We tend to believe that we are the first generation having difficulty dealing with speed and complexity of the times, but as long ago as the late 19th century people were complaining that their modern era was overwhelming them. The world was becoming a smaller place thanks to trains and telegraphs, transforming even far flung locales into members of a primitive global village. Information that once took months or years to travel the world now only took weeks, days or even hours.
Yet there is a difference between what seems now like a quieter past and the torrent of information and stimuli that washes over us as citizens of this latest information age, not the least of which is our growing ability to chart their effects. Whether we seek out new information and technologies or not, they are having an impact on us all. The modern world isn’t only forcing changes in our daily lives but it’s also beginning to change how our brains operate. Thanks to modern technology we are able to see these changes and the effects they are having upon us.
That’s the fertile ground that Dr. Richard Restak covers in The New Brain: How the Modern Age is Rewiring Your Mind (Rodale, 228 pages, $23.95). Restak, a well-known writer, neurologist and neuropsychiatrist, explores how we are processing what’s going on around us and how we are responding to it. According to Restak, the ever increasing pace of images and information is rewiring the internal circuitry of our brains with results that are both beneficial and detrimental.
Our brains are capable of constant expansion in terms of new skills and abilities, writes Restak, though it does become more difficult with age. That’s due to the brain’s incredible plasticity, a simple term that describes the complicated process of how it transforms itself. Although the process becomes subtle after we leave our adolescence, the brain never stops changing. As Restak points out in what is an extreme example, many people are capable of prodigy level performance with a musical instrument provided that they willing invest the years of sustained concentration and dedication necessary to master it.
This plasticity can also work against us. The rise in the number of people suffering from ADD/ADHD — youth and adults alike — shows that an increasing number of us are being overwhelmed by stimuli. While some elements of ADD/ADHD are actually a boon in the corporate world, it would be hard to argue that its increasing prevalence is a positive development. And as time becomes more compressed we are forced to deal with more information in less time. Some studies have shown that we may be reaching the limits of how much information we are able to retain with the end result that time becomes less meaningful to us and we become less efficient at our jobs and even our lives.
The New Brain really hits its stride when Restak turns to the field of pharmacology. There is no question that the drugs we have created to treat genuine problems have been a boon to humanity. As an example, thanks to antidepressants, which Restak admits no one truly knows how they work, millions of people are no longer imprisoned in the darkness of depression. Increasingly however psychotropic drugs are being prescribed as “lifestyle drugs” and are being used to treat newly medicalized “conditions” like shyness. Even the definition of depression is being expanded to include people who were previously considered somber or philosophical. We are at danger, Restak argues, of medicating ourselves to the point where we would be incapable of having any feelings.
“Herein lies the conundrum: If we think of ourselves as little more than chemical machines that can be altered by drugs, then what happens to traditional concepts like free will and personal responsibility? While for the most part advances in our understanding of the brain lead to enhancement of, rather than limitations on, our freedom, what will be the overall result if the benefits come at the price of biobabble: people interpreting their experience in chemical terms rather than interpersonal ones?”
There isn’t much that Restak covers in The New Brain that he isn’t able to clearly explain with data and analysis, sometimes based on science and other times clearly reflecting his own beliefs. And although it’s written for laymen, The New Brain doesn’t skimp on the science. Whether it’s the impact that violent imagery and thoughts have on us or the brain’s ability to repair itself, Restak delivers an easily understandable view into a world that is slowly being revealed thanks to new technologies.