Your Emergent Brain: Gym or Dumpster?

Mechanical brains are here. They have staged a revolution. You may have missed it. But, the revolution hasn’t missed you. Quietly and completely, you have been engulfed in a computational world, where, for over thirty years, computer-based tools have been at work to define a new landscape. The watchwords of this revolution are complexity and emergence.

Those familiar with the work of physicist Stephen Hawking, author Michael Crichton or investor George Soros, all complexity devotees, already understand the power of these new tools for creating winning outcomes. There’s a world at your doorstep you never imagined.

Embracing Complexity

In this revolution, embrace complexity is the watchword. To embrace complexity means to pay attention to the way the web of relationships that surround us works and can be put to use. Complexity in this situation doesn’t mean complicated. A group of things displays complex behavior when it acts together in an orderly manner most of the time, but can produce surprises. Any living thing is complex. Living beings do orderly things, like pumping blood. The also can act unpredictably. The same applies to non-living complex systems, like the weather. Weather is orderly up to a point, but can be unpredictable. Unpredictable behavior can emerge when groups of things, like stock traders or air particles, interact.

Emergence is the word used to identify the unexpected order that cells and galaxies create on their own. In the living world, a thing called self-organization plays out everywhere.  Self-organization isn’t planned. It just happens. It comes prepackaged in every living thing. Plants grow. They aren’t assembled in a factory. A theatrical version of something like emergence would be the Force in the movie Star Wars. Self-organization is everywhere. It knits life and the universe into the order we observe.

Tech Determinists

The flip side of embracing complexity and emergence is technological determinism. Tech determinism offers a vision where technology has solved every problem. Technological determinism arose when science was riding high. For a tech determinist, technology sets the menu. The iron law of tech determinism is that people must do “what technology wants.”[i]

Paying attention to emergence is the revival of an ancient idea. It honors our debt to the something-for nothing of self-organization that we often overlook. Groups of things, whether cells or galaxy clusters, exist because self-organized order emerges from disorder. Emergence is an old-fashioned notion that is stepping out from the shadows just as faith in the ability of technology to solve every problem is fading.

Mechanical Brains and Emergence

Mechanical brains provide the tools that are paving the way for our awareness of emergence. In the 1700s, improved lenses in telescopes and microscopes brought thinkers, like Isaac Newton, face to face with the very large and the very small. The result was the discovery of islands of order in the universe. These discoveries were put to work. The industrial revolution was the result.

Improved computing power in the twentieth century is the new lens that has brought us face to face with the partially orderly and partially unruly ins and outs of complex group behavior. We are living in the middle of a revolution driven by this new lens. Embracing complexity and emergence means better weather forecasts, improved vehicle design and better models for healthcare.

Mechanical brains are a useful tool for understanding and shaping the world. But they also create problems. Smartphones are exhibit number one for computer innovations that are both revolutionary and problematic. Investigators are discovering that living with pocket sized mechanical brains can lead to damaged real brains. With any new tool, there’s a break-in period. Kinks need to be worked out. Pioneer users can become casualties.


iGeneration children, born after the mid-1990s debut of the Internet, are our pioneers for the perils that come with intensive Smartphone use.

Right on schedule, casualties are piling up. The results for the experiment parents conducted, when they delivered Smartphones to their young kids, are in.   An epidemic of game and app addiction, short attention span, poor socialization and gaps in motivation has surfaced in Millennials and the iGeneration.

The iGeneraton isn’t the first to be damaged. The history of the twentieth century is strewn with electronic casualties. Studies show that the more screen time degrades the ability to learn and work, and fosters couch potato maladies. Although enthusiastic marketing tends to blanket damage reports, the studies have already hit the streets.

On page 128 of Dr. Leonard’s 2007 book, Boys Adrift, are seven maps of the United States.[ii] Together, they illustrate tech damage to able-bodied men, aged 30 to 54. Those willing to work declined decade by decade. In 1950, the map is nearly white, showing less than 3% unwilling to work. As time passed, the maps darken as the percentage of the unwilling increased. By 2016, it reached 15%.[iii] Many sit in parents’ basement playing video games, rather than work.[iv][v] One 2017 study revealed 21 to 30 year old gamers to be the most recent the Failure to Launch casualties of electronic age.[vi][vii] Game and app addiction continues to claim victims. The iGeneration promises a new set of casualties.

The Blank Slate

The industrial age imagined the world, including the human mind, as a blank slate.[viii]  Kids were programmable. Creating designer citizens and consumers through television, video games and iDevices was considered progress. In his 2010 book, Rewired: Understanding the iGeneration and the Way They Learn, psychologist Larry Rosen, expressed a chirpy optimism for the prospects of Smartphone kids. Dr. Rosen acknowledged kids modified brains and directed teachers to accommodate the change. To adjust to their impaired ability to concentrate, he suggested teachers avoid using textbooks or lectures.[ix] Teachers were advised to “rewire the classroom to take the home iGen lifestyle and transfer it to the classroom.”[x] Rosen came down on the side of doing what technology wants.

Treating technology damaged people and landscapes as milestones on the superhighway of progress remains the hallmark of today’s tech determinists. The tech determinist defense of childhood Smartphone use is the same used to defend tobacco, another addictive product. The argument goes like this: 1) the evidence for the danger is cherry picked, 2) there is no proof of the mechanism of damage, just a lot of data correlating use and harm, 3) some users aren’t damaged, 4) the product has benefits and 5) critics are biased.[xi]

People Make Choices

In the debate, the arrival of damaged pioneers makes a difference. Thanks to the arrival of a new batch of casualties, the tide is turning. Although blank slate arguments are still heard from some quarters, studies showing pointing out damaged attachment of Smartphone kids are beginning to point in another direction.

Attachment is a way of characterizing brain behavior. It is the mechanism that makes normal brain development possible. Disrupted or insecure attachment sets the stage for long-term problems. Our notions of healthy attachment track with our understanding of the brain as complex and brain development as emergent.

Damaged Attachment

Maggie Jackson, in her 2008 book, Distracted: The Erosion of Attention and the Coming Dark Age, describes the rewiring of brains exposed to the rapid switching of video and Internet images. The result is the erosion of the capacity to pay attention, to think deeply and to form healthy relationships. Richard Louv’s 2008 book, Last Child in the Woods: Saving our Children from Nature Deficit Disorder, described the shift from a childhood culture of play outside to play inside using digital games and social network applications. Kids want to be “where the electrical outlets are.” The result is impaired performance in school and socialization.[xii]

An Addictive Cocktail

Video game designers create virtual characters designed to trigger attachment responses. And they do. Players’ can strongly attach to virtual characters[xiii]. Games and Internet relationships also offer substitute avenues for attachment and to achieve self-esteem. The result is an addictive cocktail. Socially useful attachments suffer.[xiv] The explore and discover impulse is replaced by stranger danger fear normally seen at an early stage of development.

This delayed development and poor socialization is reminiscent of a classic experiment that measured the effect of pairing infant monkeys with life-like wire-frame parental imitations. The infant monkeys were permanently damaged. When confronted with novel situations they clutched themselves, rocked back and forth and screamed in terror, much as an autistic or isolated child might do.[xv] Similar behaviors are showing up in Smartphone kids.

Brain Hacking and Healthy Relationships

Attachment to games and Smartphones is today’s version of the gambling addiction of earlier times.[xvi]   Smartphone apps are designed to generate addicting reward loops by people who know their business. Brain hacking is the term usually applied.[xvii]  BF Skinner’s operant conditioning is the model. In 2013, The Atlantic Magazine observed in an article on Skinner marketing, “our internet handlers are using operant conditioning to modify our behavior.”[xviii]

Forming a bond with a video game or virtual community can blunt the ability to form healthy relationships in the real world.[xix] One study showed “[u]sers with pathological Internet use frequently showed signs of infantile relationship structures within the context of social groups.”[xx]

Decreased willingness to explore and experiment is becoming the hallmark of the post-Internet generation. “Around 2012, I noticed abrupt shifts in teen behaviors and emotional states,” reported San Diego State psychology professor, Jean Twenge.[xxi] Anxious students sheltering in campus safe spaces suggest a generation afflicted by induced attachment disorders. The Atlantic magazine, in September 2017, asked, “Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?” According to Professor Twenge,

It’s not an exaggeration to describe iGen as being on the brink of the worst mental-health crisis in decades. Much of this deterioration can be traced to their phones.


Professor Twenge found that kids spending many hours on social media were more depressed and less happy. They commit suicide at higher rates. Thanks to the Smartphone, this is a “lonely and dislocated generation.”[xxii] According to Professor Twenge, they experience delayed adulthood. On campus, this plays out as demand for safe spaces and trigger warnings. According to Professor Twenge, this is a disabled generation, fragile and attachment confused.

Countermeasures: Boot the Little Darlings Outside

Fortunately, countermeasures are literally waiting at the door. The antidote for the damage caused by chronic exposure to addictive triggers and simplified indoor life is not difficult to imagine. For proper development kids’ brains need exposure to outdoor settings and face-to-face contact with friends and family.   Children’s mental wiring requires immersion in complex settings in order to properly develop.[xxiii]  Brain-based parenting[xxiv] of the whole-brain child[xxv] means interacting with a child and paying attention to the conditions that produce healthy attachment.

Parking children in front of a screen is now considered akin to child abuse.[xxvi]   Giving children iDevices, says psychologist Richard House, is “playing Russian roulette with their development.”[xxvii]

The suggestion is to boot the little darlings outside to play. For good measure, you can go, too.

John Medana’s 2014 Brain Rules: 12 Principles for Surviving and Thriving at Work, Home and School, applies these ideas to people of any age. Move, eat well, exercise, sleep well and get outside. All are a move away from the brain as blank slate. Dr. John Ratey’s 2013 Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain, presented impressive improvement in brain function and growth of new neurons at any age as the reward for a few minutes of daily aerobic activity.[xxviii] The national movement to raise free-range kids reflects a move away from childhood-in-a-box. A parent’s and Smartphone owner’s choices depend on what kind of brain they want to grow.

Embracing complexity means accepting your brain as something that doesn’t show up by accident. Every moment it is changing in response to what it encounters. Embracing emergence means putting the self-organizing power of your body to work building a better brain. It’s just as easy to take your child’s and your brain to the gym as it is to chuck it in the virtual dumpster.

All you need to do is think about the fate of the tech casualty pioneers and allow yourself to be kind to your brain.


[i] Kelly, Kevin, What Technology Wants, Penguin Books, New York, 2011.

[ii] Sax, Leonard, Boys Adrift: The Five Factors Driving the Growing Epidemic of Unmotivated Boys and Underachieving Young Men, Basic Books, New York, 2007, at page 128.

[iii] Thompson, Derek, “The Missing Men: Millions of men in the prime of their lives are missing from the labor force. Could a big U.S. housing construction project bring them back?” The Atlantic, June 27, 2017,

[iv] Swanson, Anna, “Study finds young men are playing video games instead of getting jobs,” Chicago Tribune,

[v] LeMagna, Maria, “Why more young men aren’t working — video games,” New York Post, July 5, 2017,

[vi] Sax, at pages 53ff

[vii] Aguiar, Mark, et al, “Leisure Luxuries and the Labor Supply of Young Men,” NBER Working Paper No. 23552, June 2017,

[viii] See Pinker, Steven, The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature, Penguin, New York, 2002. September 20, 2016,

[ix] Rosen, Larry, PhD, Rewired: Understanding the iGeneration and the Way They Learn, Macmillan, New York, 2010.

[x] Rosen, Larry, PhD, “Welcome to the iGeneration!” Psychology Today, March 27, 2010,

[xi] Cavanaughm, Sarah, PhD, “No, Smartphones are Not Destroying a Generation

The kids are gonna be all right, Psychology Today Blog, Aug 06, 2017,

[xii] Louv, Richard, Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children From Nature-Deficit Disorder, Algonquin Books, New York, 2008.

[xiii] Coulson, Mark, et al, “Real Feelings for Virtual People: Emotional Attachments and Interpersonal Attraction in Video Games,” Psychology of Popular Media Culture, 2012, Vol. No. 1, No. 3, 176-184, at page 185.

[xiv] Darrow, Barb, “Smartphones: Yes, your smartphone is hurting your love life: study, Fortune,

[xv] —, “Harry F. Harlow, Monkey Love Experiments,” The Adoption History Project,

[xvi] King, Daniel, and Delfabbro, Paul, “The cognitive psychology of Internet gaming disorder,” Clinical Psychology Review, June 2014, Vol. 34, Issue 4,

[xvii] Pilay, Srini, MD, How to Win the Smartphone-Brain Battle

New research explains how to beat brain hackers at their own game,”

Psychology Today Blog, Jul 13, 2017,

[xviii] Davidow, Bill, “Skinner Marketing: We’re the Rats, and Facebook Likes Are the Reward,” The Atlantic, June 10, 2013,

Our Internet handlers are using operant conditioning to modify our behavior.

[xix] Nowinski, Joseph, PhD, Online Video Gaming: A Haven for the Insecure?

Is an intense interest in the cyber-world necessarily a bad thing? Psychology Today Blog, Aug 06, 2014,

[xx] Eichenberg, Christiane, PhD, et al, “Attachment Style and Internet Addiction: An Online Survey,” Journal of Medical Internet Research,” May 2017, vol. 19(5),

[xxi] Twenge, Jean M., Prof., “Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?

More comfortable online than out partying, post-Millennials are safer, physically, than adolescents have ever been. But they’re on the brink of a mental-health crisis.” The Atlantic, September 2017,

[xxii] Ibid.

[xxiii] See Louv (above).

[xxiv] Hughes, Daniel, and Baylin, Jonathan, Brain-Based Parenting: The Neuroscience of Caregiving for Health Attachment, W. W. Norton & Company, New York, 2012.

[xxv] Siegel, Daniel, MD, The Whole-Brain Child: 12 Revolutionary Strategies to Nurture Your Child’s Developing Mind, Bantam Books, New York, 2011.

[xxvi] Dormehl, Luke, “Psychologist: Giving your kid an iPad is ‘child abuse’,” Cult of the Mac, September 23, 2015,

[xxvii] Ibid.

[xxviii] Ratey, John, MD, Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain, Little, Brown and Company, New York, 2013.