With some regularity, the media will work itself and audiences into a tizzy over the way Thing X—some new technology, an online activity, a way of gathering information—"changes the brain". With great magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) technology comes great opportunity for scaremongering backed by pretty visual aids. And so we see how those orange splotches mean social media causes brain changes, and those yellow patches mean online gaming causes brain changes, and so on. This isn't wrong, per se—these new technologies and means of communication are almost certainly changing our brains in myriad ways. But it's wrong to see this as a negative, or even an anomaly. The human brain is shaped continually throughout life. Everything changes the brain.
Learning changes the brain. Fatherhood changes the brain. Curiosity, sugar, smoking, art, overeating, psychotherapy, drug addiction, chronic stress, yoga, living in an urban environment, antidepressants, inactivity, anorexia, childhood trauma, fish oil, tanning, multitasking, and meditation change the brain—some in good ways, some in bad ways, and some in ways we don't yet understand. Some in ways that are reversible, others not so much.
Fast Company's Jason Feifer talked to UCLA neuroscientist Gary Small about this for the magazine's November issue:
"You're the third journalist I've talked to today," (Small) says when I call to learn more. He explains the results like this: "The brain is a very responsive organ. What you expose it to will alter its structure and its function."
So, I ask, what would have happened if that car-fearing dean from Princeton had access to an MRI machine? Had he been able to watch the brains of drivers and nondrivers, would he have seen the same neural activity that Small saw in his Internet experiment?
"You'd see the same pattern, probably. Yeah," Small says.
Read Feifer's whole piece for a nice takedown of technological panics aided by poorly-interpreted science and how this panic "stalls progress that should unfold naturally from our connectivity" and leads government officials to focus more on technological risks than opportunities.
Reason Senior Editor Jacob Sullum looked more at neuroimaging ambiguities here. And in Reason's March 2014 issue, Stanton Peele wrote about how "neuroreductionism" confuses issues surrounding brain scans, hypersexuality, and other forms of addiction.