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Zombies or Cyborgs: Is Facebook Eating Your Brain?

In this talk, I review recent findings in neuroplasticity as well as basic methods for measuring functional and structural plasticity in the human brain. I apply insights from these findings to debate concerning the neurocognitive impact of our rising uses of social media networks. This talk reviews my ongoing empirical research in this area and ultimately suggest that we can reject the 'zombies' in favor of the adaptive social cyborg view of mind.

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Zombies or Cyborgs: Is Facebook Eating Your Brain?

  1. 1. ZOMBIES OR CYBORGS: Is Facebook eating your brain? Micah Allen PhD Student @
  2. 2. VS
  3. 4. OUTLINE OF THE TALK <ul><li>Neurocognitive Plasticity and Research Methods. </li></ul><ul><li>What’s a Cyborg? </li></ul><ul><li>Testing the Hypothesis. </li></ul>
  5. 6. POSSIBILITIES AND LIMITATIONS Brain Plasticity in the Human Neocortex
  6. 7. MANY KINDS OF PLASTICITY <ul><li>Structural </li></ul><ul><ul><li>Local Connectivity </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>Cellular Growth </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>Global Connectivity </li></ul></ul><ul><li>Functional </li></ul><ul><ul><li>Local activation </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>Global Connectivity </li></ul></ul>
  8. 9. STRUCTURAL PLASTICITY AT BOTH ENDS <ul><li>“ Depending on whether the population of boutons is homogeneous or not, the amount of bouton turnover (7% per week) has different implications for the stability of the synaptic connection network. If all boutons have the same replacement probability per unit time, synaptic connectivity would become largely remodeled after about 14 weeks.” </li></ul>Stettler et al. Axons and synaptic boutons are highly dynamic in adult visual cortex. Neuron (2006) vol. 49 (6) pp. 877-87
  9. 10. STRUCTURAL PLASTICITY IN DEVELOPMENT Gogtay et al. Dynamic mapping of human cortical development during childhood through early adulthood. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA (2004) vol. 101 (21) pp. 8174-9
  11. 12. MEASURING STRUCTURAL PLASTICITY IN THE HUMAN BRAIN <ul><li>Voxel-Based Morpometry (VBM). </li></ul><ul><ul><li>Strengths: Easy to implement, analyze. </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>Weaknesses: No way to differentiate axons, dendrites, somas, blood vessels etc. Still unverified ‘what’ it is you are measuring. </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>Method: T1-weighted high-resolution brain images are segmented into ‘gray matter’ </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>(dendrites, somas, axon boutons) and ‘white matter’ (axonal tracts). </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>Statistical differences between or within groups or time points can be calculated and co-varied with behavioral, cognitive, and demographic measures. </li></ul></ul>
  12. 13. RECIPE FOR VBM <ul><li>An example VBM experiment: </li></ul><ul><ul><li>Brain atrophy in Schizophrenia </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><ul><li>First, get two groups with and without (at least 20 in each group). </li></ul></ul></ul><ul><ul><ul><li>Scan each for roughly 12 minutes </li></ul></ul></ul><ul><ul><ul><li>Split scans into WM and GM, then collapse each individual’s participants into an ‘average group brain’ (preprocessing). </li></ul></ul></ul><ul><ul><ul><li>Calculate significant group differences in density </li></ul></ul></ul><ul><ul><ul><li>Voilà! </li></ul></ul></ul>Bonus points: enter scores on symptom inventory or attention task. See if this explains any of your density variance.
  13. 14. VBM AND ADULT BRAINS <ul><li>How plastic is the adult brain? VBM has been used to successfully find (+)alterations in the follow situations: </li></ul><ul><ul><li>London Taxi Drivers vs Bus Drivers </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>Little girls learning to play Tetris </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>Tibetan Monks and Beginner Buddhists </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>Medical School Students </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>CBT recipients in a variety of pathologies. </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>Dental implantees </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>And many more! </li></ul></ul>
  14. 15. FUNCTIONAL PLASTICITY: BLOBS AHOY! <ul><li>Similar in concept to VBM </li></ul><ul><li>Widely established method, a contrast between a cognitive task and some baseline. </li></ul><ul><li>Ideally, a ‘factorial design’. This lets you examine the effects of two primary elements (e.g. familiarity, emotion) of your stimuli (faces) and their interaction. </li></ul>Baseline: Scrambled Images, etc Negative Emotion Positive Emotion Low Familiarity High Familiarity
  15. 16. FUNCTIONAL CONNECTIVITY <ul><li>Inferences from fMRI data regarding correlations or causal relationships between activity in different regions </li></ul><ul><li>Stress Example: </li></ul><ul><ul><li>Subjects undergo stressful face-processing stimuli for 15 minutes, followed by 15 minutes of rest. </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>Correlate activity in one voxel (amygdala) to whole brain or regions-of-interest. </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>Reveals areas of brain that activate whenever seed region activates </li></ul></ul>
  16. 17. SUMMARY <ul><li>MRI can be used to measure changes in local structure and function, as well as more global patterns. </li></ul><ul><ul><li>Interpretation of these data made much easier when used in coordination with behavioral, cognitive, demographic, or other extra-scanning parameters. </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>Many possibilities, but also limitations. Experiments are difficult to control and findings can be unreliable. </li></ul></ul><ul><li>A good brain study should not just attempt to say ‘we found the x area’ but should attempt to give some causal or mechanism-based interpretation of findings. </li></ul><ul><ul><li>World-Brain vs World-Brain-World or Brain-World-Brain? </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>Strong hypothesis make good experiments! </li></ul></ul>
  17. 18. ZOMBIES AND CYBORGS What’s a Cyborg? Micah Allen PhD Student @
  18. 19. MEET THE ZOMBIES <ul><li>“ [Social networking sites] are devoid of cohesive narrative and long-term significance. As a consequence, the mid-21st century mind might almost be infantilized, characterized by short attention spans, sensationalism, inability to empathize and a shaky sense of identity”. -The Baroness Greenfield </li></ul><ul><li>“ Their thoughts and actions feel scripted, as if they’re following the steps of an algorithm. In the world of 2001 , people have become so machinelike that the most human character turns out to be a machine. That’s the essence of Kubrick’s dark prophecy: as we come to rely on computers to mediate our understanding of the world, it is our own intelligence that flattens into artificial intelligence.” </li></ul><ul><ul><li>-Nicolas Carr, Is the Internet Making us Stupid? </li></ul></ul><ul><li>“ The hive mind is for the most part stupid and boring. Why pay attention to it?” </li></ul><ul><ul><li>-Jason Lanier, DIGITAL MAOISM: The Hazards of the New Online Collectivism </li></ul></ul>
  19. 20. BRAAAAIIINNSSS….. “ A study by the Broadcaster Audience Research Board found teenagers now spend seven-and-a-half hours a day in front of a screen. Educational psychologist Jane Healy believes children should be kept away from computer games until they are seven. Most games only trigger the 'flight or fight' region of the brain, rather than the vital areas responsible for reasoning. Sue Palmer, author of Toxic Childhood, said: 'We are seeing children's brain development damaged because they don't engage in the activity they have engaged in for millennia.” -Daily Mail
  20. 21. CYBORGS? <ul><li>Tool use as cognition </li></ul><ul><li>Enabled by high plasticity </li></ul><ul><li>Words as tools for thought </li></ul><ul><li>Conditions for a Cyborg </li></ul><ul><ul><ul><li>Ease of use </li></ul></ul></ul><ul><ul><ul><li>Transparency </li></ul></ul></ul><ul><ul><ul><li>Epistemic Trust </li></ul></ul></ul><ul><ul><ul><li>Parity: if it were implemented in the brain, would loss of the ‘tool’ constitute a loss of function? </li></ul></ul></ul>Bottom line: language, wrist watches, novels, printing presses and the internet have all contributed substantially to what we ‘are’ as a cognitive system. There is no going back- it’s up to us to determine value and direction.
  25. 26. SOCIAL TOOLS
  26. 27. POTENCY AND MODE <ul><li>Density </li></ul><ul><li>Temporality </li></ul><ul><li>Control </li></ul><ul><li>Self-Relevance </li></ul><ul><li>Aggregation </li></ul><ul><li>Self Stimulation with Social Stimuli! </li></ul>
  27. 28. A POTENT NEURAL AND CULTURAL STIMULANT? <ul><li>Massive adoption worldwide (about 350 million on FB alone) </li></ul><ul><li>89% increase in Facebook alone this year </li></ul><ul><li>People who use the Internet for personal reasons at work are about 9 percent more productive that those who do not (Coker, 2009). </li></ul><ul><li>The Self Disclosure Hypothesis </li></ul><ul><ul><li>Kraut (2002); Bessiere et al (2007); Valkenburg & peter (2997), </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><ul><li>Longitudinal studies demonstrate Internet use improves “social connectedness and well being” when used to maintain existing friendships. </li></ul></ul></ul>
  28. 29. SELF-DISCLOSURE AND COMPUTER MEDIATED COMMUNICATION <ul><li>More intimate self-disclosures when online (Tidwell & Walther, 2002; Valkenburg & Peter, in press). </li></ul><ul><li>IRL SD </li></ul><ul><ul><ul><li>Berndt, 2002 – Improves closeness and quality of friendships </li></ul></ul></ul><ul><ul><ul><li>Viewed as vital in high quality friendships (Buhrmester & Pragei, 1995) </li></ul></ul></ul><ul><ul><ul><li>Why? One theory – Walther’s “Hyperpersonal Communication Theory” </li></ul></ul></ul><ul><ul><ul><li>-Reduced visual, auditory, and social context (authority stimuli) leads to less concern for others perceptions, lower inhibitions, greater disclosure. </li></ul></ul></ul>
  29. 30. USING FACEBOOK TO INCREASE CONNECTIVITY <ul><li>Joinson (2008) </li></ul><ul><ul><li>Top uses of FB: Social connection, shared identities, virtual people watching </li></ul></ul><ul><li>Lampe et al (2007; 2009) </li></ul><ul><ul><li>Intensity of usage correlates with social capitol and absence of loneliness </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>Facebook typically used for ‘social searching’ rather than ‘social browsing’ </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>Facebook as ‘social environment’ (Stafford et al, 2004) </li></ul></ul>
  30. 31. REJECTING THE ZOMBIES <ul><li>SNS and blogging may actually increase literacy </li></ul><ul><li>SNS use does not correlate with decreases in grades </li></ul><ul><li>Users do not typically use SNTs as a replacement for social interaction. </li></ul><ul><li>We’re already cyborgs! The printing press may have made the soliloquy less popular, but it didn’t reduce our ability to quote or understand Shakespeare! </li></ul><ul><li>Many uses of SNS. Probably unique neural correlates for each profile. </li></ul><ul><li>What theory cannot answer: what’s actually going on in there! </li></ul>
  31. 32. SUMMARY <ul><li>Facebook is a powerful social stimulant with many opportunities to reshape social cognition. </li></ul><ul><li>Social Networking Sites only one small aspect of our cyborg hybridization. </li></ul><ul><li>Potency of SNS usage and ubiquitous nature of distributed social cognition raise empirical questions for culture, consciousness, and cognition </li></ul><ul><li>Let’s do some experiments! </li></ul>
  32. 33. EXPERIMENT 1- ALTERATIONS IN TOM <ul><li>Does extensive Facebook use constitute social narrative or ToM ‘exercise’? </li></ul><ul><li>Measure with two tasks: </li></ul><ul><ul><li>Trait-Adjective Judgment Task </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>Perspective Taking/Narrative Mentalizing Task </li></ul></ul>
  34. 35. TAJT: ARE FB FRIENDS REPRESENTED LIKE REAL WORLD FRIENDS? <ul><li>Compare offline and online friends, determine if there is neural equity. Two groups, low and high intensity. </li></ul><ul><li>Issues: Task may not be sensitive enough to discover differences best friends and strangers. </li></ul><ul><li>Possible Solution: Use a standard TAJT to determine alterations in self-related processing (i.e. more or less self-related activity) in conjunction with more precise ‘other’ task. </li></ul>Familiarity -FB +FB -IRL Bill Clinton Penpal +IRL Supervisor Girlfriend
  36. 37. MANY PARADIGMS, WHAT’S THE QUESTION? <ul><li>Short list of possible paradigms: </li></ul><ul><ul><li>Mind is in the eyes </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>Intentional stories </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>Spontaneous mentalizing </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>Short comics depicting intentional happenings </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>TAJTs </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>Moral reasoning </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>‘ Like me’ </li></ul></ul><ul><li>Does SNS use: </li></ul><ul><ul><li>Alter in/group out/group phenomenon </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>Alter self/other representation </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>Increases ToM sensitivity </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>Generalize to ToM for strangers, or alter non-specific social cognitive abilities </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>Influence totally distinct tasks- mirror neuron system and motor simulation </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>Enhance perspective taking or empathy </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>Any of these- general vs specific? </li></ul></ul>
  37. 38. KEEPING IT CLEAN <ul><li>VBM with Demographic and Cognitive Probes </li></ul>Infinite possibilities: STROOP, Wisconsin Card Sort, etc
  38. 39. CURRENT WORK <ul><li>Analyzing data from 60 subject fMRI scan </li></ul><ul><ul><li>2 social cognitive tasks and two analytic reasoning tasks </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>Extensive Default Mode Network data </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>Internet Usage and Social Capitol Questionnaires. </li></ul></ul><ul><li>Clarifying ‘extended social cognition’ </li></ul><ul><li>Identifying future studies </li></ul>
  39. 40. THANK YOU! Thanks to: Andreas Roepstorff, Antoine Lutz, Peter Vestergaard Interacting Minds and the Danish Center for Functionally Integrative Neuroscience Yishay Mor and the LKL Contact: [email_address] Twitter: @neuroconscience URL: Slides available at: