Thursday, February 16, 2017

Complexity and Stimulation: An Interesting Thought from Bruce Charlton

I mentioned the conservative academic Bruce Charlton yesterday. He kindly makes his book available online, and today I was browsing his book Addicted to Distraction: Psychological Consequences of the Mass Media.

He suggests that our constant interaction with the hyper-stimulating mass media (by which he also means social media) is actually making us more simple-minded, and supports this with some very interesting claims:

It is primarily when our brains are ‘offline’, including asleep, that complexity is generated – in other words complexity of ideas does not come from the external environment but from inside the head – from the internal workings of the mind.

(See “The Sleep Elaboration–Awake Pruning (SEAP) theory of memory”, by Bruce G. Charlton and Peter Andras; published in the journal Medical Hypotheses; 2009; Volume 73: pages 1-4.)

This is not the whole story, of course, since such relationships are reciprocal, and our minds certainly need input – but the usual idea is wrong that human ideas ‘come into the brain’ from the environment, and complex thoughts therefore derive from a complex environment. By this account old-time rural dwellers necessarily had simple thoughts since they lived in simple environments; while modern city dwellers have complex thoughts to reflect their complex environment.

If complexity of cognition is something put-into the mind from outside; then the extravert, the sociable, the widely read, the culture vulture, the traveller – one who draws stimulus from his environment is therefore the paradigm of complex thinking.

Yet I suggest that in reality almost the opposite is the case – so long as we compare like-with-like (that is, compare people with similar psychological characteristics, but in different environments).

It makes more sense to see complexity as coming from within, and this complexity being typically constrained by the environment.

So a complex, information-rich, and highly-stimulating environment actually causes the mind to simplify, by the environment ‘culling’ more innately-generated complexity. Thus those most engaged with other people and with the Mass Media would be expected to have simpler cognitive processes than they would-have; if they had been more solitary, detached, autonomous individuals.

This tallies with something I've often noticed before. It's a strange paradox, but very extroverted people are very often the people with the least amount of interesting things to say, and with the most banal conversation-- or so it often appears to me. I'd often wondered why people who converse the most would have the worst conversation. Perhaps this explains it?

(Of course, this is not true of all very extroverted people.)

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