The Lone Ranger and Gangbusters were popular radio programs when I was a child. Such programs and the Superhero comic books that also emerged at that time were criticized for glorifying violence and diminishing the mental potential of young people—who adults thought should rather read a good book or go outside and play.

Films, television, videogames, and the Internet sparked similar rounds of criticism as they emerged. Each parental generation is seemingly convinced that the inane, violent, and sexual elements of the latest mass media format will mentally destroy and morally corrupt their passive, uncritical children. But they also believe that their own parents’ similar concerns about inane and degenerate media were overstated. Today’s parents thus sing along in nostalgia when they hear the Gilligan’s Island theme, unconcerned about how inane it and similar shows of their youth actually were.

Some intriguing recent research disagrees with the conventional wisdom that contemporary mass media and videogames are destructive, arguing rather that current forms of electronic media actually enhance cognitive development. This two-part column will explore the issue. This month’s column will focus on the relevant cognitive systems that process natural and electronic environments. Next month’s column will describe and discuss the research on the positive and negative effects of contemporary electronic media on these brain systems.

The Relevant Brain Systems
Our brain’s principal tasks are to plan and execute our own movements, and to predict and respond to the movements of other organisms and objects. Movement is a broad concept. For example, speech is a form of movement that rhythmically projects air molecules in a manner that transmits thoughts from the speaker’s to the hearer’s brain.

Our movement-oriented brain must thus be able to recognize and respond to novel and familiar dangers and opportunities. The typical result of this cognitive activity involves a movement toward opportunities or away from dangers.

The Cortex
The conscious elements of this integrated set of tasks occur principally within the cortex, the large deeply-folded sheet of neural tissue at the top of our brain.

The sensory lobes at the back of the cortex receive and integrate information about what’s occurring inside and outside our body, and the frontal lobes determine and execute a response. The sensory lobes mature during childhood, and the frontal lobes mature during adolescence.

The right hemisphere of the cortex (in most people) is organized to develop creative solutions to novel challenges, and the left hemisphere to activate an established appropriate routine if the challenge is familiar. Most childhood challenges are novel, but experience gradually transforms novelty into familiarity, and thus activates a more efficient response.

Many such exploratory experiences occur within play and games that involve movement. Play involves informal individual or small group explorations with a minimal focus on a clearly defined goal. Games are more organized and typically involve scored comparisons of specific skills exhibited by competing individuals or teams who have the same clearly defined goal.

We seek to improve our prior performances in both play and games. We thus seek challenges that are neither too easy nor too difficult, but rather just beyond our capabilities. Attaining the immediate goal brings only transitory joy, since we typically become almost immediately focused on the next (more difficult) test of our abilities. One can almost think of play and games as emotion/attention activities.

Emotion and Attention
Our brain’s integrated emotion/attention system initiates everything we think and do. It’s impossible to resolve and respond to a problem if we’re not attending to it, and why would we attend to something that’s unimportant? Emotion (our arousal system) thus drives attention (our focusing system), which drives our recognition of and response to novel and familiar challenges. Many mental disorders (from autism in children to Alzheimer’s disease in the aged) result from malfunctions in our emotion and/or attention systems.

Our brain must continually explore variations from normality, and ignore or merely monitor steady states. Any major variation implies a potential danger or opportunity that might require a quick response. A brain that doesn’t attend to a rapidly approaching car won’t live long.

A child in a living room in which nothing has changed in days will thus focus on TV or video games and their emotionally arousing and continually changing environments. The more the environment deviates from normality, the more attractive it is to a developing brain that must explore and master many recognition and response strategies.

The normal lives of most young people aren’t violent or sexually charged, but these are innate survival concerns. The relevant cognitive recognition and response systems must thus be developed and maintained. Childhood fairy tales often focus on events related to abandonment, violence, and sexuality, so it’s not surprising that the same themes occur in their current electronic correlates, and in the games young people play. Fear is a key emotional state that drives much of what we do.

A four-year-old grandchild once told me that he wanted to sit on my lap while I told him scary stories. He had an innate sense that he needed to develop his fear system, but preferably in a pretend setting, safe on his grandfather’s lap, than in a real life scary situation.

The emerging generation’s world encompasses both natural and electronic environments. They must master both, and so they become screenagers as well as teenagers. Next month’s column will discuss what researchers are discovering about the positive and negative effects of electronic media on the development of this dual identity.