Introducing: The Brilliant Forum

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Today I’m introducing a new feature on The Brilliant Blog: it’s called the Brilliant Forum, and I hope you will participate. Based on the idea that making an argument is a great way to learn, I will present commentaries from leading thinkers (many of them exclusive to The Brilliant Blog) on an important and interesting question related to learning. Once you’ve read the expert commentaries, I invite you to make your own case in the comments section below. I imagine this as something like a lively, spirited seminar, akin the one I recently taught at Yale, only conducted on the web instead of around a seminar table. Looking forward to hearing your thoughts!—Annie

Question: Is technology rewiring young people’s brains?

Alison Gopnik, developmental psychologist at UC-Berkeley and author of The Philosophical Baby:

Like many others I feel that the Internet has made my experience more fragmented, splintered and discontinuous. But I’d argue that’s not because of the Internet itself but because I have mastered the Internet as an adult. Why don’t we feel the same way about reading and schooling that we feel about the Web?  Studies show, in fact, that, as a result of my early and pervasive experience of print,  I’ve become involuntarily compelled to read, I literally can’t keep myself from decoding letters. Reading has even reshaped my brain, cortical areas that once were devoted to vision and speech have been hijacked by print. Instead of learning through practice and apprenticeship, I’ve become dependent on lectures and textbooks. And look at the toll of dyslexia and attention disorders and learning disabilities, all signs that our brains were just not designed to deal with such a profoundly unnatural technology.These changes in the way we get information have had a pervasive and transformative effect on human cognition and thought, and universal literacy and education have only been around for a hundred years or so.

It’s because human change takes place across generations, rather than within a single life. This is built into the very nature of the developing mind and brain. All current adults have learned how to use the Web with brains that were fully developed long before we sent our first e-mail. All of us learned to read with the open and flexible brains we had when we were children. As a result no-one living now will experience the digital world in the spontaneous and unselfconscious way that the children of 2010 will experience it, or in the spontaneous and unselfconscious way we experience print.

There is a profound difference between the way children and adults learn. Young brains are capable of much more extensive change—more “rewiring”—than the brains of adults. This difference between old brains and young ones is the engine of technological and cultural innovation. Human adults, more than any other animal, reshape the world around them. But adults innovate slowly, intentionally, and consciously. The changes that take place within an adult life, like the development of the Internet, are disruptive, attention-getting, disturbing or exciting. But those changes become second nature to the next generation of children. Those young brains painlessly absorb the world their parents created, and that world takes on a glow of timelessness and eternity, even if it was only created the day before you were born.

My experience of the Web, feels fragmented, discontinuous, effortful (and interesting!) because, for adults, learning a new technology depends on conscious, attentive, intentional processing. In adults, this kind of conscious attention is a very limited resource. This is even true at the neural level. When we pay attention to something, the prefrontal cortex, the part of our brain responsible for conscious goal-directed planning, controls the release of cholinergic transmitters, chemicals that help us learn, to certain very specific parts of the brain. So as we wrestle with a new technology we adults can only change our minds a little bit at a time.

Attention and learning work very differently in young brains. Young animals have much more wide-spread cholinergic transmitters than adults and their ability to learn doesn’t depend on planned, deliberate attention. Young brains are designed to learn from everything new, or surprising or information-rich, even when it isn’t particularly relevant or useful.

So children who grow up with the Web may master it in a way that will feel as whole and natural as reading feels to us. But that doesn’t mean that their experience and attention won’t be changed by the Internet, anymore than my print-soaked twentieth century life was the same as the life of a barely literate 19th century farmer.

Daniel Willingham, cognitive scientist at the University of Virginia and author of When Can You Trust The Experts?:

Do students come to a teacher’s class with different cognitive equipment than students of a generation ago? Probably not. The cognitive system is flexible and adaptive, sure, but it’s not that adaptive. Indeed, it’s the very flexibility that allows different experiences to be accommodated within the same system. Experience doesn’t change the basic cognitive architecture, but it knocks it around a bit.

This is to say, basically, that “If you do something a lot, you’ll be biased to do it again, and you’ll find doing it again a bit easier.” If students, say, really do more skimming and less reflecting than they used to, they might be a bit better at skimming, a bit worse at reflective thought, and likely more biased (absent other instructions) to read at the surface of a text rather than to reflect on it.

It’s not clear to me that this calls for a profound change in teaching. Teachers know in what mental process they want students to engage; often it’s reflection, sometimes it’s skimming, and so forth. So maybe students will start off somewhat less skilled in one type of thought than comparable students from a generation ago. That sounds like it requires a tweak, not a major rethinking of classroom practice.

Another possibility is that new technologies offer the opportunity for expression to things that kids’ brains have always wanted to do. In other words, technologies don’t make us more distractable. We’ve always been distractable, but now we have many more distractions available. And the distractions are more costly. Twenty years ago, a kid would daydream for a moment, and then return to his math homework. Today, he watches YouTube videos and doesn’t get back to his homework for 15 minutes.

And, of course, the core feature of some new technologies—connectivity—often means interruption. What you’re working on may be important, but it’s hard to resist checking your email when it pings. If, as I think is highly likely, technology offers a new set of opportunity costs, that requires education in the effective use of new technologies, which ought to happen in school and at home. [Adapted from a post on the blog “The Answer Sheet.”]

Nicholas Carr, author of The Shallows:

(Note: Carr was responding specifically to my argument on the subject, which can be found here).

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.

Now let’s hear from you: Is technology rewiring young people’s brains? Please share your views below!


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5 Responses to “Introducing: The Brilliant Forum”

  1. Scott Rutherford (@srlean6) says:

    As a prelude I would like to commend you on framing the question in such a way that multiple viewpoints can fit under discussion.

    I will take a different tack. Your theme is not, IMO, a significant factor on framing a young mind. Technology is one input to the learning process. The process itself has significantly changed such that there are no longer any incentives to learn, just perform. Primary and secondary public learning systems are inundated with testing mechanisms and standards of learning that students no longer know how to learn but to perform. If this means that their brains are rewired, so be it.

    This change has put a huge cost burden on local communities with the added staff and tools necessary to manage the “improved” process. Undergraduate programs are seeing this in that students are insisting that instructors teach to a syllabus or “teach the answers,” rather than the advanced learning skills necessary to answer the “problems without apparent answers” that they will face in the working world.

    In short, technology is not the issue. The lack of true understanding of learning by educators and the unwillingness of academia to innovate rather than react is what is “rewiring” young minds.

  2. I believe technology has rewired the expectations of new learners. Whereas a generation ago students came to class knowing basically what they were about to observe (or endure?, I think today’s learners want information to be delivered in snappy, colorful packaged sound bites that look more like web pages, videos, and memes than pictures or graphs from a textbook. I have no idea if that’s a good or bad trend, but shrewd educators (Khan Academy for example) will certainly make their mark and could very well change education at least in part forever.

    • Jay says:

      You are making a good point.

      I will go further.

      Teachers are mostly very good at what they do. I find them to be dedicated, smart and hard working. What they lack is sales skills.

      We need teachers to learn about sales so they become effective teachers and we need sales people to become better teachers so they become effective sales people.

  3. Amy Gottesfeld says:

    I think the question is problematic. There is no reliable proof to answer it positively. Years ago, we didn’t have the kind of brain imaging technology that we have today. It’s only been in the last decade that neuroimaging has advanced to the point of telling us something about how the brain responds to new environments and learning. When making an argument, the burden of proof lies with the person making the claim; therefore, it is up to evolutionists to demonstrate empirically that change in the brain has actually taken place across generations. Let’s avoid anecdotes and appeals to nature and ask a better question. Something like, “How does technology influence teaching and learning?”

  4. I wouldn’t be entirely sure how to answer that question either.
    I think the learning process has changed. I was a teacher for more than a decade. I started teaching just when the internet was started being used in schools (around 1998 or so). I remember that my classroom was one of the first in my school to have an imac of its own! There’s no question that what kids read — and how they read it — has changed dramatically. But how do you measure the impact of these changes which are so fast and dramatic? I’m now a phD candidate and in the 4-5 years I’ve been in grad school, there have been so many changes in technology. Can the pace of the research process — designing studies, publishing articles, etc. — keep up with how fast kids’ usage of technology is changing? My first major research paper in grad school was about college students’ use of Facebook during the 2008 election. Now that study reads like ancient history.

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