The neuroscientist Susan Greenfield has been prominent in arguing that our new digital lives are profoundly altering the structure of our brains. This is undoubtedly the case – but then all human activities impact upon the individual brain as they’re happening; this by no means implies a permanent alteration, let alone a heritable one. After all, so far as we can tell the gross neural anatomy of the human has remained unchanged for hundreds of millennia, while the age of bi-directional digital media only properly dates – in my view – from the inception of wireless broadband in the early 2000s, hardly enough time for natural selection to get to work on the adaptive advantages of … tweeting. Nevertheless, pioneering studies have long since shown that licensed London cab drivers, who’ve completed the exhaustive “Knowledge” (which consists of memorising every street and notable building within a six mile radius of Charing Cross), have considerably enlarged posterior hippocampi.
This is the part of brain concerned with way-finding, but it’s also strongly implicated in memory formation; neuroscientists are now discovering that at the cognitive level all three abilities – memory, location, and narration – are intimately bound up. This, too, is hardly surprising: key for humans, throughout their long pre-history as hunter-gatherers, has been the ability to find food, remember where food is and tell the others about it. It’s strange, of course, to think of Pride and Prejudice or Ulysses as simply elaborations upon our biologically determined inclination to give people directions – but then it’s perhaps stranger still to realise that sustained use of satellite navigation, combined with absorbing all our narrative requirements in pictorial rather written form, may transform us into miserable and disoriented amnesiacs.
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