Bacon and Spider-man: knowledge is power, and with great power comes great responsibility.

http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/vaop/ncurrent/full/nature10360.html
http://www.popsci.com/science/article/2011-07/scientists-switch-social-behaviors-and-mice-shedding-light-human-social-disorders
http://www.popsci.com/science/article/2011-07/caltech-researchers-find-switch-mouse-and-perhaps-human-aggression
Posted by      Caitlin W. at 6:37 PM MDT




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