Soviet experiments with brain-injured soldiers. (In the context of Carr’s research on neuroplasticity in The Shallows.)

In The shallows: what the internet is doing to our brains, Nicholas Carr investigates digital impacts on the human brain. The most significant thing – and not everyone understands it – is that digital impact is not limited by changes in habits. It’s about the physiological rebuilding of brains.

In the fields of media ecology, we usually pay much attention to the switch from writing to print. Nicholas Carr shows that ability to read silently did as much for changing our brains as did printed books for changing society. Silent reading shaped the human ability to stay focusing on an abstract subject while immersing inside the self, which, in pre-literate time, were unusual and even dangerous for human beings. This ability is vanishing now together with long reading.

The loss of this “unnatural” ability returns the human brain to the natural condition, but in the new, unnatural environment. Extremely interesting thoughts may come from here, related to the forthcoming resettling of humans into the new environment, which going to be the new Nature for the real digital natives. (I develop such an idea, particularly, in: Tickling a touch screen. Grabbing information. Resettling a human being.)

Nicholas Carr also described interestingly how neuroscience has come to the concept of neuroplasticity. There has been some Soviet experience in that area, which probably wasn’t much known in the USA.

Alexandr Luria, a Soviet neuropsychologist, a younger colleague of Lev Vygotsky and of a neurosurgeon Nikolay Burdenko, worked in the hospital treating the soldiers with the injured brain during the Second World War. He observed and described tons of cases, classified several types of brain disorders (including different types of aphasia), and, more valuable, invented several methods of treatment for partly damaged brains.

Luria’s way of treatment of dynamic aphasia is particularly important for illustrating the concept of neuroplasticity. Patients with dynamic aphasia (caused by damage to certain brain regions) are not able to unfold sequentially any utterance. They simply get stuck with the first word, though their nominative function (the ability to name pointed objects) stays in order. Luria invented the treatment for such patients making them pick up cards with proper words sequentially. Then patients were trained just sequentially to pick up empty cards “assigned” to symbolize the order of certain words. And finally, patients learned to choose empty cards (or any items) by their eyes, again, sequentially. As a result, their ability to build the sequence of the words was restored.

This method shows how verbal function, which is lost because of injury of one brain region, can be compensated and then restored by training of other brain regions, which initially is responsible for physical, not verbal activity. So, the “healthy” region just helps the brain to reproduce the very idea of sequential action, even in the abstract, intellectual activity.

Luria had been had a lot of such cases and observations in the 40s, the 50s, and later (he died in 1977). So, it had been occurring a bit earlier than in cases described by Carr in his research. Of course, Luria’s observations became possible because of the war and the huge amount of the injured. In normal life, in the lab conditions, such explorations would have been just technically and ethically impossible.

Andrey Miroshnichenko

Author of Human as media. The emancipation of authorship – available on Amazon



Categories: Media ecology


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