E-Books Are Not “Rewiring” Young People’s Brains

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“Technology is rewiring young people’s brains.”

That’s a claim we hear a lot these days. It’s in the media, spoken by experts and pundits, and in the air, voiced by parents and teachers. Sometimes it’s uttered in alarm, by those concerned that children’s ability to learn and pay attention is being warped by the hours they spend in front of the computer. Sometimes it’s proclaimed in celebration, by others convinced that a generation of “digital natives” has developed new ways of absorbing and applying information.

In fact, research in cognitive science and psychology shows that both of these sentiments are misplaced. While it is true that our brains are to some extent “plastic”—that is, responsive to experience—it is also the case that there are biological constraints on how our brains operate. These constraints are universal, found across cultures and across generations. What follows is a brief primer on how attention and memory work, and how we can maximize their effectiveness.

When our minds are engaged in a task—reading a sentence, say, or solving a math problem—the information relevant to that task is held in our short-term memory. This mental holding space can only contain four to seven pieces of information at a time. It’s where we do our thinking, by combining information drawn from our environment (the textbook page or math worksheet we’re looking at) with information stored in our long-term memory. Unlike short-term memory, the capacity of long-term memory is essentially infinite. How do we move information from short-term to long-term memory? Attention is key. We have to be paying attention to, and thinking about, a fact or a concept in order for it to be “encoded” in memory.

One common enemy of attention is multitasking. Young people report frequent media multitasking—texting, emailing, surfing the web, or updating Twitter and Facebook—while also doing schoolwork. And while they may think that they can do it effectively, research shows otherwise. In fact, studies led by Stanford University professor Clifford Nass demonstrate that individuals who multitask the most are actually the worst at it. The reason multitasking is detrimental to learning holds for young people as well as adults: the brain can’t really pay attention to more than one thing at a time. Rather, it switches its focus between the two tasks, making us slower and less accurate at both. Whether we’re learning with a computer or a book, it’s best to give it our undivided attention. (And it’s best to follow a day of learning with a good night’s rest: sleep is when our brains “consolidate” the memories we’ve acquired while awake, discarding irrelevant material and moving important information into long-term storage.)

“Growing up digital” doesn’t change how we come to understand new information, either. Understanding happens when we process new information in terms of its meaning, rather than its surface features: thinking deeply about the themes of King Lear, for example, instead of registering simply that it was about three daughters and their aging father. And understanding happens when we connect new information to what we know already—for example, by using an analogy of water flowing through pipes to conceive of how an electrical circuit works.

The process of remembering, like understanding, has certain features that remain consistent across age and across experience. Decades of research on subjects ranging from elementary school-aged children to elderly adults, for example, have shown that “retrieval practice”—repeatedly calling up information from memory—helps us remember that material much better than simply reading and re-reading it. Another technique, called “spaced repetition,” has also proven universally effective: it involves exposing oneself to new information in short bursts spread out over time, rather than in one marathon study session. Although the use of computers and other devices like tablets and smartphones is not changing the fundamental operations of young people’s brains, computerized instruction can be designed to work with these built-in features of the mind. Educational programs can promote retrieval practice by offering short quizzes, for example, and can expose users to new information on a spaced-out schedule calculated to produce maximum retention. They can facilitate a focus on meaning and on connecting old knowledge to new by, for example, allowing simulated science experiments to be performed onscreen, or by engaging students with an interactive historical timeline.

No, technology is not “rewiring” young people’s brains. This will come as a relief to some and a disappointment to others. But this reality does bring with it one significant advantage: a body of research on understanding, attention, and memory that can now be applied to a new generation of humans, not so different from the ones who came before.

 

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10 Responses to “E-Books Are Not “Rewiring” Young People’s Brains”

  1. EssaySnark says:

    An interesting article on “spaced repetition” and software to support this type of learning practice was posted on HBR recently: http://blogs.hbr.org/cs/2012/12/heres_a_better_way_to_remember.html

  2. Al Meyers says:

    I suggest your readers read “The Brain that Changes Itself,” which happened to be in the TED Book Club, I might add. I did a talk at TED about the fact that children process information differently than previous generations due to the different stimuli in their daily lives. However, to your point, brains are not being “re-wired,” but they are processing data differently due to an evolving external environment.

  3. Joshua says:

    Another great article, Annie!

    We talk to people about spaced learning all of the time. I am continuously amazed that more people aren’t aware of it. This is exactly why we created the software that we did. It is time to have a solution that truly allows learners to take advantage of this powerful method of learning.

  4. Bethany says:

    Great synopsis of information! Much of which I’ve been discussing with educators and local legislators. It’s so exciting to gain new understanding in how our brains learn, yet so frustrating to have our school systems feel the need to revolve around teaching to the test for high stakes testing rather than step back and use such approaches as spaced learning and meaningful connections. Too much pressure and too little creativity.

    Thanks for this!

  5. Hi Annie,

    Daniel Willingham already elaborated on the spacing effect some ten years ago in order to promote “distributed” practice as an effective way to allocate students’ study /practice time.
    I guess it also takes (alas considerable) time before scientific evidence permeates our educational beliefs to enrich our daily practice.

    Willingham on Allocating Student Study Time “Massed” versus “Distributed” Practice (http://www.aft.org/newspubs/periodicals/ae/summer2002/willingham.cfm)

    • anniempaul says:

      Actually, Paulo, Hermann Ebbinghaus discovered the spacing effect—in the 19th century! It certainly does take a lot of time for evidence-based learning techniques to be incorporated into education.

  6. Thanks for the post, Annie.

    The popular notion of “technology rewiring the brain” is a good example of what happens when information spills over from the research lab into the popular media without being carefully translated along the way. The word “rewiring” in the popular media context is not only ambiguous but has several entirely distinct interpretations. If we define “rewiring” as any change to the neural circuitry, then the brain is rewiring itself every time we have a thought or even take a breath. So in this trivial sense, technology use is indeed rewiring people’s brains – but so is simply being alive!

  7. Matthew says:

    Annie,

    It would be interesting to see what you can turn up on the dopamine effects of video games on adolescent minds.

    I get the part that they’re not being ‘re-wired’ and I also get that multi-tasking isn’t efficient.

    But I suspect instant gratification from games on an iPad, Pod etc. makes it harder for many kids than to shift to harder, longer-term brain building activities like reading. Maybe just reflecting my own parenting frustrations – I suppose 20 years ago we had Atari – but with ‘virtual’ reality so increasingly vivid and appealing, it feels like many kids are unable to spend spare time entertaining themselves.

    Matthew

  8. M. Fioretti says:

    “research in cognitive science and psychology shows that both of these sentiments are misplaced”

    may you please add links to such research? Thanks!

  9. Nick Carr says:

    Annie,

    Since “rewiring” is a vague (and frequently misleading) figurative term, when applied to the wireless brain, it would help here if you defined what you mean by “rewiring.”

    Instead of “rewiring,” let’s say “influencing the number and strength of synaptic connections among neurons.” One thing we know is that, within the broad constraints of genetics, the individual brain adapts to its environment. The environment influences both the number (anatomical change) and the strength (electrochemical change) of the brain’s synapses. The influence is exerted throughout the course of a person’s life (the brain is never nonresponsive to the environment) but the influence is strongest during a person’s youth, when the brain is at its most malleable. Tools, or technologies, are a very important part of the human environment, and the internet, or digital media in general, is certainly one of the most intensively used tools of the current age. And, indeed, the characteristics of the use of the internet (intensive, repetitive, immersive) are the characteristics that have been shown to have the most effects on brain plasticity. Therefore, if by “rewiring” you mean something like “influencing the synaptic connections among neurons,” I would suggest that your statement “No, technology is not ‘rewiring’ young people’s brains” is misleading. Technology very much influences the synaptic structure of the brain, and because a young person’s brain is more malleable than an older person’s, the effects would be more pronounced in the younger person. So, for example, even though the basic process of memory consolidation doesn’t change, the way that process plays out in an individual brain may be altered by technology use, particularly intensive technology use. Similarly, even though the basic processes of attentiveness remain unchanged, an individual’s capacity for attentiveness (in all its forms) may be altered by technology use.

    Of course, you may mean something entirely different by “rewiring the brain.” But, even so, I do think it’s incorrect to imply that the human (primate) brain is uninfluenced by tools, when there is such a large body of evidence to the contrary.

    But I do think you’re absolutely right to emphasize that the digital native/digital immigrant dichotomy is largely nonsense, at least when it comes to the basic ways the brain works. We all have human brains, young and old alike.

    Nick

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