The unbearable lightness of being digital: How the brain benefits from physical media

I use a TV clip in my Media and Popular Culture class from The Office. It’s a scene in a car with Michael and Dwight on an ill-fated business trip. They’re struggling to interpret the voice from Michael’s GPS navigation system giving them turn-by-turn directions. The result is hilarious:

I use the clip to make a general point that someone’s map of reality is not the actual territory. However, the scene more directly illustrates Marshall McLuhan’s fourth law of media: “Reversal.”

some textThree of the four laws of media (summarized here) are fairly easy to understand and observe. A new medium or technology “extends” some human sense or ability, while it “obsolesces” or pushes aside the old condition, and “retrieves” or recalls some old way of doing something within the new. Voice navigation GPS, for example, extends the visual sense of map reading to the auditory realm (we hear it). While it quite obviously obsolesces physical maps, one could also say it retrieves the idea of a flight navigator (WW2 bomber personnel included a navigator to read the maps and verbally guide the pilot to their target).

The concept of “reversal” has always been the most interesting to me among McLuhan’s tetrad, revealing what are often the unanticipated, negative effects of a medium.

“When pushed to the limits of its potential, the new form will tend to reverse what had been its original characteristics. What is the reversal potential of the new form?” – Marshall and Eric McLuhan, 1988.

The clip from The Office begins to give us some indication of what occurs when there is an overreliance on a single medium of information. Michael clearly ignores placing what he’s hearing in the spatial context around him. He discounts his own sense of sight and drives his car into the lake, over the loud protestations of Dwight who is desperately trying to interpret the GPS voice commands in combination with his visual sense of their surroundings.

What is fascinating is how far these reversal effects may reach with regard to human thought.

In The Glass Cage technology writer Nicholas Carr takes a close look at research into the reversal effects of GPS navigation technology. Carr cites 2013 research from György Buzaki and Edvárd Moser published in Nature Neuroscience that shows evidence for how the same neuronal mechanisms that help us comprehend spatial relationships may also be involved with how our brains process and make “associations among objects, events and other types of factual information.” The researchers speculate that this could constitute the core element in how people form memories.

Carr goes on to cite other research that indicates the deleterious effects of our reliance on GPS navigation are not dissimilar to what occurs with those afflicted with Alzheimer’s disease, where brain deterioration is observable when victims literally forget where they are. Véronique Bohbot, memory researcher from McGill University, argues that people must use it or lose it in terms of their brain’s navigational abilities. “Should the hippocampus begin to atrophy from lack of use in navigation, the result could be a general loss of memory and a growing risk of dementia,” according to Carr’s summation of Bohbot.

“The labors our obliging digital deities would have us see as mere drudgery may turn out to be vital for our fitness, happiness, and well-being.” – Nicholas Carr

With memory formation, and hence learning, clearly at stake, it’s not too much of a leap to see how this impacts another technological extension: the e-reader.

A 2013 article in Scientific American brings forth strong evidence that the act of reading taps into these all-important spatial circuits in the brain:

“Beyond treating individual letters as physical objects, the human brain may also perceive a text in its entirety as a kind of physical landscape. When we read, we construct a mental representation of the text in which meaning is anchored to structure.” – Ferris Jabr

Much like the reversal inherent in GPS voice navigation, reading from an e-reader makes it more difficult to harness and develop these elements of the brain.

“Most screens, e-readers, smartphones and tablets interfere with intuitive navigation of a text and inhibit people from mapping the journey in their minds.” – Ferris Jabr

Research is suggesting that e-reader technology needs to develop further along the lines of cognitive mapping, lest we throw out the new technology altogether. As one of my colleagues mentioned recently, there is no substitute for being able to tap into thousands of book titles when you’re traveling—especially on extended journeys.

Amazon BooksFar from dropping of a cliff, consumer research indicates hard copy books sales are resurgent—so much so that Amazon is dabbling in operating physical book stores. Like the resurgence in music recorded on vinyl records attributed to sound quality and the listening experience, people are responding to the physicality of the printed medium in ways not anticipated, leading to important ramifications for publishers, retailers, technology companies, and most importantly, readers.


Lucy’s Burning Question and the Indispensability of the Liberal Arts

I don’t feel pain, fear, desire. It’s like, all things that make us human are fading away. It’s like, the less human I feel, all this knowledge about everything—quantum physics, applied mathematics, the infinite capacity of the cell’s nucleus—they’re all exploding inside my brain—all this knowledge. I don’t know what to do with it. – Lucy, from the film Lucy, 2014.

LucyScreenScience fiction cinema, on its best day, weaves compelling narratives about science fact in order to question and grapple with the ramifications of human technologies and discoveries. Filmmakers in the genre uses the creative imagination to explore “what if” scenarios fictionally and allow viewers to wrest some wisdom from the stunning new knowledge that has invaded the collective consciousness.

This is the case with Lucy, a 2014 film directed by Luc Besson. The film’s eponymous protagonist gains the ability to unlock her total brain potential from a massive amount of a nootropic drug that is accidentally absorbed into her bloodstream. As Lucy’s brain potential expands far beyond the mythical ten percent limit of the average human, the audience joins her in an exhilarating rush of exponential knowledge gathering. The trailer provides a quick rundown of the plot.

It’s important not to take the dubious neuroscience of Lucy too seriously. It’s Lucy’s question about what to do with “all this knowledge” that is the serious topic Besson is exploring.

Recently an article in The Washington Post by Fareed Zakaria struck a nerve among college professors in the Liberal Arts and Humanities, garnering extensive sharing and discussion on social media. “Why America’s obsession with STEM education is dangerous” was a passionate and reasoned argument for the enduring need for a broad education in the Liberal Arts and Humanities.

Technology alone is not enough — that it’s technology married with liberal arts, married with the humanities, that yields us the result that makes our hearts sing. – Steve Jobs

In his article, Zakaria references technology moguls Jeff Bezos, Mark Zuckerberg and Steve Jobs who have each made statements stressing the need for a Liberal Arts education rich in the Humanities—even over and above STEM fields.

And while these are powerful supports for his argument, one can go back much further to a Canadian literature professor who predicted each technology and the resulting industries Bezos, Zuckerberg and Jobs represent—more than 40 years before those technologies arrived.

some textIt’s not hard to find examples of Marshall McLuhan’s uncannily accurate predictions of the Internet,, Wikipedia and social media. McLuhan observed the twentieth century evolution of electronic technology as a means to move information and communicate at light speed—from the telegraph, to the tabulating mainframe computer, to the television, to global networks. This explosion of human knowledge and connectivity demanded creative thinking to help anticipate and understand how this technology would profoundly affect human culture. In many ways, Lucy’s question drove and inspired him.

Yet his prescience and insight did not emanate from an education confined to STEM fields. McLuhan was an English literature professor. His ability to probe communication and information technology and reach into the future to ascertain their effects was borne from his deep understanding of the humanities. At their core, his prognostications were the product of his inventive imagination, drawing upon a literary mind, extrapolating the role of media and technology in the human narrative.

Writing on this topic in the Cross Check blog for Scientific American, John Horgan, an author and teacher at the Stevens Institute of Technology, discussed the argument he makes to his students for emphasizing the humanities in his science courses:

Science has replaced religion as our main source of answers…. Science has told us a lot about ourselves, and we’re learning more every day. But the humanities remind us that we have an enormous capacity for deluding ourselves. – John Horgan

some textAs Zakaria touches on in his article, the importance of art and culture is coded in the DNA of the computer and Internet revolution. Steve Jobs studied design and typography before dropping out of college and co-founding Apple Computer. He had this to say about computer science and programming in a 1995 interview with Robert X. Cringley:

I think everyone should learn how to program a computer, because it teaches you how to think. I view computer science as a liberal art, something everyone should learn to do. – Steve Jobs

Embedded in Job’s statement is the notion that the Liberal Arts play the linchpin role in teaching one how to think.

For Lucy, this is about asking what to do with “all this knowledge.”

This is the same question that must continually be raised by culture’s poets, writers, filmmakers, artists:

Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge? Where is the knowledge we have lost in information? – T. S. Eliot, The Rock, 1934

Seeking to answer new questions raised by “all this knowledge” demands the cultivation of a prophetic imagination—something only the Humanities and Liberal Arts can bring to the party. They are indispensable companions to STEM in the cultural endeavor.

Consider America’s vast entertainment industry, built around stories, songs, design and creativity. All of this requires skills far beyond the offerings of a narrow STEM curriculum. – Fareed Zakaria

Beyond raising crucial questions, a commercially successful and entertaining film such as Lucy provides a strong argument for the Liberal Arts because it is an artistic product itself—a product that draws heavily upon STEM to serve the narrative. In this case, the art of film, itself, answers the question of what to do with all this knowledge: Create culture.