[I was really hoping to think of a more clever title for my first blog-post, so apologies for that. Suggestions welcome – maybe something that puns “Synapse” with “Oh snap!”]
I want to address briefly a point that was brought up in today’s discussion first by John, and then by Harmony, that we didn’t really get closure on, but that I think warrants some more dialogue (and I certainly need to work through it a lot more myself to get clear), and that is this:
Can we describe the paradigm shifts in consciousness and brain development involved in the movements from oral to print culture, and from print culture to digital culture, as purely additive processes, or are there potentially also detractive or limiting synaptogenetic consequences, as well?
Or, to simplify (though I think we should be cautious in framing the problem in this way), did the movement to print culture have a negative impact on the development of the speech centers of the brain, and will the shift to digital media have a negative impact on the way people read and write?
First, it should be noted that the problem does not seem to be that engaging with print media would itself have a negative effect on cognition related to speech, but that the ensuing cultural de-emphasis on speech would limit the synaptic growth of those areas of the brain. In other words, it is the absence of the old media, rather than the presence of the new media, that might potentially have a limiting effect on synaptogenesis.
Here Harmony’s point seems valid – that the shift to print media did not entirely replace oral culture. The question is the extent this lack of speech-related input to the brain might have had on synaptic development.
My instinct here is that a significant decrease of synaptogenesis in the speech cognition areas of the brain seems unlikely. Children probably did not speak less, or hear less speech, because of the shift to print culture. Synaptogenesis is most pronounced in children, and decreases as a child matures, learns to read, and generally experiences more directly things like major cultural shifts. While the subtle differences between a child being narrated a story from oral tradition, and a child being read a fairy tale, are not to be overlooked, I am skeptical that that sort of shift would have a pronounced effect on neurological development – but I am by no means an expert.
Likewise, the shift from print to digital culture will certainly be in some ways an additive process (Professor Hayles asserted today that it would likely precipitate a de-emphasis of sequential cognition and an increased ability to process parallel or multiple information streams), but it might potentially limit synaptogenesis – not on account of the new media themselves, but due to the absence of the sort of sensory input involved in print culture.
My instinct here is again a skepticism towards any significant detraction or limiting of synaptogenesis. New media themselves tend to add to and rework print media in more intimate ways than occur in the relation between print and oral media – namely, that many new media so heavily involve text, which, from the perspective of neurological sensory input, is not so different whether on the printed page or on the computer screen. The differences are obviously important, but I am not so sure of their relevance when it comes to a lack of sensory input in children.
So to return to the relevant (and admittedly problematically framed) question, “Will the shift to digital media potentially have a negative impact on the way people read and write?” I think there’s no simple answer. I doubt there will be a direct negative impact on synaptic development in terms of reading and/or writing, but I also freely admit that the consequences to other areas of neurological development will be potentially even more pronounced and certainly more unpredictable. But, again, I’m not firm in this position and am attentive to objections.
A semi-unrelated note I think you’ll all enjoy: on tonight’s 11:00pm Simpsons re-run, the opening blackboard-detention-gag was, “My butt does not deserve its own website.”