“In the fast-paced context of the human-reared digital age, we must take into account that this environment is laced with the sensory-demanding outputs of digital culture and technology”
This essay will investigate how digital technology engagement affects the cognitive process of perception, employing the discourse explored in the opening panel discussion of Cognitive Sensations. In the debate, Fields of Perception, we discussed the influences of virtual reality and digital technology on the relationship between perception and the environment.
Five panelists led the conversation, including Fiona Zisch, Pablo Fernandez Velasco, Vik Kaushal, Maritina Keleri & Daphne Economou. Their varied backgrounds in neuroscience, philosophy, architecture, computer science and art, acted as a foundation to a stimulating conversation, that invited audience members to participate in the form of a roundtable discussion.
As the curator of this project, I have taken advantage of this unique opportunity to circulate some of the research I’ve previously gathered. This will be the first of five essays that will serve as exploratory material for the subjects investigated in the Cognitive Sensations event programme.
The Act of Perceiving
Perception is initiated by a stimulus, defined by a change in the environment or body. This then results in a sensation which is the element that we perceive. The challenge of perception is that we are not perfect cameras, we interpret what we see through experience. As Zisch stresses from the very beginning of the discussion, our perception of the world is not fixed, it is interchangeable.
This characteristic of perception, that emphasises its sensitivity to external environmental factors, is what led me to organise this talk. As a budding digital cultural theorist, it is difficult to ignore that a huge element of our current landscape is infiltrated by the digital realm. Having learnt how influential our environment is upon the way we interpret and sense our world, I couldn’t help wondering what part digital technology has to play in affecting perception.
During the discussion, we explored the meaning of neuroplasticity to help us understand the role of the environment in shaping the way we learn. Neuroplasticity is defined by the brain’s ability to form new neuronal connections as a result of triggers in our environment. As outlined in the discussion, although the brain is most plastic at an early developmental period, its ability to adapt will remain for the human lifespan.
Professor of Psychiatry Bruce Wexler, is a key academic in illustrating the important role of culture in neuroplasticity. He emphasises that biological evolution is realised and amplified by the critical process, that ‘humans, and humans alone, shape and reshape the environments that shape their brain’(1). In the fast-paced context of the human-reared digital age, we must take into account that this environment is laced with the sensory-demanding outputs of digital culture and technology. If the configurations and ensembles of our neuronal functional systems are forged by the sensory inputs to our brain, then the psychological processes of perception and memory will be affected by this digital environment.
Conceiving the digital domain.
Digital environments differ in their scale, impact and presence, and can not be generalised by one framework. Via three models, I will explore the role that digital technology has to play in human perception.
At a primary level, we have this everyday condition, where we use digital technology to carry out work, for orientation and access to entertainment channels. Typically this involves screen technology such as laptops, computers and smartphones, which will often be disregarded during social activity.
In the discussion, this model was discussed with a particular emphasis on its role as a device to enhance life in the physical world. One audience member described our interaction with digital technology as a type of self-managed neuroplasticity that we choose to embrace. We attune our behaviours towards our digital devices because they serve the role of gaining control in our lives. Computers are after all, just our most recent version of the everyday tools that we have been using for centuries, encompassing the functions of; the typewriter; the printing press; maps; clocks; libraries; and even the post office.
Economou describes the presence of digital technology as invisible. Having grown so accustomed to its role and presence in everyday life, we no longer notice its physical impact. Although we may use technology as an enhancing tool in daily activity, we perceive and navigate space through our own means. Just because we use digital technology it doesn’t mean that we see it.
On the next level up, digital technology is increasingly integrated in daily life at times where it is unnecessary, exceeding its role as a useful tool. Suddenly smartphones appear at every possible moment we are alone, giving us access to constant social media, internet shopping, and instant messaging. In this model our devices have become our companions, our escape route and our dependence. In Alone Together, technology theorist Sherry Turkle describes how ‘being alone can start to seem like a precondition for being together because its easier to communicate if you can focus, without interruption, on your screen’ (2). This condition of continuous connection to digital technology stifles our capacity to consciously reflect upon our thoughts. Neuroscientist Susan Greenfield emphasises that as a result, we must consider ‘the vital role of the context in which the mind is operating from one conscious moment to the next’ (3). What happens to our senses as they continually take in external stimuli from digital technology?
In the discussion, artist Julius Colwyn reflected how this model of continuous and repetitive digital technology use can sometimes infiltrate perception, using the example of an incident linked to Candy Crush. Candy Crush is an addictive game used on phones, played by 93 million people on a daily basis (4). The rewards are released to users unexpectedly, making the game enticing as they crave the satisfaction of its small rewards. In Colwyn’s reflection, he told a story of an avid Candy Crush user who experienced a stroke. In the days of his recovery, he reported several delusions of the colourful candy figures playing around in his vision. This powerful sensory play of deception is illustrative of the way that we make up gaps in our knowledge with experiences. Nicholas Carr, writer and critic of the digital, emphasises that the internet:
‘delivers precisely the kind of sensory and cognitive stimuli – repetitive, intensive, interactive, addictive – that have been shown to result in strong and rapid alternations in brain circuits and functions’ (5)
The case of the Candy Crush user, would suggest that repetitive use of digital technology does indeed have the power to shift our perception and cognitive functions, just as Carr declares.
This final model explores a digital environment that pushes the everyday encounters of technology that we are used to. In virtual reality (VR), our vision of the physical world disappears behind digital space. Unless you’re an avid gamer, for most this is an unusual digital environment, but perhaps it’s something that will become increasingly normalised as we head further and further into the digital age.
In the discussion, we analysed the differences in perception between VR and the type of technologies one would expect in the first two models of this essay. Spatially a screen could be seen to flattens one’s experience, acting as a barrier of separation between the user and the device. In VR, one is embodied within an environment, with the sensation of being present in space, and the ability to explore in all manner of directions. In essence, it could be argued that VR is the most experiential digital environment, with enough sensory cues to recreate surroundings similar to real life.
Economou drew upon examples of the tools we use to engage with VR environments, to encourage us to think about their relationship with perception. Navigation and interaction in virtual space is aided by physical handheld controllers, almost as one would handle a gear stick in a vehicle. The tactile feedback helps us learn and develop sensory feedback, enhancing our ability to perceive new environments. Vision is dominated by googles that must be worn to enter the visual digital world. Particularly as our vision of the physical world has been taken away, I personally find the sensation of a controller comforting. To me it acts as a connection between myself and real life, which although I know is there, has been stripped from my vision.
The goggles and controllers aren’t needed in the perception of everyday environments, however we are quick to adapt to their use in VR. Although we only know how to negotiate real space, in VR we find ourselves finding new ways of navigating our environment, connecting us to the imaginative worlds of the virtual.
Through this short exploration of the relationship between digital environments and perception, it is evident that the further integrated we become with technology, the more our perception will adapt in response. In the first two models, we discussed the differing scales of impact that everyday screen technology has upon our presence and sense of the physical world. Used as a tool, digital technology is simply a device that we use to navigate the physical world, and so in a way, enhances our experience and abilities in life. When its usage is taken to a level of continuous and repetitive connectivity, it begins to create a perceptual barrier between one’s conscious thoughts and physical environment, diluting life experiences as a result.
In the final model, we explored how VR requires this division of the physical and virtual world in order for its user to adapt to its novel environment. Sensory cues from its controllers help us to bridge this gap between the two worlds, and adapt to its new model of navigation. Will our perception shift? If the two-dimensional small scale of Candy Crush can infiltrate perception outside of its use, the immersive embodiment of VR will surely possess the power to alter our cognitive functions. However, it is too early to predict how influential it will be at a time where it will only be used on occasion. Perhaps if VR is tied to your working practice or addictive gaming regime, then you may be victim to some perceptual changes, but for most this will be unlikely. It would seem that moderation is key in the navigation of the virtual in the digital age. Author: Gabriella Warren-Smith
- Wexler, B (2006) Brain and Culture: Neurobiology, Ideology and Social Change. MIT Press, p143.
- Turkle, S (2012) Alone Together. Basic Books, p155.
- Greenfield, S (2014) Mind Change: How Digital Technologies are Leaving their Mark on our Brains. Rider, p89.
- Smith, D (2014) This is what Candy Crush Saga does to your brain. The Guardian [online]
- Carr, N (2010) The Shallows: What the internet is going to our brains. W. W. Norton & Company. p116.