Many of us who are raising children likely have grown accustomed to the trance-like indifference and absent state of mind that our youth can masterfully turn on in a matter of seconds (it looks like an extended lapse in consciousness). We have probably all talked ourselves into thinking these ‘short trips’ are normal. But has anyone wondered why it takes ever-increasing volume and inflection to catch a glimmer of attention or elicit a response from our best genetic contributions to humanity?
I often wonder, ‘Did I look like that when I was young, or is this mental glazing-over the product of our times?’ Many parents of teenagers have seen the amazing trance-like brain states, and it’s difficult to tell if these kids are experiencing transcendental enlightenment or if anyone is really ‘home’.
Experts tell us that, as we reach our teenage years and the struggle for our own identities begins, the major factor causing the young changing brain to make a quantum developmental leap is primarily under the reins of a genetic program. In the adolescent timeline, between raging hormones and the normal progression of brain development, most of the body’s bloodflow and energy is shunted to the emotional centres located in the hindbrain and away from the forebrain. This means we’re prone to react more and think reasonably less – not that we don’t experience any of this in our adult lives as well.
Within the forebrain is the frontal lobe, essentially the brain’s executive, which controls attention, decision-making, emotional reactions, impulsive behaviour, and purposeful planning; it is the home of our identity. But for you parents of teenagers, here’s the interesting news: we’re told that the frontal lobe, which helps us make sense out of life, doesn’t fully finish maturing until we are 25 years old. Think about this: we can drive a car at 16, vote at 18 and drink alcohol at 21 [in the US] – while the brain’s most important centre does not finish forming until we are in our mid-twenties. So don’t take it personally when your teenage daughter tunes you out while you’re intently speaking to her, or your adolescent son impulsively reacts without forethought. It can be seen as evolution’s gift that parents are baptised with the steep karmic debt of their own actions.
As we all know, it is not solely the genes that cast the dice of our destinies. We are, in fact, very capable of learning from different environmental stimuli, and it is through these interactions that we become such amazing creatures of personal development and change. The waltz between nature and nurture gives us a broad playing field – but is it possible that the present cultural and environmental conditions are impacting the very function of the human brain?
Technology changes brain physiology
With the advent of technology, it should be obvious by now that environmental factors like video games, cell phones, text messaging, television, MP3 players, and internet sites such as MySpace.com play an unseen hand in further affecting our children’s brain physiology. Technology is influencing our mind states to escalate in the direction of increasing emotional entropy by hijacking the brain’s natural reward centres. Therefore, if you want to add more insult to injury in a teenage household, just add more technology to a developing brain, and rest assured you will feel totally left out of your children’s lives.
The latest research has proven that a healthy diet decreases violence and aggression while improving brain activity. It also has been observed that the long-term use of video games alters the way the normal brain functions. When a child plays a computer game, each time they blow something or someone to bits, shoot down or destroy a plane, ship, UFO or any vehicle, break through a wall or barrier in order to move to the next level, or beat a character to severe injury, the brain responds chemically. In fact, it is proven that the pleasure centre begins to release high amounts of dopamine, the brain’s natural pleasure chemical.
The bottom line is that dopamine makes us feel good, especially when we’re winning at such a high pace. In addition, when accomplishment is coupled with excitement, the brain produces the adrenalines norepinephrine and epinephrine in order to wake itself up with a boost of heightened awareness. This chemical cocktail is the perfect mix for problems in normal brain function.
To reiterate, this type of computer game stimulation is not so bad for a short run, but begins to cause problems in the long term. As the brain’s reward centre is repeatedly activated and the strong chemicals are released during the gaming, pleasure zones become over-stimulated. As a result, the reward system becomes desensitised and then recalibrates itself to a higher threshold. In other words, it will need more of a chemical rush to produce the same feelings. A side-effect of this mechanism is addiction … and when it is tied to attention and learning, serious effects manifest.
As the brain’s physiology responds to a mind exposed to these abnormal virtual activities (no child blows up people or things in real life), the brain is fooled into thinking it is almost real. Additionally, the continuous release of chemicals on the nerve cells’ receptor sites (the cells’ docking points for chemical information) finally causes the receptors to become desensitised to the same level of the chemical rush. Therefore, the next time a youth engages in the game, it’s a guarantee they will need more of a thrill to excite their brain. It’s like living with a spouse who always yells at you – eventually they need to yell a little louder to get your attention, because over time that intense stimulation is considered normal.
Receptor sites are the same way. If you keep over-activating them, they become numb and require more and more substantial hits. The side-effect: the brain needs unrealistic highs to feel happy and satiated. In the absence of such high-level stimulation, the mind turns off, and your offspring do too.
So when your kid’s computer activity ends, count on your child looking like a drone because you’re probably not all that interesting compared to what he’s just been experiencing. In truth, everything in life will seem boring. Simple things like watching a sunset, playing with the dog or even visiting with a grandparent will seem like trivial nonsense. Why? Because nothing in the normal, mundane world can match the ecstasy of the virtual world or the super high it produces. Sounds like an addiction – and, without proper restraint, future choices may be married to things that produce more heightened stimulation: drugs, pornography, gambling, excess shopping, over-eating … all because the brain’s satiation centre may never be fulfilled.
The gamer in the classroom
Let’s take this scenario one step further. What about when a child, between Gameboy mania and a MySpace chat room, goes to school to develop his mind? Shouldn’t learning be a reward in itself? Attention spans inevitably will shorten for the gamer who sits in the classroom trying to pay attention to a topic that doesn’t turn his brain on or make his body feel alive. As the young brain goes through withdrawal in the classroom, the perfect stimulation might be to cause trouble by acting out.
Getting in trouble causes high adrenal activity and, unconsciously, the child is making the brain turn on again to provoke similar chemical releases as gaming provides. Fidgeting, falling asleep, interruptions, emotional outbursts, provocative and disrespectful comments are all side-effects of attention problems. It isn’t too difficult to reason the etiology in a child with no genetic history of ADD and ADHD, no head injury and no exposure to toxicity.
How do we make necessary changes in the best interest of the young developing mind? It is the parent’s job to think this complexity through to its end. If we propagate the use of technology without an emphasis on developing personal values, providing an environment for skillful learning, practising reverence for all cultures and beliefs, performing daily rituals, participating in family and social activities, exposing our kids to nature, motivating them to exercise, debating philosophy or providing an environment for interpersonal evolution, we can surely predict how well – or how poorly – future generations will thrive on a planet with so much opportunity.
Joe Dispenza, D.C., best known for his role in What the BLEEP Do We Know?!, has authored several scientific articles on the close relationship between brain chemistry, neuroscience and biology, and their roles in physical health including his latest book, Evolve Your Brain: The Science of Changing Your Mind. This article was first published on AZNet News under the title Hijacked by Technology.
Share this post