We may possess the same brain our prehistoric ancestors did, but we’re deploying it in different ways, rewiring it to meet 21st-century demands. The Neanderthals didn’t have the same mental real estate that modern humans enjoy, gained from a host of skills and preoccupations—wielding laser scalpels, joyriding in cars, navigating the digital seas of computers, iPhones, and iPads. Generation by generation, our brains have been evolving new networks, new ways of wiring and firing, favoring some behaviors and discarding others, as we train ourselves to meet the challenges of a world we keep amplifying, editing, deconstructing, and recreating.
Through lack of practice, our brains have gradually lost their mental maps for how to read hoofprints, choose the perfect flints for arrows, capture and transport fire, tell time by plant and animal clocks, navigate by landmarks and the stars. Our ancestors had a better gift for observing and paying attention than we do. They had to: their lives depended on it. Today, paying attention as if your life depends on it can be a bugbear requiring conscious effort. More and more people are doing all of their reading on screens, and studies find that they’re retaining 46 percent less information than when they read printed pages. It’s not clear why. Have all the distractions shortened our attention spans? Do the light displays interfere with memory?
In ancient days, our language areas grew because we found the rumpled currency of language lifesaving, not to mention heady, seductive, and fun. Language became our plumage and claws. The more talkative among us lived to pass on their genes to chatty offspring. Language may be essential, but the invention of reading and writing was pure luxury. The uphill march children find in learning how to read reminds us that it may be one of our best tools, but it’s not an instinct. I didn’t learn to read with fluent ease until I was in college. It takes countless hours of practice to fine-tune a brain for reading. Or for anything else.
In the past, bands of humans hunted and gathered, eyes nimble, keenly attuned to a nearby scuffle or a distant dust-mist, as they struggled to survive. Natural light, peripheral images, a long field of view, lots of vitamin D, an ever-present horizon, and a caravan of visual feedback shaped their eyes. They chipped flint and arrowheads, flayed and stitched hides, and did other close work, but not for the entire day. Close work now dominates our lives, but that’s very recent, one of the Anthropocene’s hallmarks, and we may evolve into a more myopic species.
Despite all the seeming connectedness, we’re not the most socially connected we’ve ever been—that was when we lived in small tribes. In our cells and instincts, we still crave that sense of belonging and fear being exiles, because for our ancestors living in the wild, being without the group protection of the tribe meant almost certain death. Those with a strong social instinct survived to pass their genes along to the next generation. We still follow that instinct by flocking to social media, which connects us to a vast multicultural human tribe—even though it isn’t always personal.
Long ago, the human tribe met to share food, expertise, ideas, and feelings. The keen-eyed observations they exchanged about the weather, landscape, and animals saved lives on a daily basis. Now there are so many of us that it’s not convenient to sit around a campfire. Electronic campfires are the next best thing. We’ve reimagined space, turning the Internet into a favorite pub, a common meeting place where we can exchange knowledge or know-how or even meet a future mate.
Sensory Overload or Sensory Poverty?As a species, we’ve somehow survived large and small ice ages, genetic bottlenecks, plagues, world wars, and all manner of natural disasters, but I sometimes wonder if we’ll survive our own ingenuity. At first glance, it seems like we may be living in sensory overload. The new technology, for all its boons, also bedevils us with speed demons, alluring distractors, menacing hijinks, cyber-bullies, thought-nabbers, calm-frayers, and a spiky wad of miscellaneous news. Some days it feels like we’re drowning in a twittering bog of information. But at exactly the same time, we’re living in sensory poverty, learning about the world without experiencing it up close, right here, right now, in all its messy, majestic, riotous detail. It’s like seeing icebergs without the cold, without squinting in the Antarctic glare, without the bracing breaths of dry air, without hearing the chorus of lapping waves and shrieking gulls. We lose the salty smell of the cold sea, the burning touch of ice. If, reading this, you can taste those sensory details in your mind, is that because you’ve experienced them in some form before, as actual experience? If younger people never experience them, can they respond to words on the page in the same way?
Digital exploration is predominantly visual, and nature, pixilated, is mainly visual, so it offers only one-fifth of the information. Subtract the other subtle physical sensations of smell, taste, touch, and sound, and you lose a wealth of problem-solving and lifesaving detail. Surely we can inhabit both worlds with poise, dividing our time between the real and the virtual. Ideally, we won’t sacrifice one for the other. We’ll play outside and visit parks and wilds on foot, and also enjoy technological nature as a mental seasoning, turning to it for what it does best: illuminate all the hidden and mysterious facets of nature we can’t experience or fathom on our own.
Illustration © Getty Images / Dieter Spannknebel