Tag Archives: neuroplasticity

Paying Attention is Not Fun: Crackdown 2

Back in 2007 Realtime Studio’s Crackdown limped onto the XBox 360.  Originally intended for release on the original XBox, Crackdown had been beset by technical hitches and a series of disastrous decisions during the development process.  Despite Realtime receiving quite a bit of aid from Microsoft, the game’s testing did not go well.  In fact, it went so poorly that Microsoft decided to package the game with the Halo 3 demo in a desperate attempt to boost sales and recuperate some of the money spent during the game’s epic development cycle.

Originally conceived by David Jones — one of the developers behind the original Grand Theft Auto (1997) — Crackdown was intended as an attempt to go one better than the GTA franchise.  Where GTA had you running around a sandbox-style city causing chaos and climbing the ladder of the criminal underworld, Crackdown gave you super-powers before letting you loose on a similar sandbox-style city.  The reviews were surprisingly positive, because Crackdown managed to capitalise on one of the great joys of GTA: ignoring the plot and blowing things up.  Crackdown was all about the fun. Continue reading Paying Attention is Not Fun: Crackdown 2

Tearing down the walls between “boy” and “girl”

Well, this is heartening: an opinion piece in New Scientist arguing in favour of dismantling the gender divide.

Yes, boys and girls, men and women, are different. But most of those differences are far smaller than the Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus stereotypes suggest. Nor are the reasoning, speaking, computing, empathising, navigating and other cognitive differences fixed in the genetic architecture of our brains. All such skills are learned, and neuro-plasticity – the modification of neurons and their connections in response to experience – trumps hard-wiring every time. If men and women tend towards different strengths and interests, it is due to a complex developmental dance between nature and nurture that leaves ample room to promote non-traditional skills in both sexes.

The obvious place to start looking for behavioural differences between the sexes is infancy. Yet even here they are often in the eye of the beholder. In a classic experiment, researchers cross-dress babies to fool people that they are interacting with a child of the opposite sex. Volunteers tend to comment more on the physical strength and negative emotions of babies they believe to be boys, and on the beauty and positive emotions of babies they believe to be girls.


So should we abandon our search for the “real” differences between the sexes? Yes. There is almost nothing we do with our brains that is hard-wired: every skill, attribute, and personality trait is moulded by experience. At no time are children’s brains more malleable than in early life – the time when parents are so eager to learn the baby’s sex, project it to others and unconsciously express stereotyped impressions of their child.

It’s a timely topic, brought into the public eye by celebrity gossip (what else?): Angelina Jolie’s decision to let her four year old daughter dress as she pleases – short haircut, traditionally “male” clothes – is a pretty good barometer for comparing the opinions of different demographics. For example, compare the Feministing headline for this story (“Angelina Jolie responds to gender policing of Shiloh“) with that from FOX Nation (“Angelina Jolie Lets Daughter Gender-Bend?“).

Sadly, essentialist views of gender differences are deeply entrenched in the conservative and fundamentalist worldviews, both of which tend to place adherence to tradition above and beyond the well-being and freedom of the individual; regular readers of this site probably don’t need reminding that I tend to see things quite the other way round. Nonetheless, it’s great to see this topic becoming a matter for public discussion; sure, it’ll stir up a whole lot of dumb uninformed invective (from extremist positions on both sides of the debate, sadly), but cultural change comes with friction as standard.

And who knows – maybe we’ll end up with a society that finds the notion of applying experimental hormone treatments to your unborn child in the hope of nipping any potential gender ambiguity in the bud to be a repugnant act of cultural eugenics. Fingers crossed, eh?

The multiphrenic world: Stowe Boyd strikes back on “supertasking”

… which is really a neologism for its own sake (a favourite gambit of Boyd’s, as far as I can tell). But let’s not distract from his radical (and lengthy) counterblast to a New York Times piece about “gadget addiction”, which chimes with Nick Carr’s Eeyore-ish handwringing over attention spans, as mentioned t’other day:

The fear mongers will tell us that the web, our wired devices, and remaining connected are bad for us. It will break down the nuclear family, lead us away from the church, and channel our motivations in strange and unsavory ways. They will say it’s like drugs, gambling, and overeating, that it’s destructive and immoral.

But the reality is that we are undergoing a huge societal change, one that is as fundamental as the printing press or harnessing fire. Yes, human cognition will change, just as becoming literate changed us. Yes, our sense of self and our relationships to others will change, just as it did in the Renaissance. Because we are moving into a multiphrenic world — where the self is becoming a network ‘of multiple socially constructed roles shaping and adapting to diverse contexts’ — it is no surprise that we are adapting by becoming multitaskers.

The presence of supertaskers does not mean that some are inherently capable of multitasking and others are not. Like all human cognition, this is going to be a bell-curve of capability.

As always, Boyd is bullish about the upsides; personally, I think there’s a balance to be found between the two viewpoints here, but – doubtless due to my own citizenship of Multiphrenia – I’m bucking the neophobics and leaning a long way toward the positives. And that’s speaking as someone who’s well aware that he’s not a great multitasker…

But while we’re talking about the adaptivity of the human mind, MindHacks would like to point out the hollowness of one of the more popular buzzwords of the subject, namely neuroplasticity [via Technoccult, who point out that Nick Carr uses the term a fair bit]:

It’s currently popular to solemnly declare that a particular experience must be taken seriously because it ‘rewires the brain’ despite the fact that everything we experience ‘rewires the brain’.

It’s like a reporter from a crime scene saying there was ‘movement’ during the incident. We have learnt nothing we didn’t already know.

Neuroplasticity is common in popular culture at this point in time because mentioning the brain makes a claim about human nature seem more scientific, even if it is irrelevant (a tendency called ‘neuroessentialism’).

Clearly this is rubbish and every time you hear anyone, scientist or journalist, refer to neuroplasticity, ask yourself what specifically they are talking about. If they don’t specify or can’t tell you, they are blowing hot air. In fact, if we banned the word, we would be no worse off.

That’s followed by a list of the phenomena that neuroplasticity might properly be referring to, most of which are changes in the physical structure of the brain rather than cognitive changes in the mind itself. Worth taking a look at.