What happens to our brains when we spend our days looking at screens? Might this explain why Americans have gone berserk? Part III of an exposition by Adam Garfinkle.
Riveting and disturbing as the previous installments. It explains a lot. It bewilders me the Trump supporters I’ve encountered with the zombified aspect about their eyes, big dazed, edgy orblike vacuums.
I appreciated in particular how you noted the risk it poses to young men who don’t work. I’ve explored this a bit on my own substack. It’s highly aggravating to me how men are declining to work while blaming feminism or the left for their moral failure with the aid of sympathetic opportunistic ideological entrepeneurs like Jordan Peterson, Josh Hawley, JD Vance, Tucker Carlson and Andrew Tate and other frauds.
The irony to me is that these people purport to restore men’s status in society in terms of “strength” and masculinity or whatever, rescuing men from progressive assaults, but what in the hell is remotely “strong” about sitting and staring at a screen all day and not working??? How in the hell is it going to help men to be men, if all these guys are being taught pathologically to retaliate to every imaginable slight to their absurdly touchy vanity?
Like Adam noted in one of his previous contributions, the average American has none of the cognitive wherewithal to read and interpret a god damn newspaper article these days. For christ’s sake, people are dumb. That is what we should really be saying about men. That they are vegetables!
Forget about the ideological pretensions of the flailing self-abnegating left--the real crisis is a moral one. It is the self-infantilization of the modern western adult male. What I cherish about Adam’s contributions is how he is confronting the moral decay of modern man head-on disinterestedly without prejudice or sympathy.
The rise of lonely angry low status man is the greatest threat to democratic capitalism and western civilization/enlightenment of all. I’m very glad Adam is taking it this seriously. White supremacists, incels, Trump supporters, mass shooters, the cults specifically respectively of jordan peterson, elon musk, and trump are mortal dangers to liberalism on a par with the kind of celebration of aesthetic violence laying the groundwork for the Nazi movement before Hitler. Adam talks about “centralized loneliness” but I would argue what we are facing is more like decentralized radicalized domestic terror loneliness. If America never becomes an authoritarian regime like nazi germany (and thank god there’s good reason to believe that’s impossible) then the biggest problem is angry low status male anarchism.
Excited for the political implications in the next post
Now I regret the afternoons I wasted as a kid watching the Three Stooges, Godzilla, Francis the Talking Mule, and RKO monster flicks on those pesky UHF channels!
This is an interesting essay and hypothesis; it was a pleasure to read. With that said, there are some important limitations to the technology which measures the brain waves that Adam mentions.
These waves are measured by an electroencephalograph (EEG) which is placed on the head and measures electric activity in the brain. Most EEG devices have 21 leads (the measuring device placed on the head). More recently 64 lead devices have become more common and there are even 128 lead machines that are available in research settings. If you’ve never seen these devices they look like bathing caps with suction cups (these are the leads) attached. Each suction cup has wires emanating from it that are attached to a device that graphs the brain waves.
These devices have limited clinical applicability outside of seizure disorders although they have become more useful in diagnosis for disorders like autism and related conditions. The main drawback is that they have very limited spatial resolution which means that it is generally difficult if not impossible to determine from where the electrical signals emanate. What neuroscientists would like to do is identify “signatures” that correlate well with various conditions and disorders but that’s proven to be difficult (except for epilepsy).
The other major drawback more relevant to Adam’s essay is that it is very challenging to use EEG in a naturalistic setting. Usually a person wearing an EEG device is sitting in a quiet room. When the device is being used for research purposes, it’s often done in a shielded room which prevents interference with the signal.
An EEG device can be used to analyze waves while a person is sitting quietly, meditating, praying or day dreaming. To analyze brain waves while the brain is more active involves a process called “evoked potential.” To measure evoked potential the subject is exposed to an internal stimulus; often it’s little more than the sound of a ping. It can also be light or even painful touch or visual stimuli can be used. But all stimuli used to measure evoked potential need to be administered in a controlled environment as opposed to a naturalistic environment.
To provide just one example of how EEG can be used, the technology has elucidated a fair amount about autism. Subjects with autism were placed in a quiet room with EEG electrodes attached. After being exposed to a short sound (a ping) investigators measured how quickly the sound was processed by their brains by examining the length of time it took for electric activity to appear after the tonal exposure. What was determined (and this has been replicated many times) is that the brains of people with autism respond more slowly to sound than the brains of non-affected controls. The difference is measured in milliseconds but that’s enough to be profoundly consequential. Imagine trying to have a conversation with someone if it took you longer to process (and understand) their words than they were speaking. By the time you understood their first sentence, they would be on their fifth or six sentence. It’s easy to understand how disorienting this might be and how it could inhibit the ability of a person to engage in discourse. This may be one of many reasons for the desire for social isolation associated with autism.
Another challenge to using EEG for the purposes Adam mentions is that the subject needs to keep their head very still. Head movement makes the results hard to interpret. Algorithms exist to counteract the impact of head movement but if the movement is too severe (like is often the case with infants) the algorithm breaks down and the results become uninterpretable. As far as I know, there is no reliable way to measure brain waves while a person is going for the stroll in the woods that Adam mentioned. If I’m wrong, I would love to be corrected.
Finally, a relatively new technology called MEG has emerged which is much more powerful than EEG. These devices can get around EEG’s difficulties with spatial resolution. MEG’s are large and very expensive. Last time I looked (a few years ago) you could buy a 64 lead EEG for around $150 thousand. A MEG costs at least ten times that.
None of this is meant to diminish Adam’s interesting theory. Personally I find it somewhat enticing. My only point is that the strength of the technology to provide the insight that Adam is looking for is limited in several ways, at least if you’re interested in analyzing results with any degree of granularity.
Hmmm... I've been looking for an explanation of what's gone wrong with America (and, to a lesser extent, the world) ... something that is rooted in fundamentals, of which the effects are an unintended consequence.
Some explanations are: this generation is the result of 'helicopter parents', and therefore it is very self-absorbed and 'entitled'. Another: this is the result of being the overwhelmingly dominant super-power for three generations, and one for which the accident of geography gave its inhabitants the feeling of invulnerability. Another focusses on economics, the far less favorable situation that the young generations are in. Another, looking at the growth of deviant, sorry, alternative, sexualities, asks if it's something in the water. And now here is another. [Not to mention the crazier conspiracy theories, where what's happening is an intended consequence, many of them blaming the Usual Suspects.]
Of course, more than one cause could be involved. There is probably no way to test these theories -- we just have to assign them probabilities based on our general knowledge of the world and how it works.
And, assuming the trends we are witnessing are not going to spontaneously revert, what should we -- commonsense, rational, small-d democrats and small-l liberals -- be doing in response?
America doesn't exist in a vacuum, but rather is face-to-face across the globe with some powerful adversaries, who are fundamentally hostile to it not just as a rival power, but as the bearer of what used to be a very attractive way of life to many people, a way of life hostile to dictators and oligarchs. (Sidenote: how have these trends been affecting these countries? I rather think that the World Wide Web is a net plus for the democratic side, independently of any neurological effects. But presumably the neurological effects are the same everywhere.)
The hostile powers are not going to be passive as we go into convulsions.
What a time to be alive!
Sadly, I see, especially young people, in this mode all too frequently.
When will we conclude that handing a child a screen for hours a day is a form of child abuse?
Confirming what Plato wrote in the Republic about democracy, spectacle, and changes in the modes.