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The tech talk continues – Steven Pinker on your brain and technology

I’ve posted a couple of times recently about the ongoing debate regarding how technology impacts the way that we think and learn (“Testing Your Techno Depravity” and “Wired for Distraction“). Now, I’m not a technophobe arguing that Mark Zuckerberg is the Antichrist or that Twitter is going to bring about the Technocalypse. I just think that everyone involved in any kind of education needs to stay informed about the discussion.

So, to continue the conversation, I thought I’d point out Steven Pinker’s NYT piece today arguing that a lot of the discussion is driven more by media hype that science. (Could that possibly be?) He leads with the observation that “New forms of media have always caused moral panics: the printing press, newspapers, paperbacks and television were all once denounced as threats to their consumers’ brainpower and moral fiber.” And, such claims are rampant in the media about modern technology as well. But Pinker argues that we need a reality check. Instead of declining attention spans and decreased mental capacity, he contends that the sciences and the humanities are flourishing today. So, we simply lack any real evidence that increased technology corresponds to decreased mental capacity.

He also pushes back against claims about how experiences change brain structure. While such changes do occur, he seems to see them as rather superficial and not affecting “the basic information-processing capacities of the brain.”

And so, he concludes his argument with the following suggestions:

Yes, the constant arrival of information packets can be distracting or addictive, especially to people with attention deficit disorder. But distraction is not a new phenomenon. The solution is not to bemoan technology but to develop strategies of self-control, as we do with every other temptation in life. Turn off e-mail or Twitter when you work, put away your Blackberry at dinner time, ask your spouse to call you to bed at a designated hour.

And to encourage intellectual depth, don’t rail at PowerPoint or Google. It’s not as if habits of deep reflection, thorough research and rigorous reasoning ever came naturally to people. They must be acquired in special institutions, which we call universities, and maintained with constant upkeep, which we call analysis, criticism and debate. They are not granted by propping a heavy encyclopedia on your lap, nor are they taken away by efficient access to information on the Internet.

Clearly then, the discussion continues. As I commented in interaction with another person, the issue isn’t so much whether technology is changing the way that we learn and think. That is clear even if we are still debating whether the changes are neurological, behavioral, or something else. The more important questions for us have to do with which of those changes are positive and which are negative (there are surely some of both), as well as how this needs to affect the way that we conduct ourselves as educators.

Wired for distraction?

Nicholas Carr recent wrote a piece for Wired Magazine on the way that the internet is literally rewiring our brains. The article reports on a 2007 study demonstrating that browsing the internet for as little as five hours actually causes significant changes in the brain’s neural pathways. Given that our brains are constantly adjusting to sensory input, this really isn’t surprising. As Carr points out,

The real revelation was how quickly and extensively Internet use reroutes people’s neural pathways. “The current explosion of digital technology not only is changing the way we live and communicate,” Small concluded, “but is rapidly and profoundly altering our brains.”

So, Carr rightly notes that the real question is, “What kind of brain is the web giving us?” And, he thinks that the answer might be a little troubling.

Dozens of studies by psychologists, neurobiologists, and educators point to the same conclusion: When we go online, we enter an environment that promotes cursory reading, hurried and distracted thinking, and superficial learning. Even as the Internet grants us easy access to vast amounts of information, it is turning us into shallower thinkers, literally changing the structure of our brain.

The rest of the article goes on to point out concerns raised in several studies about the quality of learning in an internet environment – particularly the impact that hyperlinks have on reading comprehension.

Of course, this isn’t a new discussion. In a now famous Atlantic Monthly article, Carr asked the question “Is Google Making Us Stoopid?” Others have sounded a similarly negative tone, warning us about the cognitive dangers of constant web browsing (see esp. Mark Bauerlein’s The Dumbest Generation). But, many disagree. Don Tapscott’s Grown Up Digital is a great resource for arguments suggesting that the rewiring of the modern brain is actually increasing our cognitive abilities in some very important ways. And Curtis Bonk’s The World Is Open argues that web technology can and should revolutionize the way that we teach. So, like most debates, there are voices on both sides. And, it probably isn’t an either/or. I’m sure our changing cognitive context affects us both positively and negatively.

I’m highlighting all of this because most of the people who read this blog are either already involved in teaching  (whether in a church or a classroom) or hope to in the future. If that’s the case, this is a debate you definitely need to be following. Most experts are now convinced that the way people learn is changing, regardless of whether they agree about whether this is good or bad. The question, then, is how (or whether) this should affect the way that we teach. Many schools have taken the posture that the changes may be negative, but they’re inevitable. So, we should alter our teaching to be as effective as possible in the new environment. Other schools are resisting the changes entirely, arguing that one of the tasks of any educational institution is to resist developments that negatively impact people’s ability to learn. And, of course, some schools just think this is all great, and they’re excited to embrace the new opportunities.

I have not come to any easy conclusions on this issue yet. You can probably tell from this blog that I like the internet. I think it’s a tremendous resource. And I think it has great potential to facilitate learning. But, I’m also aware that it can change the way that people read and think in potentially negative ways. I’ve even seen this in myself. I notice that the more time I spend online, the more inclined I am to skim articles and draw conclusions very quickly. Indeed, I find that after an extended period online, it’s difficult for me to really dig into a challenging book. It takes awhile for my brain to switch gears and become effective in this different cognitive environment. And, apparently I’m not alone. The challenge for anyone teaching today, then, is how to tap into the strengths of the internet while avoiding or minimizing its learning pitfalls.

So, no easy answers here. The debate continues. I just wanted to make sure that you were paying attention to it.