The Loss of Our Collective Cognition and Awareness

By Douglas Rushkoff. Published in What Should We Be Worried About? on 11 February 2014

We should be worried about the decline of the human nervous system. We should be worried that something—likely environmental but possibly more subtle than that—is hampering our ability to parent new human beings with coherently functioning perceptual apparatuses. We should worry about what this means not just for our society’s economic future but for the future of our collective cognition and awareness as a species.

Consider the rising proportion of our youth who are classified as “special needs.” By current count, one in eighty-eight children has an autism spectrum disorder—and one in fifty-four boys. Eight percent of children between three and seventeen years old have a learning disability. Seven percent have ADHD. And these figures are rising steadily. The vast majority of children with spectrum disorders also suffer from “co-morbidities,” such as anxiety disorder, sensory-processing disorder, intellectual disabilities, and social disorders. These special-needs children will likely need special education and then special care and special caretakers for the rest of their lives. Someone has to pay for this.

Moreover, as the numbers of children affected by these impairments increase, the amount of resources remaining to raise and educate the “neurotypical” members of our communities go down. The more children requiring $100,000 and up of special-needs education each year, the less money remains and the larger the regular classes must become. There are of course many social remedies for these problems, from increased community support and involvement to radical rethinking of education itself. But the less well educated we are, the less prepared we are tackle these issues.

And spectrum disorders are just the most visible evidence of neural breakdown. We must also consider the extensive use of SSRIs and other mood-enhancement drugs. Unlike psychedelics and other psychosocial learning substances, SSRIs were designed for continuous use. By treating stress, anxiety, and even transient depression as chronic conditions, the doctors prescribing these medications (influenced by the companies peddling them) are changing people’s neurochemistry in order to dampen their responses to real life. The fact that 23 percent of American women between the ages of forty and fifty-nine take SSRIs may have less to say about this group’s propensity for depression than it does about the way our society currently responds to women between forty and fifty-nine. To drug the victim may be merciful on some level but only paralyzes our collective self-regulation as a culture and a species.

So on the one hand, we should be worried about a future in which there are only a few of us left to keep the lights on, caring for a huge population of neurally-challenged adults. We are seeing the beginnings of this in a media-influenced society of imbecilic beliefs, road rage, and inappropriate reactions to stimuli. The reasonable people, on whom we depend for restaurants, hospitals, and democracy itself to function, seem to be dwindling in numbers, replaced by those with short tempers, inferiority complexes, and an inability to read basic social cues. On the other hand, if all this bothers us, we’re supposed to take medication to alter our perceptions of and responses to social phenomena that should rightly make any healthy person depressed. And the number of people who have chosen to pharmaceutically limit their emotional range should be a concern—because they are no longer bearing witness to our collective reality. There are fewer of us left alarmed enough to take the action necessary.

Not to mention that all these drugs end up in the water supply and beyond, likely leading to increases in spectrum disorders among children. (Taking SSRIs during pregnancy, for instance, leads to double the probability of delivering a child on the autism spectrum.) So we come full circle, increasingly incapable of doing anything about this feedback loop, or even caring about it. We’re soaking in it.

But there’s an even greater concern. We should worry less about our species losing its biosphere than losing its soul. Our collective perceptions and cognition are our greatest evolutionary achievement. This is the activity that gives biology its meaning. Our human neural network is in the process of deteriorating and our perceptions are becoming skewed, both involuntarily and by our own hand. And all that most of us in the greater scientific community can do is hope that somehow technology picks up the slack, providing more accurate sensors, faster networks, and a new virtual home for complexity.

We should worry that such networks won’t be able to function without us; we should also worry that they will.