THE HUMAN BRAIN IS POORLY ADAPTED TO THE TECHNOLOGICAL AGE

Poster for Internet Addicts Anonymous

By Alexandra Reich
Staff Writer

A supernormal stimulus is a stimulus that elicits an unusually heightened response from an animal. Supernormal stimuli can be easily observed in nature. Nikolas Tinbergen first discovered the existence of supernormal stimuli over the course of several experiments. He found that herring gulls, when presented with an artificially large egg intentionally sized larger than what a herring gull could possibly produce, would take care of the fake egg instead of their own. When presented with two eggs in nature, herring gulls are likely motivated to take care of the larger one in order to hatch a larger chick, which would have a better chance of survival. The gulls have not been conditioned to conceive an upper limit of preferred egg size because eggs that are too large for the gulls to take care of are never produced in nature. They are unable to conceptualize the potential disadvantage in taking care of an egg that is artificially large. Tinbergen found trends of supernormal stimuli in other animals as well, occurring in certain kinds of fish and butterflies. Humans, like animals, can be enraptured by disadvantageous supernormal stimuli.

In industrialized nations, one human equivalent of supernormal stimuli corresponds to technological advances, which are relatively recent considering the timeline of evolution. Television, social media sites, and the wide availability of new information on the Internet have the tendency to draw in users for hours every day. According to one study, American adults, on average, spend over five hours total on digital media per day.

Movies and television shows hook the brain through the human capacity for emotion. Essentially, movies and television shows are abstract or lifelike pixilated images moving across a screen, yet people are so allured by the artificial characters’ personalities and struggles that they can react to the show with real emotions. A term coined by Jeffery Zachs, the “Mirror Rule,” explains the human tendency to imitate the facial expression, and to some extent, the emotion, of the human it is interacting with. Zachs argues that this rule can be applied to the characters in movies to invoke emotional responses from audience members. This concept may be applicable to human evolutionary behavior. As television was introduced relatively recently compared to how long humans have existed, human brains have evolved to be wired for face-to-face social interaction. Television shows or movies simulating human interaction that is either more interesting or more desirable than what people normally encounter could serve as a supernormal stimulus, enticing the human brain and drawing that individual away from their less interesting non-televised life.

In moderation, the consumption of imagined situations or artificial worlds is not necessarily negative. However, prolonged exposure to the supernatural stimuli of virtual Internet worlds can result in addiction. Not only is Internet addiction a legitimate condition, it is estimated to affect six percent of the population worldwide. Similar to the herring gull that cannot resist the allure of the artificially large egg, Internet addiction is an “impulse control problem” in which the affected individual prefers the ease of interacting via the internet over face-to-face societal interaction.

Online video games are a major source of Internet addiction. Theoretically, it makes sense that a video game, particularly a violent one, could act as a super stimulus. Players have the heightened experience of dominance by ‘killing’ artificial enemies without actually risking their own lives, social standing, or a potential prison sentence in the process. The only factor at risk is the virtual progress of their electronic avatar. In addition to the dominance factor, Chatfield argues in his TED talk that successful games stimulate dopamine receptors in the brain as a result of the human evolution to appreciate rewards for effort and problem-solving tasks.

Some countries have taken action against Internet addiction. To look at an extreme example, in South Korea there is a functioning summer camp intended to alleviate children’s dependence on the Internet. Jump Up Internet Rescue School is a tuition-free program that offers participants directed physical exercise as well as other offline hobbies in order to show children that they can have fun outside the confines of the online world. Interventions such as these have the potential to work well because they will reduce the sometimes drastic gap between real life stimuli and internet stimuli by having children participate in a variety of activities. Internet addiction has also been treated in the U.S. with similar mechanisms.

Internet addiction is the result of the human brain’s lack of evolutionary adaption to the supernormal stimuli presented by technology. Just as animals are unable to resist these enhanced stimuli, humans follow suit, employing technology to the point of physical health depravity and social isolation. While advancements in technology have proven beneficial to society in a variety of fields, it does present its limitations.

Image by Michael Mandiberg

MIND GAMES: HOW VIRTUAL REALITY CAN HELP SAVE THE OCEANS

Rendering of an Underwater Scene

By Annam Raza
Contributing Writer

How many of us have actually dived in the Great Barrier Reef? Or explored the waters off the coast of Costa Rica? I haven’t; despite growing up near the Persian Gulf, and going to university right next to the Pacific Ocean, I never got around to getting a scuba license. My interest in seeing the ocean was whetted by pictures or documentaries, a vicarious exploration of a foreign world, guided by a photographer or cameraman. A glimpse of an intriguing fish flitting away into the distance would often make me wish I could turn to follow it, but that was a privilege reserved for the actual diver, not the viewer safe in the comfort of her own home.

What if that wasn’t the case? What if you could explore a shipwreck, searching for fish and coral at Chuuk Lagoon, the site of a pivotal World War II battle, since transformed into a glorious reef, without leaving your own home? This is exactly what players do in the initial levels of ‘Infinite Scuba’, a next generation simulation game launched in March 2013 by Seattle game designers Cascade Game Foundry, partnering with many diving industry groups, including Professional Association of Diving Instructors (PADI), Diving Equipment and Marketing Association, Mission Blue (an ocean conservation group), various scuba equipment manufacturers such as Scubapro, Body Glove, Oceanic and BARE, among others. The game hopes to “raise public awareness about the importance of ocean health” by painstakingly recreating famous dive sites from around the world in order to spread information about important environmental issues through entertainment.

This is an incredibly unique response to Dr. Earle’s 2009 TED prize wish (which inspired the creation of Mission Blue itself, as described on their website): “to use all means at your disposal — films, expeditions, the web, new submarines — to create a campaign to ignite public support for a global network of marine protected areas.”

Although video games may seem like an unusual medium to employ to educate the public about conservation, research suggests that they can be used effectively for education. As Professor Resnick of MIT states, “many of [sic] people’s best learning experiences come when they are engaged in activities that they enjoy and care about…[one is] likely to learn the most, and enjoy the most, if [one is] engaged as an active participant, not a passive recipient.”

The Internet has a particularly remarkable number of active participants – you included. You are reading this blog post online, alongside (probably) several other tabs: email inboxes, Facebook, and a myriad of other websites. According to Jane McGonigal, a video game designer and inventor at Institute of the Future, more than half a billion people use a computer or play a video game for at least an hour a day- with over 183 million of those in the US. She says, “The average young person racks up 10,000 hours of gaming by the age of 21 – or 24 hours less than they spend in a classroom for all of middle and high school if they have perfect attendance. It’s a remarkable amount of time we’re investing in games. Five million gamers in the U.S., in fact, are spending more than 40 hours a week playing games – the equivalent of a full time job!”

So why not reappropriate this time to serve the purpose of marine conservation?

That is what the organization Games for Change aims to do. Their mission statement is “Catalyzing Social Impact Through Digital Games”. Founded in 2004, it consists of a group of people that create and distribute games that aim to create a social impact by engaging contemporary issues in a meaningful way. Clicking through the “play” section of their site makes it obvious they haven’t restricted themselves to merely the marine realm: categories also include poverty and economics, and they even have a “Games for Change” festival, which unites people interested in accessing the positive social aspect of games.

On an individual level, games can be used to teach children and young adults about the threats facing endangered wildlife. ‘Predator Protector’, an online game on PBS’s website that is meant to accompany the channel’s documentary ‘Ocean Adventures’ with Jean Jacques Costeau, has players “swim with sharks and experience the threats they face,” striving to stay alive and thus inadvertently learning about the vital role sharks play in the delicate balance of a marine ecosystem. It makes one reevaluate the label of ‘mindless predator’ that sharks have been burdened with by a misinformed media.

“Sea Turtles and the Quest to Nest,” launched by National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the Fisheries Service, is similarly structured. It is the second educational game in the WaterLife series, centering on loggerhead sea turtles, listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act, and involving six stakeholders critical to the turtle’s protection. Players must work through a series of mini-games, which encompass activities such as beach cleanups to assist turtle nesting, improving the likelihood of the turtle’s survival. Without understanding how human actions affect turtles and how to improve the chance of survival for the species, players cannot succeed.

As players experience firsthand the harmful effects of human activities on marine animals, they are forced to think about the importance of conservation and the role we, as humans, play in the loss of biodiversity. These games require players to use their minds, combining “difficult challenges, possibilities, and use of information” in a way that can be used to establish “real pedagogical constructivism”. Constructivism is the learning theory that refers to the idea that “learners construct knowledge for themselves”, and is the most powerful argument for the use of video games in education: as players work their way through levels, they absorb information and store it away, subconsciously learning facts about conservation that may have bored them had they been presented to them in a traditional classroom environment. This can evoke powerful emotional responses in players – delight if they win, and sadness if they lose. More than knowledge, it is that awareness and emotion that is necessary. I firmly believe that although the most important part of conservation as a science is research, it is one’s passion for conservation, and his or her motivation to embrace it in all realms of their life, that can make it truly successful.

Image by Ian Burt