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Study: Is modernity leading to a growing Cognitive Divide?

Sub­ject dur­ing EEG study. Cour­tesy of Sapi­ens Labs

Has Mod­ern Expe­ri­ence Changed The Human Brain? (NPR):

The brain has evolved over evo­lu­tion­ary time scales of mil­lions of years. So, what is the like­li­hood that the rel­a­tive­ly recent advent of read­ing and writ­ing, or motor­ized trans­port, or the Inter­net, could have changed our brains?

A study out of India, still under­go­ing peer review, in which sci­en­tists look at EEG mea­sures in diverse pop­u­la­tions across India may shed some light on the ques­tion.

It has long been known that awake sub­jects with eyes closed show a pat­tern of neur­al oscil­la­tion in the so-called alpha band (8–15 Hz) and this has been tak­en to be a fun­da­men­tal cere­bral rhythm that may be tied to atten­tion, learn­ing abil­i­ty, and work­ing memory…For the study, Indi­an schol­ars Dhanya Para­mesh­waran and Tara Thi­a­gara­jan per­formed EEG mea­sure­ments on 402 sub­jects from 38 dif­fer­ent set­tle­ments across India — rang­ing from remote ham­lets to large cities…

The find­ings of the study are dra­mat­ic. The exis­tence of alpha-band activ­i­ty was basi­cal­ly unde­tectable in peo­ple who lack wealth, edu­ca­tion and knowl­edge of mod­ern technology…Can the world afford to con­fine alpha rhythms to the 15–20 per­cent who, by the cri­te­ria of this study, enjoy the income, edu­ca­tion and tech­nol­o­gy con­ducive to cog­ni­tive and neu­ro­log­i­cal devel­op­ment?

There is also a fas­ci­nat­ing method­olog­i­cal upshot. The vast major­i­ty of cog­ni­tive sci­ence has been done on WEIRD sub­jects — that is, sub­jects sam­pled from West­ern, Edu­cat­ed, Indus­tri­al­ized, Rich, Demo­c­ra­t­ic soci­eties. But recent schol­ar­ship sug­gests that this fact may con­ceal real vari­a­tion across human com­mu­ni­ties.”

The Study

Mod­ern­iza­tion, Wealth And The Emer­gence Of Strong Alpha Oscil­la­tions In The Human EEG (not peer-reviewed yet). Abstract:

Oscil­la­tions in the alpha range (8–15 Hz) have been found to appear promi­nent­ly in the EEG sig­nal when peo­ple are awake with their eyes closed, and since their dis­cov­ery have been con­sid­ered a fun­da­men­tal cere­bral rhythm. While the mech­a­nism of this oscil­la­tion con­tin­ues to be debat­ed, it has been shown to bear pos­i­tive rela­tion to mem­o­ry capac­i­ty, atten­tion and a host of oth­er cog­ni­tive out­comes. Here we show that this fea­ture is large­ly unde­tect­ed in the EEG of adults with­out post-pri­ma­ry edu­ca­tion and access to mod­ern tech­nolo­gies. Fur­ther­more, we show that the spa­tial extent and ener­gy of the oscil­la­tion have wide vari­a­tion, with ener­gy rang­ing over a thou­sand fold across the breath of human­i­ty with no cen­tral­iz­ing mean. This rep­re­sents a diver­gence in a fun­da­men­tal func­tion­al char­ac­ter­is­tic of an organ demon­strat­ing both that mod­ern­iza­tion has had a pro­found influ­ence on brain dynam­ics and that a mean­ing­ful aver­age human brain does not exist in a dynam­i­cal sense.

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Categories: Cognitive Neuroscience, Education & Lifelong Learning, Technology

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As seen in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, BBC News, CNN, Reuters,  SharpBrains is an independent market research firm tracking how brain science can improve our health and our lives.

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