Are We Becoming Corona-Bots?
How screen time may impact empathy.
Posted October 28, 2020
I have no doubt that someday we will look back, or better yet, future generations will look back... and reflect on how the world changed in the year 2020. For now, it is like being in the eye of a storm. We are surrounded by the metaphorical deadly gusting winds of unpredictable craziness, yet like a ship tossing around in the ocean’s deep waters, we are unable to see solid ground. Still.
Meanwhile, in a very Darwinian sense, neural-pruning is taking place as we are wired for survival. Much like we trim the dead branches off bushes in the spring, our minds are trimming those neurons we are not using right now to make way for new and much-needed neural connections.
The scary part is that we do not know what this will look like.
One thing we do know for sure is that mirror neurons, often referred to by Dr. Ramachandran as Gandhi neurons as these neurons have shaped civilization for thousands of years, do not work as well through a screen. These are the neurons that teach us how to mimic, communicate, and to care about each other. Mirror neurons are how we learn empathy.
First discovered in monkeys by Giacomo Rizzolatti and Vittorio Gallese, mirror neurons were found to activate a response when we reach for a cookie ourselves and when we witness someone else reaching for a cookie. Basically, these neurons are forming a virtual simulation in one’s mind while observing the behavior of another. The contagious smile is an example of mirror neurons at work, as one smile typically leads to another. The yawn is another one. And when one baby cries in a nursery, this most often leads to a cacophony of infant upset.
Research has repeatedly shown that we do not perceive 2D communication in the same way as we do face-to-face human interaction. Children do not learn as well through a screen. We know this for sure. What is truly frightening is that we are unaware of what long-term screen exposure is doing to their social and emotional development.
For us seasoned folks with fully developed frontal cortices, too much screen time may simply lead us to the fogged-over state of the pandemic brain, in which we are struggling to think and remember. Those under 25 years old, however, are half-baked bread... as this is the approximate age that the prefrontal cortex is fully developed in both genetic males and females. The frontal lobes are also where mirror neurons reside and actively do their job to teach us how to empathize, how to feel what others are feeling.
Especially given the recent increase in our dependence on technology and its role with the hMNS (human Mirror Neuron System), how these changes in spatial, temporal, and social information when delivered through a screen might impact the multisensory integration system may be difficult to predict. Also, screen-based communication, such as Zoom, text messaging, and emailing, has inherent asynchronies, which are likely disruptive and altering our perception in a manner that is inaccurate and incomplete.
For our youth, this has everything do with observational learning, a term first coined by psychologist Albert Bandura to describe his social-cognitive theory of how children learn by watching other human beings. They emulate and mimic the behavior they see.
We are certainly in a conundrum here, as we are also more grateful than ever for technology since the world closed in March, as this is how we have at least been able to maintain some connection and to go forward with life as we once knew it. That said, if we are to prevent becoming a society of non-sentient cyborgs, we will need to come up with a plan, and soon.
This plan will need to include carving out time for getting back to the basics. Taking walks. Playing Monopoly. Baking cookies.
And to unplug the drug.
We need a Tech Time-out.
Simply said, in order to move forward as an empathetic society we'll need to take a step back... and engage in some good, old-fashioned face-to-face interaction. Truth.
Dickerson, K., Gerhardstein, P., & Moser, A. (2017). The role of the human mirror neuron system in supporting communication in a digital world. Frontiers in Psychology,(8) 698. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2017.00698
Marsh, J. (2012). Do mirror neurons give us empathy? Greater Good Magazine. Retrieved from: https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/do_mirror_neurons_give_em…