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Brain towards Nature. How internet affects physical activity?

Brain towards Nature. How internet affects physical activity?

Publication title: Panagiotis Perros "Brain towards nature - How internet affects physical activity?" (2011) NEW DIRECTIONS IN ORGANIZATIONAL PSYCHOLOGY AND BEHAVIOURAL MEDICINE"- Psychological and Behavioural Aspects of Risk Series - Ashgate Publishing Limited - Burlington, Vermont, USA


Let us recall how scientific information was published and gathered some decades, or even some centuries ago. Gutenberg made a great step providing the world the benefit to massively produce printed ideas and scientific research. But how accessible was this kind of knowledge to the other side of the known world? How much pain and effort should someone dedicate to reach and collect sources of knowledge in order for him to develop scientific or even art and literature research? We all know that a scientist or an artist is a well known pathfinder who is continuously learning how to discover past knowledge and useful data. By restricting his access to the knowledge sources, we actually restrict his development perspectives.

Internet is well known as the ultimate solution for data storage and publishing. Easy access to data, easy communication with people, easy interacting with institutions, organizations and various commercial activities are provided in a straightforward way. Time-saving as we already said. The only thing a researcher has to care about is his work and its rational progress. No need for traveling plans and fees, for transportation inconveniences and pointless meetings. Pure usable data. But how much “natural” is this kind of personal progress. Whether someone is dedicated to mine and use data, he focuses in a kind of introverted mental activity by means of lacking real time, real life environmental interaction. Internet’s easiness is very attractive by itself resulting in a constant, tireless use of these brand new technological achievements. Software has become an instant problem-solver which intends to replace any other traditional way of solving problems.

One the other hand, internet is not supposed to promote only science, art and rational thought in general. It is often used to promote new ways of entertainment and recreation. Technology maintains an almost magical way to promote man’s imagination by producing an ideal virtual environment where someone could control every aspect of it targeting at his own personal pleasure. This kind of entertainment appears to be safer and easier than playing soccer on a dirty alley full of dust concurrently maintaining a high risk of physical pain and injury.

Rational thought, science and logic tend to create a new kind of reality ignoring or suppressing the rules of nature. This kind of dualistic consideration, this “battle” between the truth deriving from our minds and the truth originating from Nature, is not something new. It is established upon a long aged heritage back to pre-Socratic philosophers and especially Thales, who was the first one to form a rational band of primary (actually naïve under the aspects of later thought and science) logic rules to explain the origin and development of the world. This was the blast which initiated the course of science till today. But this was not only the beginning of science. Furthermore, it was the burst of a brand new consideration: we are no longer manipulated by nature, we could dominate nature. We could put nature under scientific examination, under the microscope of the most thorough scientific investigators. We are now something else: Mother Logic provides us rules. Are we ready to face the physical consequences of such a radical change to our civilization?

Misapprehending Physical Activity

The case of cyber sexual behavior

The most common case of misreading physical activity takes place when the semantic borders between physical world and internet seem quite uncertain. Going back to 17th century we may recall philosophers believing that they are misled by sensory information and they could actually be prisoners of a virtual world or a plausible dream (Descartes, 1641). Nowadays technology has come to further obscure the limits of real and virtual life as virtual experience tends to become even more concrete and tangible. A representative instance of this kind of misapprehension is the cyber sexual interaction. As widely known “Cybersex is a subcategory of online sexual activities (OSA) and is defined as when two or more people are engaging in sexual talk while online for the purposes of sexual pleasure and may or may not include masturbation. Cybersex is a growing phenomenon with a significant impact on participants.” (Daneback et al, 2005). This kind of activity usually involves two individuals participating in a fantasy which is not mutual. Each one enjoys different kind of feelings without being in direct physical touch with his partner. Furthermore the cyber sexual activity could take place without the need of two partners. One individual could express one-sided sexual activity while accessing adult content websites. This kind of surfing in our day and age is a very common online behavior leading to the belief that pornography has become to be more vivid and attractive than ever before (Renshaw, 2007). This kind of vividness has led some to confront virtual world as a synonym to the physical world.

While referring to close human to human interaction (such as the case of sexual activity) we could assert that the absence of touch and physical interaction brings obstacles in the simultaneous reciprocity of feeling. Psychology could describe this situation in its continuous and systematic expression as “Sexual autism”. This kind of behavior could be considered as normal during teenager life (as a primary stage of future normal sexual activity) but it usually stresses a pathological behavior among adults (Askitis, 2008). An adult who systematically prefers cyber sexual activity instead of the physical one could easily become sexually distant or even sexually coward. Furthermore, the anonymity and safety internet promises could in some cases lead to a quick and easy spread of illegal activity such as trafficking and child exploitation (Ferraro et. al, 2004). But, apart from illegal activity, the constant cyber sex isolation has proved to be a mainly problematic behavior concerning the field of sexual (and consequently cyber-sexual) compulsivity. Sexual compulsivity has been defined as "an insistent, repetitive, intrusive, and unwanted urge to perform specific acts often in ritualized or routinized fashions" (Kalichman & Rompa, 1995). Someone addicted to express his sexuality in a cyber, mostly virtual way, tends to confuse physical and cyber life without being able to discern the barriers between the brain-made world and the conventional natural world. This behavior is accompanied by high levels of distress (Cooper et al, 2000) whether an individual cannot pro-actively control his (cyber) sexual compulsivity levels.

A longsighted way of cyber life should include a more moderate internet behavior. Despite the fact that online activities like cyber sex may conclude in some kind of addiction (when pathologically repeated), may also conclude in a more social expression of an individual. In this way, cyber sexual activity (as a moderate, non pathological habit) results in promoting the real world natural sexual activity as recent research has declared (Daneback et al, 2005). Individuals engaged in cyber sex tend to have more offline sex partners than those not engaging in cyber sex. This apparently may increase the risk of Sexual Transmitted Diseases (Mc Farlane et al, 2007) but does not in any case promote virtual world instead of the real one. Virtual world results in boosting conventional natural life when moderately confronted.

Promoting Physical Activity

Medical sources may assure us that virtual environment can actually offer the potential for significant gains in cognitive function. This has been proved during a rehabilitation procedure among patients suffering from brain injuries (Grealy et al, 1999). Broadening the axiological value of internet and computer applications regarding human nature, we can nowadays observe that virtual environment, apart from improving brain functions, tends to become a tool of physical activity, boosting the ideal of healthy living in a more direct way. Preventive medicine finds internet a great chance to move beyond reliance on strictly face-to-face modes and begin to more fully use newer technologies (Marcus et al, 2000), promoting physical activity with interactive communications. As a matter of fact, during the last few years we can discover in various marketplaces fitness equipment (i.e. treadmills) directly connected to internet for downloading exercising guidelines and programs without the need for a personal trainer. Internet and computer technology improves sport experience for all. Through computer technology, it is possible to make participation in sport a safer and more enjoyable experience that should contribute to the emotional and physical well being of all participants (Katz, 2003). Apart from useful software we could gain access to web based video or streaming video on demand participating in multimedia platforms which help us exercise in the right way, even through personalized methodology based on user’s submitted data.

But let us not keep strictly to physical exercise meaning a systematic fitness procedure. Internet can make us more extraverted persons, willing to travel, to physically appear in different places all over the world. Everyone could become familiar with a place where he has never been before. Furthermore, someone could surpass doctrines and prejudices regarding foreign societies and nations. Let’s assume that there is a young Greek boy living in a distant village of northern Greece who sometimes hears his grandmother saying that Sicily is the home place of mafia and it is a very hazardous place to visit even on one-time vacation. This prejudice is based on a commonplace holding from genre to genre, without depicting the actual reality of this beautiful region of Italy.

Some decades ago, the famous book (which was later transferred to the cinema screens) “Midnight Express” (Hayes, 1977) describes the utter and surreal ordeal that a convicted hash smuggler endured while incarcerated in the Turkish prison system. Writer describes a system which was designed to devalue human existence and destroy human dignity. As a result of his so-called “nightmarish narrative” a wide belief was formed that Turkey is not a hospitable place to visit. Even during the last few years, a best-seller film came up depicting some tourists visiting Bratislava in Slovakia tempted to follow some beautiful women and later figuring out that they had been sold to a sadistic group which intended to torture and kill them. This sadistic group was presented throughout the plot as being covered by the official Slovakian authorities and by some local greedy for money people (Hostel, 2005). So, what idea could an average citizen of i.e. United States form regarding Turkey and Slovakia as an option for his summer holidays without having access to information which could overturn the doctrines established by the “Midnight Express” book and the “Hostel” movie? I suppose the idea would be negative regarding these two countries as holiday destinations. But luckily enough, we could easily access information and we are not depending in bestselling books and films to acquire knowledge. Internet is one click away and we could explore Slovakia and Turkey online, coming in touch with their daily life and tradition and even communicating with Slovak or Turkish people by email, online communities and live chat applications. Prejudice about “bad foreigners” or even “barbarians” could reduce one’s physical activities (i.e. traveling, walking, coming in real-world touch with other people) resulting in an intense introversion and an unsocial xenophobic behavior. But prejudice is an unknown word for people who really know how to use genuine information over the internet.

Considering the above mentioned example, internet is actually promoting extraverted behaviors when faced as a tool to extend real-life social behavior: if someone owns a bicycle could join a club where other bicyclists organize weekly excursions. Taking into consideration that bicycle is not so popular in some European capitals (i.e. Athens, Greece) we could understand how valuable could internet become to an Athenian bicyclist as he could not find any partners in the real world resulting in a boring isolation.  In direct or indirect ways, internet can help us improving our standards of living promoting extraverted behaviors and physical exercise. 

Reducing Physical Activity

How can internet reduce physical activity in general?  As already mentioned, parents could assume that their eleven year old boy is more safe and secure playing his web based RPG (Role playing game) than risking his physical integrity in a dirty alley playing soccer or basketball with a bunch of other aggressive children. But what do parents finally manage to achieve by maintaining such a behavior? Should they care if their child is increasing his weight by reducing his physical activity? It is commonly known that more than one-quarter of U.S. children are obese and this number is dramatically increasing. It is also widely known that physical activity can reduce body fat and blood pressure and improve lipoprotein profile in obese individuals (Bar-or et al, 1998). So by keeping our children way from physical activity fearing that they could injure themselves, we actually ensure their future weak health. Furthermore, “safe and easy” internet could become an addiction, especially when referring to such young ages. When child realizes that the only thing required for having fun, meeting (even virtually) new friends, and exploring new worlds is the single left click of his handy mouse device, internet surfing could easily become an addiction.

Internet users in Korea were investigated in terms of internet over-use and related psychological profiles by the level of internet use. Among 13,588 users  (7,878 males, 5,710 females), 3.5% had been diagnosed as internet addicts (IA), while 18.4% of them were classified as possible internet addicts (PA). "The Internet Addiction Scale showed a strong relationship with dysfunctional social behaviors. More IA tried to escape from reality than PA and Non-addicts (NA). When they got stressed out by work or were just depressed, IA showed a high tendency to access the internet. The IA group also reported the highest degree of loneliness, depressed mood, and compulsivity compared to the other groups. The IA group seemed to be more vulnerable to interpersonal dangers than others, showing an unusually close feeling for strangers." (Leo Sang-Min Whang et al, 2003)

By taking into consideration these statistic researches we may easily conclude that the possibility of injury during a soccer game in a young boy’s neighborhood should be more preferable than the constant unsociable behavior which could also lead to serious health problems sooner or later. But not only children or young ages are supposed to be facing the “internet addiction” problem. It may occur to all ages: “Why not shopping online than going to the mall? Why not chatting and flirting online than going for a walk with a couple of friends? Why not surfing than walking?” These are some thoughts of an average middle-aged individual. Sometimes these thoughts are temporary but when someone constantly tends to avoid being social and/or physically active, then we may cross the threshold of “internet addiction”. It is commonly confessed that internet has many seductive properties than anyone could imagine some years ago. Furthermore, "dependents" of the Internet spend most of their time in the synchronous communication environment engaging in interactive online games, chat rooms, and ICQ for pleasure-seeking or escape, while "non-dependents" use information-gathering functions available on the Internet (Leung, 2004). This leads us to think that non-addictive personalities tend to confront internet as a mere useful tool. On the other hand, addictive personalities confront internet as a way of life. It is not just a tool, it is not just a way to communicate, it is the communication by itself. Internet seems to carry an independent value: It contains brand new ideas; it may form a completely new ideological system. If we do not realize it, we are endorsing the commonplace that internet is morally neutral, running away from asking ourselves questions about essential ethical issues regarding internet and technology in general (Rowe. 1990). Nevertheless, philosophy and active thinking has to take place, whether we would like to be mentioned as technology users and not as technology addicts.

Substituting Physical Activity

“If anybody asks me what the Internet means to me, I will tell him without hesitation: To me (a quadriplegic) the Internet occupies the most important part in my life. It is my feet that can take me to any part of the world; it is my hands which help me to accomplish my work; it is my best friend - it gives my life meaning.” (Zhangxu, 2001)

Internet is the main gateway to physical world when referring to people with kinetic disabilities. It is a great obstacle for a disabled person to attend University lessons, to solve bureaucracy problems or even to be among the audience of a music festival or a public political debate. Nevertheless, all the above mentioned occasions and many more can be accessible online through internet multimedia technology. Many studies have thoroughly examined the perspectives of internet use regarding disabled people (Schubert et al, 2004) implementing useful statistics (Pilling et al, 2004). Furthermore, many companies and individuals compromise their websites with universal design aspects and commonly established accessibility guidelines (Hofstader, 2004). The main motto representing the global effort to make internet a user-friendly world (Paciello, 2000) for both able bodied and disabled people is “By making an online place accessible for a disabled person, we make it usable for all” (Gillinson at al, 2004). Even techniques specially designed for visually impaired people -such as screen-readers (ADE Glossary, 2008)- many times are proved to by useful for all.

Apart from disability circumstances, internet can stand for a second-chance physical world. From the early nineties the term “Netizen” came up in official bibliography defining the citizens who utilize the Net from their home, workplace, school, library or other locations, being among those who populate the Net making it a human resource. These Netizens participate to help make Internet both an intellectual and a social resource (Licklider et al, 1994). Internet is not a mere tool anymore, it is a common global way to come together and form a new society. According to this new kind of society, new identities are emerging for all people. Some Netizens’ internet identities are the same with these belonging to the physical world, but others are entirely new and, many times, completely contradictory: An overweight guy is probably ashamed of wearing a skintight t-shirt, a mature lady is probably not feeling comfortable to dance in the rhythms of teenagers’ music, a young boy may be afraid of playing basketball with older and bigger people. All these holdbacks disappear in a digital world, where users do not differ according to their physical substance, but they make themselves unique by using their mental and emotional skills.

All people can even start a new life from the beginning, in a virtual world where all try to form an ideal environment by somehow correcting the imperfective physical world. Even industries, organizations and whole nations take part in a second chance now online, named “Second life” (Secondlife.com). Second Life is an Internet-based virtual world which came to international attention via mainstream news media in late 2006 and early 2007 (Irene, 2007) (James, 2006) Virtual residents of the Secondlife software platform can explore, meet other Residents, socialize, participate in individual and group activities, and buy items (virtual property) and services from one another. Second Life is one of several virtual worlds that have been inspired by the cyberpunk literary movement, and particularly by Neal Stephenson's novel Snow Crash (Stephenson, 1993). The main goal is to create a world like the Metaverse described by Stephenson, a user-defined world of general use in which people can interact, play, do business, and otherwise communicate. Many users of this online application choose a completely new identity as they are trying to live a new life. Some of them even choose to change their sex. Some of them are confronting this internet application as a personal experiment (how things could be if i…), others as a way to entertain themselves having fun with others.

Subsequently, internet is capable of substituting physical activities. Some people need this substitution; others just want to utilize this completely new chance in their lives.

Internet effectively used

Apparently we are all depending on nature. Even the most selfish pleader of human’s omnipotent logic should admit that he cannot survive without the connection to natural food or water resources. So it would be a wise solution to understand how the dualism between civilization and nature works. Being a civilized man inevitably means that you can drive your car on a public road, you can build industries, you can use plastic products, you can even enjoy your air conditioning and your brand new television set. By living in a civilized world, you should at least use electricity to turn your artificial lighting on. All these acts have a minor or major negative impact to nature. Civilization by itself stands against nature. But the great thing is that Nature does not need Civilization to survive although Civilization without Nature could not exist. So, what should an ordinary civilized human being do in order to use the products of Civilization reducing the damages caused to Nature and, of course, to his physical existence?

In the case of Internet, someone could recall ancient Greek philosophy. Aristotle (Nicomachean Ethics) taught that to achieve the good life, one must live a balanced life and avoid excess. This balance, he taught, varies among different persons and situations, and exists as a golden mean between two vices - one an excess and one a deficiency.  In the same way, one could use world wide web to acquire knowledge and shape motives to explore the physical aspect of this knowledge. For instance, one could search in a search engine for “Caretta Caretta Turtles”. He could learn about these sea turtles living in Mediterranean Sea and especially in Zakynthos, a Greek island. This kind of knowledge could transform into a great traveling motive to physically meet the island where these rare species reside. Even if he does not physically meet one turtle, traveler has already made a close step to learn more things about nature and its species.

Many philosophers assert that modern civilized man has destroyed his connection to the original sources of physical sensations, by considering reason more important than the cognitive sources derived from nature itself: “We are born capable of sensation and from birth are affected in diverse ways by the objects around us. As soon as we become conscious of our sensations we are inclined to seek or to avoid the objects which produce them: at first, because they are agreeable or disagreeable to us, later because we discover that they suit or do not suit us, and ultimately because of the judgements we pass on them by reference to the idea of happiness of perfection we get from reason. These inclinations extend and strengthen with the growth of sensibility and intelligence, but under the pressure of habit they are changed to some extent with our opinions. The inclinations before this change are what I call our nature. In my view everything ought to be in conformity with these original inclinations.” (Émile, Book 1 - translation by Boyd 1956: 13; see also, 1911 edition p. 7).

Rousseau hopes that we should conform to our original inclinations. We could not follow his suggestion by completely ignoring how nature finally works: we all grew up in an anthropocentric educational system where human should ignore nature: We have all learned that we are allowed to use nature but not to serve the needs of nature. During this selfish way of civilized life we have forgotten that human beings are not the only mammals on earth. Nature is something far away from us. Nevertheless, internet can ensure easy access to any information required in order for us to enrich our cognitive abilities regarding aspects of Nature we could not even imagine. This can be done in our offices, in our home’s, in our friend’s home. There are no excuses. Environmental and ecologic data is free and endless in World Wide Web. By learning more about Nature, by getting in physical touch with our Ecosystem, we learn more about us, about the way human body must be treated. Nature always gives us the most beautiful and trustworthy guidelines for our wellness. Knowledge about that is only one click away.


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