Velleda C. Ceccoli PhD – Generation Gap: Ageism or Darwinian Adaptation?

Recently, in the ongoing supervision group that I have belonged to for almost 20 years, there ensued a discussion about working with younger patients, and whether we were speaking a different language. My colleagues and I all felt a generational gap, and wondered together whether we had finally taken up the language that our parents spoke, and their parents before them, in regard to the differences between one generation and the next. Are we getting old we wondered? Well yes we are, inevitably. But all of us recognized that getting old is only part of the story. This post is about some other possibilities.


In thinking about what constitutes and shapes the worldview of a “generation”, I started to think about those things in our culture that shape perception, influencing our thoughts, feelings, preferences, desires, choices, and perhaps the very wiring of our brain. I am not speaking here about our personal history and experiences (although they too  shape our brain structure and are the shakers and movers of who we are), but rather of the cultural and social context that shapes our worldview: industrial and economic upswings and downturns, spiritual and religious movements, scientific discoveries and technological advancements, to name a few. Each generation has been influenced by such events, molded into believing certain ideas, consuming specific products, and making particular choices. And this is as it should be. So perhaps what we experience as a generation gap has to do with the particular adaptations that each generation has to make – the individual brain re-wiring itself to absorb and survive the cultural and societal onslaught of information and change. Yes, that is what I am proposing (and I am not alone in this belief): our brains respond and adapt to the shifts and changes in our cultural context by rewiring themselves in order to process and deal with current contexts and situations.* I am speaking here of the sort of adaptation that is necessary in the Darwinian, survival of the fittest kind of way. An adaptation that happens at the brain level and generates important changes in learning and communication patterns that affect behavior. An adaptation that occurs out of immediate awareness, yet has deep personal and societal implications. A necessary adaptation to the shifting nature of  the world and the way it is perceived, experienced and communicated. Perhaps this is what is behind our experience of the gap between one generation or the next: We are wired differently – at the brain level.

Cultural ideology impacts each generation anew and propels an evolution from the previous one, an actual neuro-biological adaptation to the evolving cultural and social context. We have made enormous progress say, since the generation of my grandparents, who experienced two world wars, relied on newspapers and radio for their news, travelled overseas by boat, and used telephones only occasionally and mostly for emergencies, preferring written letters as a means of communication. That generation was also one that believed in chivalry, assigned gender roles, heterosexuality, and the supremacy of one race or religion or sex over the other. But things changed.

My parents’ generation began to see many industrial, technological and scientific changes. They survived a world war, experienced the birth of the atomic bomb, bought televisions and watched world news on them, and had a new kind of advertising infiltrate their choices. Films became popular means of telling stories and expanding the possibilities of the imagination. Automobiles became a popular form of transportation, and airplanes shortened the distances that could be travelled. Chivalry and gender roles persisted, yet things were changing quickly.

My generation, often referred to as baby boomers, became associated with a redefinition of traditional values questioning many of the cultural and societal dictums of the previous generation (sex differences, gender roles, racial and economic inequality). Widely associated with privilege, mine was a generation that grew up in a time of increasing affluence, where it appeared that anything was possible. As a group, this generation was the wealthiest, most active, and most physically fit. It oversaw the boom of technology, the introduction of computers, word processing, cable television and the early beginnings of internet technology. This literally changed the way that we thought and conceptualized things, as well as the way that we learned about and transmitted information. Everything seemed to change in my generation.

Then came the so-called Generation X, born shortly before and/or during the general introduction of digital technologies like personal computers and operating systems, video games, MTV and the widespread use of the internet. They were the first to grow up with computers in their homes. By interacting with digital technology from an early age Xers not only have a greater understanding of its concepts, they embody them – think of the genius bar at any Apple store.

One of the most significant developments in the current generation (Generation Y or “echo boomers”) has been their use of social networking media. They are the first to grow up with this new technology and are highly connected, having had lifelong use of communication and media technology like the world wide web, Skype, text and instant messaging, digital photography and video, mp3 players, cellular phones and a myriad of applications which communicate wirelessly with home computers, automobiles, and yes, people. This generation is always connected to whatever they want to be connected to.

You can see where I am going here. I am not attempting to give an exhaustive list of all of the changes that the 20th and 21st centuries have seen. Rather, I am arguing that as human beings we are continuing to develop, changing and adapting all the time, and that such changes are catalyzed by culture, which amends and revamps the actual structures of our brain. Adaptation requires these physical changes, which in turn bring about psychological ones. Each generation has been impacted by the social, cultural and technological advances of its time, and that impact has very likely shaped and rewired individual brains (collectively) so that they could adapt to the changes in their environs.

In this generation it is technology, the internet, and in particular social media which are changing the way people think, feel and act. This is inevitable and as it should be. Think of the way information is available today, almost immediately and at our fingertips. If I want to research something I can access many worldwide library sites, giving me access to specific articles, videos, broadcasts and books. I can Google anything from recipes to dance performances to references to maps to addresses. Colleagues tell me that it is possible to find out not only where people are, but what they are reading and eating! And that is just the internet. With social media we have Instant Everything in 20-second bytes, short segments of information that do not exceed 140 characters, photographs of events and people tweeted across continents. Social media allows people to share their lives with others (known and unknown) on an ongoing basis. It moves across boundaries, doors and walls at the touch of a send command.

This generation assimilates information quickly and multitasks their way through life. It takes in vast amounts of data in short amounts of time. This is not because they are impatient but because they think differently, and necessarily so: Interacting with multiple screens (and people, places and things) on their computers, or phones or iPads requires a different way of processing information and a different way of relating. It requires a different brain which accommodates to environmental demands and to the technology that creates those demands. A brain that is re-wired on the basis of of what it interacts with. To my mind, this is what the gap between generations is all about – gradual adaptations in brain structure, from one generation to the next, based on cultural, scientific and technological advances. Not ageism at all, but survival through adaptation and integration. Darwin would feel vindicated.

For more, take a look at Jason Silva’s brilliant video below and prepare to be amazed. Here’s to the next generation! You are awesome.

Velleda C. Ceccoli PhD

First published on Dr. Ceccoli’s blog, Out of My Mind, on April 08, 2013. 

*If you are interested  in the way that technology influences brain structure and want to read more, check out Nicholas Carr’s “The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains” and his blog.


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