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Saturday, June 20, 2009

The Death of the Frontal Lobes

Our frontal lobes are dying.

Well, maybe not really. But they may be suffering. The old quote "rumors of my demise are greatly exaggerated" comes to mind here. But if our frontal lobes have not died they are perhaps in peril.

The prefrontal lobes of our brains contain much, if not most, of what makes us human. Our ability to plan and solve problems. Our ability to initiate a course of action and persevere. Our ability to hold back our emotions when necessary. Our ability to do the hard thing rather than the easy thing. Our ability to notice when we are missing the mark and need to change our course of action to be more effective.

But these are not the types of abilities which are now reinforced in our everyday lives. We often do not read books so much as skim across web pages. We do not make conscious decisions about what will enter our brains so much as clicking the most interesting web page link in front of us.

I know of what I speak, for I too seem to at times become one of the emerging prefrontal lobe brain dead. I can sit down at the computer and encounter lines of email "famspam" (my term for the unending funny pictures, interesting Youtube videos, patriotic Powerpoints, and so on, sent by well meaning family members and friends). Once I have sat in front of the computer, my clicking on links sometimes leads me to forget what I originally intended to do at the computer.

This is a passive approach to the world and to information, and, I am afraid it is leading to a passive approach to life in general. We do not do the hard thing. We seek the easy or the most interesting thing to do with the click of a button. Check our email. Check Twitter. Respond to email. Respond to Twitter. Watch TV, surf the channels.

It is the adult version of what happens when children play video games. We become passive responders. We are responding, but without clear intent, planning, or moral effort. (There is effort in playing a video game, but only of a type.)

Human life needs to be more than passive responding, whether it is to a video game or to Twitter. But it is not just a matter of whether we will seek to do the hard thing. It is also a matter of whether we will be able to do it. Will our prefrontal lobes be there for us and have the necessary complexity and ability to do what does not come easily?

I believe that the proper functioning of the frontal lobes depends on the building up of the neural substrate, that branching of nerve endings which is so marvelously complex in our brains. And I believe that the branching of the nerve cells ("dendrite arbors") can only occur when we use our prefrontal lobes.

Why are we in this position? Were our forebears morally superior "Giant Brains" and we are only "Tiny Brains?" (I am alluding here to the movie "Defending Your Life." If you haven't seen it yet, put it on your list to see.) I don't think that our forebears had better brains. They made many stupid mistakes, of which racial prejudice was just one. But we have so many interesting things to look at. We do not need to invent anything of interest because 10 things of interest have already been shoved at us in one way or another, constantly vying for our attention.

What happens when we don't exercise our frontal lobes? When writing a term paper becomes a simple exercise in cutting and pasting on the computer? My speculation is that we are not developing our frontal lobes and that as a result we will lose some of our self-directedness. We may also lose some our ability to do the hard things in life.

The most important "hard thing" is to set our own goals and then to pursue them. It is so much easier to fall in line behind people who will show us what to do, tempt us with something to do, and so on.

Time, as an empty, cavernous structure yawning before us does not comfort us. It seems to create anxiety in many. Visit a casino with the banks of slot machines. These slot machines can help us to "pass the time," "kill time," and "fill" our time. (I am not being a prude here; I like a little slot machine action once in a great while.) Killing time may also be a way of letting our frontal lobes atrophy.

What the world needs are people who can do that most difficult of all things, set meaningful goals, plan to complete those goals, and then make meaningful efforts to reach them.