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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.