Is Technology changing Evolution Paradigm?
(Topic presented as part of Tedx Nagpur event: http://TEDxNagpur.in)
Today, we are experiencing the biggest revolution in the history of huankind due to digital technologies. In last 25 years, the advances since the internet revolution have been humongous. Every aspect of our living existence is connected to the cloud! Right from our location, homes, workplaces, cars and so on. Self-driving cars, connected cars via apps is a reality. It is estimated that 10M self-diving cars will be on road by 2020. Human race is bracing for colonizing planet Mars as early as 2024! Elon Musk, CEO of SpaceX has famously said,
Closure home, In India, our government is becoming tech-savvy and servicing citizens via social media channels. Indian Railway Minister, Suresh Prabhu and External Affairs Minister, Sushma Swaraj are extremely active on twitter and reaching out to citizens in need. It is really amazing that social technology has eliminated all barriers of communication across thousands of miles!
Due to these advances in communication, automobiles, healthcare, manufacturing, big data, artificial intelligence, and so on, human race is the most empowered, connected and progressive species on the planet!
But let’s take a step back and introspect, is technology changing the very fabric of human behavior or development?
Let’s ask some basic questions to ourselves:
- How many of us check the mobile first thing in the morning?
- How many of us hit Google Search at the first instant of any task before even thinking a second?
- How many of us can remember at least 20–30 phone numbers without looking at contacts in our mobile?
- How many times we enjoy the beauty of nature before clicking countless number of photos or selfies?
Now, let’s rewind 10–15 years back …Were we always connected or dependent on technology this much?
And then, rewind some more…
Brief overview of human evolution
Let’s go back in time … almost 250 million years ago, when the Homo species or our ancestor evolved from apes. For almost 200 millions of years, various Homo species were foragers or hunter-gatherers using tools made from stones.
Then something interesting happened in their brains ~70,000 years ago. A cognitive evolution of our ancestors, Homo sapiens started and went on for thousands of years. They developed languages and expressions, and started using it for community connections which in-turn created social structures, villages, and bands of Homo sapiens. Ability to think and imagine things progressed so much that they started creating myths…myths about a guardian angel, or god, or ghost or religious beliefs. These myths or common beliefs and shared understanding united the Homo sapiens bands together and they started venturing out of Africa to Europe, Asia, Australia and finally America ~15K years ago.
Around same time i.e. 10–12K years ago, agriculture revolution happened. Sapiens domesticated crops and started producing them in quantity. This created more homogeneous structure of agriculture community around lands. Eventually human mind’s ability to keep track of lands, quantity of crop, taxes etc. was overused. Writing was invented to keep track of this inventory, ~4–5K years ago in Mesopotamia in middle east. Along with writing, came reading and that triggered another cognitive change in our brains.Reading does not come naturally to our brains like speaking; its a practiced habit where we look at various orders of symbols, decipher their meaning from our known memory, link it to our language and understand the meaning. All of this requires concentration and focus! That’s where humans started deep thinking.
Human beings learned and internalized habits over the period of very very long time…
Most important point here is — these changes are part of evolution and not revolution. Our brains slowly developed the ability to learn, adapt, internalize habits and invent some more.
From evolution perspective, the most primitive structure in our brains which is responsible for creating habits, called Basal ganglia is located at the stem of our brain. This part is responsible for automation of our habits e.g. you perform n number of tasks with different parts of your body while reversing your car every morning. Your hands, legs, eyes — all action are coordinated so well that you do this almost automatically without thinking. That’s because you basal ganglia has automated the habit of driving and your conscious mind spends very little energy on that decision making and spends more on new innovative stuff / thinking.
Habits are linked to cravings
When we form habits, we also form loops of craving for something. E.g. your brain creates the craving for tannin or caffeine that you get from the first cup of tea in morning! Upon drinking it, it releases a chemical called Dopamine which gives you ahigh! The habit of checking FB update constantly has its root in this kind of craving. Craving for comments on your update, likes on your photos, seeing your friends’ update, reading new stuff and so on. And upon its satisfaction, brain releases Dopamine, which gives a high! Dopamine is triggered by the buildup of anticipation and rewards. Constant barrage of FB updates, emails, tweets, Instagram feeds — everything creates craving at speed and our neural paths are changing in this high speed information highway!
Is sky the only limit for data?
90% of world’s information was created in last 2 years. 2.5 Quintilian amount of data gets created everyday on social media. And how much data can our brain keep? Well, this is still debated in neuroscience — depending on billion number of neuron in our brains. Checking status updates also means updating our memory database. On an average, users unlocks the phone 80 to 110 times a day. So if you are awake for 16–17 hours in a day, you are unlocking your phone almost 5–6 times every hour to check these update and assimilate data!
Anything in excess has side effects!
This constant barrage of information and connections is resulting in negative behaviors. Researchers at the University of Pittsburgh, School of Medicine recently conducted a study about the effects of social media habits on the moods of users. The research determined that the more time young adults use social media, the more likely they are to be depressed.
Another experiment was conducted by University of Maryland, on 125 student volunteers. They were deprived of any access to text, emails, fb, twitter for merely 24 hours and they showed withdrawal symptoms and comparable to addicts trying to quit smoking or drugs.
In 2011 study by University College London, a strong correlation was found between the number of Facebook connections and the amount of gray matter, or brain tissue responsible for processing signals. More grey matter in certain areas could mean increased competence, but in certain other areas of brain could also mean lot of distraction. And the problem is that neuroscientist are not sure where such increase in grey matter would leads to…
Many People have started complaining about inability to read books or concentrate on tasks for more than few minutes. Our brain is now so used to skim through snippets of various pockets of information, it’s becoming a real challenge to stay on course and read books.
But the bigger problem is — we are losing our ability to focus, concentrate and think?
Is our originality going away? Is our thinking muscle getting ‘atrophied’?
Try writing an essay without looking up for any reference on Google. Did we use Google when we wrote essays during our school days? Ok, if not essay, write 10 new innovative of any subject of your interest. You will be surprised how easily you will run out of ideas and may not be able to come up with something original. And do this every day. With some attempt and training, your brain muscles will start forming new neural pathways and you may start finding it little bit easy to write again. That’s is called plasticity of brain. Human brain is a learning muscle. And like any muscle in body, it follows the rule of “use it or lose it”. If you don’t use a muscle, it goes in the stage of atrophy.
That is exactly what mass overload of information or infomania might be doing to our brain. We are consuming relentless amount of information that we don’t need for no reason, and we are tuning ourselves in dumb terminal. Even the feeds on Facebook are curated to the pattern of our consumption. So we may not be seeing the other side of those stories. For a healthy mind, we must see both side of arguments. If social media starts dictating what we should consume, we are making ourselves dumb!
Use it or lose it!
In the context of evolution, we lost tail, we lost too many hair on our body since we did not use it anymore. That is how our biology works! Use it or lose it!!
So what will we lose in this age of technology? We may lose our idea or innovation muscle. The very muscle that created this technology revolution may soon be atrophied. And it will have profound impact on future generations.
Exercise your idea muscle
Obviously, I am not anti-technology. I actively consume social media and contribute to it as well. But I am being very selective in what I am consuming. What matters is — we chose quality over quantity. And we also contribute not just consume anything and everything dumbly! That way, we will practice our brain muscle in creating something original.
And it is important to follow as well as inculcate certain principles in our kids too. E.g. appreciating things in its originally form than just virtual one. It is important to unplug, detox and be little more human again.
Otherwise following is inevitable!
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