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the Internet and our sense of self

When we’re not doing anything in particular, what happens in our brain?, what is inactive? The answer is not: a network of neurons is active in those states in which we are not doing any particular activity, the so-called neural network by default (RND).

An article published in the October issue of the magazine Journal of Neuroscience has studied how this default network interacts with our ability to pay attention to a stimulus.

In my opinion, the article is interesting because it can allow us to pose an interesting question, related to the effect that the use of new technologies may be having on our lives.

The RND was described formally in the year 2001, and includes parts of the lobe, medial temporal cortex medial prefrontal and cortex posterior cingulate. As I said at the beginning, this network is active when we are not performing any task, but is turned off when we undertake any activity.

The article to which I made mention, has studied how the RND interferes with our ability to pay attention to a visual stimulus on a scale of milliseconds. More specifically: the RND is turned off when we see a stimulus, but is re-enabled in less than a tenth of a second. And what is more: it seems that if the activity of the RND does not cease in a meaningful way, more time is needed to find and identify the stimulus.

It is interesting that the functions of the RND have been associated with activities essential to our mental life: for example, the cortex medial prefrontal is related to the imagination, the thinking about oneself and the theory of mind; other parts of the RND have been related to the recuperaci√≥n of personal memories, with the view of future plans and with the description of one’s self.

In summary: the RND provides us with an image of who we are as individuals. So much so, that the dysfunction of the RND has been associated with pathologies such as schizophrenia, autism and even Alzheimer’s.

And now comes the question that I wanted to raise. For years, it is said that we live in a society of care, where the scarce resource is not information but human attention, which allows us to access the information and process it. This battle for business for the next has been amplified by the emergence of social networks, and their constant notifications of new messages, status messages and news. In addition, each time we spend more time connected to the Internet, thanks to the emergence of the dispóstivos mobile devices (such as smartphones) that allow us to access the network from practically any place.

If every time that we turn our attention to a visual stimulus is turned off the activity of the RND and if RND is involved in mental operations that provide us an image of ourselves the world, it would be reasonable to ask if the continuous use of new technologies can somehow alter our ability to think ourselves either as individuals in the world, and to describe our identity.

Needless to say, this is speculation, and I don’t think that the new technologies are the devil. But I think that experiments like this are valuable because they indicate to us the path to follow in order to assess in a scientific way the influence of technologies on our lives, beyond the speeches on the infoxication or information competency.