Is the digital age killing compassion?

One has to marvel at the megalomania of scientists who slam all of modern culture on the basis of their tiny studies.

Stuart Derbyshire


It has become commonplace to argue that the digital age is making us stupid, unkind and unhealthy (1).

Mark Bauerlein, an English professor at Emory University, is typical of the trend. His snappily titled book, The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future (Or, Don’t Trust Anyone Under 30), has just been released in America. Bauerlein argues that young people today can’t write an academic paper because they have had their capacity for writing killed by blogging and text messages. Writing in the Atlantic, Nicholas Carr argued that he can’t read a book anymore because his brain has been reprogrammed only to accept short pieces of web-based material (2). And here in the UK, Susan Greenfield has made the claim that playing computer games makes kids fat and autistic by changing the workings of their brains (3).

Two scientific publications this month have provided notable grist for the digital-age-makes-you-a-bad-person mill. Thomas W Meeks and Dilip V Jeste published a long review in the Archives of General Psychiatry examining the neurobiology of wisdom, while Antonio Damasio and colleagues published a study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences examining the neurobiology of compassion (4). Both publications have received widespread press coverage describing how science is demonstrating that the digital age is overloading our brains and turning us into bad people (5).

In summary, Meeks and Jeste argue that wisdom requires some suppression of emotional reaction: people who act on impulse are not very wise. It has been known for a long time that the front of the brain (the prefrontal cortex) is intimately involved in regulating and controlling behaviour (6). Broadly speaking, functional imaging experiments suggest that activity in the prefrontal cortex acts as a brake on activity in more emotional parts of the brain. In conversation with journalists (but not mentioned in the Archives paper), Jeste has argued that the way we receive information today undermines the ability of the prefrontal cortex to do its job:

‘Psychosocially positive behaviours such as admiration and indignation are more work for the brain than basic emotions such as pain response. Constant bombardment by outside high-intensity stimuli is not likely to be healthy. It may prevent people from having an opportunity to digest the information, match it with culturally resonant reactions and then execute well-considered behavioural responses.’

Damasio and colleagues draw similar conclusions based on their study of compassion. In short, they scanned people observing and listening to stories involving someone being socially embarrassed or physically harmed. Damasio and colleagues were interested in the different brain activity generated by the compassion for someone in social pain (socially embarrassed) versus the compassion for someone in physical pain. What they found was that activity in the anterior insula, long associated with pain and integrating bodily feelings, peaks more quickly and for a shorter duration during compassion for physical pain than during compassion for social pain.

The authors argue that this finding ‘suggests that emotions about others’ physically painful predicaments co-opt neural mechanisms for personally experienced pain most efficiently and directly, whereas emotions about others’ psychological/moral situations build on these same mechanisms but may operate less efficiently and directly’. They continue: ‘If replicated, this finding could have important implications for the role of culture and education in the development and operation of social and moral systems; in order for emotions about the psychological situations of others to be induced and experienced, additional time may be needed for the introspective processing of culturally shaped social knowledge. The rapidity and parallel processing of attention-requiring information, which are the hallmark of the digital age, might reduce the frequency of full experience of such emotions, with potentially negative consequences.’

Although not mentioned directly in the Proceedings paper, press releases from the university hosting the study have suggested the fast pace of information flowing through Twitter, Facebook, MySpace and so on is undermining the brain’s capacity for compassion. Damasio himself commented that we need to slow the world down: ‘I’m worried about what is happening in the abrupt juxtapositions that you find, for example, in the news. Perhaps all we can say is, “not so fast”.’

It is difficult to exaggerate the immense gap between the rhetoric and reality of these studies in particular and the profound megalomania that neuroscience in general creates. Meeks and Jeste admit in their paper that they do not have an adequate definition of ‘wisdom’ and that their neurobiological model is speculative. These limitations are pretty severe. While it is true that wisdom probably requires some suppression of emotion it is also true that wisdom requires a bit of emotional punch. Choices can be many, and time is short, so taking an emotional shortcut to a faster conclusion is often wise. The importance of emotional processes to reason was, ironically enough, emphasised by Damasio over a decade ago (7).

There is no doubt that what we are as beings is intimately tied to the brain between our ears. So when neuroscientists talk of the prefrontal cortex having a role in regulating behaviour, they are bound to be correct. It is the equivalent of anatomists talking of the legs having a role in walking. In both cases there is an association of physical anatomy with function but in both cases the physical anatomy is inadequate to explain the function. We are able to walk because we have legs, but the reason we walk is to get somewhere: we do not walk because we have legs. Similarly with the brain, we are able to regulate our behaviour because we have a prefrontal cortex, but the reason we regulate our behaviour is because we have goals, ambitions and desires that require behavioural regulation. Those goals, ambitions and desires are the product of our personal histories within a specific cultural context mediated through our physical bodies including our brains. But those goals, ambitions and desires are not the product of the brain directly.

In many ways, the Damasio paper is even more egregious. Here the authors pick on a small and esoteric difference to justify efforts to change culture and education. Damasio and colleagues measured blood flow in the brain while someone heard about a physically painful event and noted that the flow peaked around six seconds. In contrast, hearing about a socially painful event resulted in a peak around 12 seconds. I’m not sure a six-second difference in a single part of the brain recorded from 13 people really justifies closing down news services and reorganising education.

Moreover, the peak response to social pain at six seconds was already 75 per cent of the peak response to physical pain. So Damasio and colleagues are calling for a reorgansition of education and culture, and fretting about the effects of the digital age, based on a 25 per cent catch-up in blood flow over a mere six seconds to a single brain region. We can only marvel at the arrogance and megalomania induced by functional brain imaging.

In reality, the cultural script has already been written. It is accepted that the digital age is clearly making kids stupid but is also isolating adults from one another and making us all more mad, bad and stupid. Neuroscience is not being used to generate these concerns but is being wheeled in to support an already foregone conclusion. Such a charade is, of course, mad, bad and stupid, and only serves to avoid addressing real problems we might be facing.

If there is a problem with information overload it is down to an abundance of information without meaning. It’s hard to sift through the 24-hour news cycle because it doesn’t mean very much. Earthquakes, wars, terrorism and so forth bleed into one another because clear distinctions are not drawn and understanding is not apparent. Such a situation possibly does make it harder for young people to write essays, journalists to read books and for everyone to find the appropriate level of compassion. But this is the result of a political and cultural problem much more profound than an abundance of digital material.

Stuart Derbyshire is senior lecturer in psychology at the University of Birmingham, England.

Previously on spiked

Stuart Derbyshire said we’re no slaves to our senses and argued, along with Anand Raja, that we are not driven by cavemen instincts. Raymond Tallis said free will is not an illusion. Martyn Perks called ‘nudging’ the very antithesis of choice. Or read more at spiked issue Science and technology.

(1) See, for example: Is Google Making us Stupid?, Nicholas Carr, the Atlantic, July/August 2008; Warning: brain overload, John Naish, The Times (London), 2 June, 2009; 24-hour news streams and constant Twitter updates causing brain overload, Emma Barnett, Telegraph, 2 June 2009; How the Twitter age of rolling information has ‘robbed fans of compassion’, David Derbyshire, Daily Mail, 3 June 2009; Greenfield: computer games will make you fat, Andrew Steele, Cherwell, 21 May 2009

(2) Is Google Making us Stupid?, Nicholas Carr, the Atlantic, July/August 2008

(3) Greenfield: computer games will make you fat, Andrew Steele, Cherwell, 21 May 2009

(4) ‘Neurobiology of Wisdom: A Literature Overview’, by TW Meeks and DV Jeste in Archives of General Psychiatry 66: 355-365, 2009; ‘Neural correlates of admiration and compassion’, by MH Immordino-Yanga, A McColla, H Damasio, A Damasio in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 106: 8021-8026, 2009

(5) See Warning: brain overload, John Naish, The Times (London), 2 June, 2009; 24-hour news streams and constant Twitter updates causing brain overload, Emma Barnett, Telegraph, 2 June 2009; How the Twitter age of rolling information has ‘robbed fans of compassion’, David Derbyshire, Daily Mail, 3 June 2009

(6) ‘Attention to action: willed and automatic control of behaviour’, by DA Norman and T Shallice in Conciousness and Self Regulation: Advances in Theory and Research 4, Academic Press, 1986

(7) Descartes’ Error: Emotion, Reason, and the Human Brain, by A Damasio, Putnam Publishing, 1994

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.



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