As we build our world we build our minds

By Guest Author 09/08/2011

A guest post by Matt Boyd (formerly Gers). Matt is studying for a PhD in the philosophy of developmental psychology at VUW, and is examining the extent to which there is a symmetrical relationship between genomes and cultures.

Context builds us

Imagine there is a nuclear apocalypse. All adult humans are killed and technology as we know it is completely destroyed. A few young children manage to survive alongside rats, cockroaches and some genetically modified crops. The rats and cockroaches carry on as before, scurrying about and solving the odd maze. But how do the human children behave, and how do they think? Because technology plays a crucial role in psychological development.

Five hundred years ago the Moghul emperor Akbar appreciated the importance of the context of psychological development. He tried to determine whether children were innately Hindu, Christian or Muslim. Akbar raised several in silence and isolation. This experiment produced a series of uncouth mutes.

So environments can hinder, but they can also drive psychological development. Language and social stimulation play important roles in development. Some South American languages such as Piraha and Munduruku, which lack number words entirely, show that number words are required to develop arithmetic concepts. Also, public media like number lines and minus signs are necessary to acquire concepts such as the notion of negative quantities.

Technology drives human development

But tools also shape us. Our brain’s understanding of body shape and form is flexible. Using a rake extends one’s own body image, and mirrors used strategically can cause stroke patients to move paralyzed limbs. Similarly, violent media and games can heighten arousal[i]. Urban complexity and the twentieth century scientific worldview drive intelligence, as Otago University professor Jim Flynn argues[ii]. Small doses of technology cause transient changes and long-term exposure has lasting effects.

We depend on technology for our thinking. We frequently make use of external supports to extend our brain’s capabilities. When we write a list on our hand or a smart phone, we extend memory. When we use an algorithm to do long division on paper we extend thought processes. Andy Clark of Edinburgh University calls this our ‘extended mind’. His principle of parity claims, if what goes on outside the head had gone on inside it, and we would have called this thought, then it is only brain chauvinism that prevents us from realizing it is thought.

Our minds have depended on technology ever since we invented it. Humans emerged as anatomically modern about one hundred thousand years ago, but it took more than sixty thousand more years for modern thoughts and behaviour to arise[iii]. This is because much of what is unique and modern about human minds depends on technology for its development. Cave art and mathematical symbolism depend on nascent, but then drive more complex, abstract thought. Writing systems empower critical inquiry, social thought processes, and the visual comparison of lists[iv]. But even today evolution of the mind continues. Texting drives linguistic innovation, and the use of taller avatars in online games makes people negotiate more fiercely in real-life interactions. Even Facebook status updates encourage us to reflect on ourselves in different ways.

The reason we see these effects is because the brain is a highly malleable organ. Stimulated at the right stage of development it can be made to do almost anything. Shine light on bird chicks too early, and they grow up with serious hearing impairments and atypical responses to birdcalls[v]. Fit prisms to owls’ eyes and they can accommodate a shift in visual input of twenty-three degrees[vi]. Human children who learn to use an abacus can remember digit spans much larger than those who have never used the tool[vii].

Technological innovation causes human evolution

Human activities can shape genetics. When we clear jungles for pasture, the new standing water attracts mosquitoes. Malaria spreads and this causes genes for sickle cell anaemia to spread, because sickle cell sufferers are immune to malaria. But human activities also shape minds. Technological innovations like the invention of writing systems or three-dimensional virtual second lives cause the spread of new psychological traits. Over time, processes of innovation, and change in children’s context of development, cause evolution of the mind.

Geological processes are usually slow and ancient, but earthquakes show us that they can be sudden and dramatic. In analogous ways, small changes to technology can change the minds of a population slowly over time, but significant innovations, such as mathematical symbols or the Internet, can have sudden unexpected effects.

With new technologies come new implications. Computer games are fiendishly difficult, but are also fantastic teachers[viii]. Some employ safe ‘sand boxes’ where it is impossible to lose. Others prompt perplexed players with just-in-time information cues. This is all the stuff of contemporary education theory. Indeed, the most successful computer games can help us understand how we learn.

But when technology drives evolution of the mind it is not always good for us. Our empathic concern seems to change as we engage with some social media and violent games. A recent large study of American college students showed that empathy has dropped significantly since the year 2000.

The symbols, media, tools, and methods that we invent shape and extend our minds. This is our brain’s ancient trick. We engage with external media to support thinking. This amplifies what we are capable of achieving. Without technology we are mentally crippled. Without our abacuses and iphones we are like Alzheimer’s patients without their post-it notes and pill schedules. A lot of recent human evolutionary psychological advances could disappear overnight should the technological context sustaining them change.

Building our psychological future

New Zealand’s Chief Science Advisor Professor Sir Peter Gluckman emphasizes the effect that a mother’s diet has on the future health of the unborn. In similar fashion early technological diet is likely to shape thought processes. Given our ability to build a range of different technological environments for our children, then it is likely that our innovation wittingly or unwittingly causes an array of emotional and psychological traits. Ever since technology was invented, as we build our world we have been building our minds.



[i] Swing, E., & Anderson, C. (2008). How and What do Videogames Teach? In: T Willoughby & E Wood (eds.) Children’s Learning in a Digital World. Malden: Blackwell.

[ii] Flynn, J. (2007). What is Intelligence? Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

[iii] Renfrew, C. (2008). Prehistory: the Making of the Human Mind. New York: Random House.

[iv] Lock, A. & Gers, M. (2011). The Cultural Evolution of Written Language and its Effects: A Darwinian Process from Prehistory to the Modern Day. In E. Grigorenko, E. Mambrino, D. Preiss (eds.) Writing: A Mosaic of New Perspectives. Psychology Press.

[v] Lickliter, R. (1990). Enhanced prenatal auditory experience facilitates species-specific visual responsiveness in bobwhite quail chicks (colinus virginianus). Journal of Comparative Psychology, 105(1): 89-94.

[vi] Shultz, T., Mysore, S., Quartz, S. (2007). Why Let Networks Grow? In D. Mareschal, M. Johnson, S. Sirois, M. Spratling, M. Thomas, G. Westerman (eds.) Neuroconstructivism Vol. Two. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

[vii] Lock, A. & Peters, C. (eds.) (1996) Handbook of Human Symbolic Evolution. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

[viii] Gee, J. (2008). Good Videogames, the Human Mind, and Good Learning. In: T. Willoughby & E. Wood (eds.) Children’s Learning in a Digital World. Malden: Blackwell.