As the technology of memorializing dialogue (in stone, no less) came into vogue, Socrates famously admonished Phaedrus
his protegé Plato on its dangers: if people are able to write everything down, their ability to remember what was said will diminish. Plato, being an early version of an early adopter, memorialized the debate, and that is why the apocryphal story is with us today. But even without a grounding in modern neurobiology, Socrates had a valid point: the plasticity of our brains are such that the less we use them for a given function, the more our ability to carry out that function is impaired.
This becomes a tricky issue when thinking about the world in which we live today. In a thoughtful essay over at The Atlantic, Evan Selinger reviews a number of arguments for and against the use of ‘apps’ to make us, as he puts it in his title, a better person. What Evan is particularly concerned with are digital willpower enhancements: the suite of technologies that have been developed to help us do everything from not being distracted by a tweet to refrain from eating more than we would like.
On the one hand, a fairly good argument can be made for the fact that many of us are a bit weak in one or more of these arenas. So, the argument goes, it is better to outsource the work rather than to succumb. After all, apps are really just manifestations of the extended mind, and there is nothing particularly novel or problematic about that. I am pretty partial to that argument, especially insofar as I accept the need for the occasional nudge to help me, and others, achieve goals that are consistent with my second order desires.
Of course, when there is a paragraph that begins ‘on the one hand’, there is always an alternative point of view. In this case, it goes something like this: as Socrates warned us, if we don’t use a particular cognitive domain often enough, it will atrophy. One particularly vexing example is GPS, the ubiquitous navigation system that now populates cars, smartphones, and more. In a worrying set of studies, Veronique Bohbot and her colleagues at McGill have obtained preliminary data indicating that excessive use of a GPS unit may lead to atrophy of the hippocampus, an area of the brain critically involved in both spatial navigation and short-term memory. The inverse of Bohbot’s observations are the well-documented observation that London taxicab drivers who learn “over four years, the complex layout of London’s streets while training to become licensed taxi drivers. In those who qualified, acquisition of an internal spatial representation of London was associated with a selective increase in gray matter (GM) volume in their posterior hippocampi and concomitant changes to their memory profile.”
In many ways, the discussion reprises one facet of the debate over cognitive enhancement, in particular the admonishment regarding the inauthenticity of the achievements one obtains using artificial means. The Calvinist intuition that there is something inherently wrong about getting help to achieve one’s goals may be correct for reasons that were opaque to the Puritans: it is not so much that the effort inherent in character building exorcises our brains as much as it exercises them.
Use it or lose it.
Image credit: Kyle Pitt