This is your brain … this is your brain on technology: Part II

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This is the next contribution to this blog by Associate Bob Bailly, a Calgary-based neuro-marketing practitioner.

By Bob Bailly

In my last post we looked at research that suggests there may be a darker side to our growing reliance on technology. The brain development of our “digital natives” may even be negatively affected by continued exposure and use of video and computer applications. But is this truly the case?

Barbara Arrowsmith Young struggled with dyslexia while growing up and had difficulties with problem solving and visual and auditory memory. Finding connections between things, such as the relationship between the big hand and the little hand on a clock, was impossible. However, she also had areas of brilliance. Tests done later in life proved that her auditory and visual memory was in the 99th percentile and her frontal lobes were exceptionally developed, giving her a driven, dogged quality. She learned enough tricks to compensate for her difficulties and went on to study psychology in university.

It was there that she came across the brain maps created early in the 20th century by Alexander Luria from his work with soldiers who had suffered head wounds. Using these maps, she identified a number of unique learning dysfunctions and the brain regions that control them, and developed a theory that a person can transform weak areas of the brain through repetitive and targeted cognitive exercises – no different than an athlete exercising specific muscles to improve their physical performance. While she was looking for explanations for her own behaviour, her work resulted in the creation of the Arrowsmith School, a small Toronto private school that has been treating kids with learning disabilities for three decades.

Today, this notion of brain plasticity – of which she is pioneer – is established in neuroscience. With her body of experience and documented success, schools throughout Canada and the U.S. have adopted her methods. A report commissioned in 2003 by Toronto’s Catholic District School Board found that Arrowsmith students’ rate of learning on specific tasks such as math and reading comprehension increased by 1.5 to three times using her techniques.

Strengthening learning capacities or promoting Attention Deficit Disorder?

But Young has noticed a new development. More and more, she is seeing young people who are struggling with thinking, problem solving and general task completion. In Part I, we looked at research that suggests the brains of “digital natives” are being rewired by their use of technology, and not always for good. What Young is seeing appears to correspond with the growing use of technology and social media among young people.

“It looks like attention deficit order,” she says. “The person has a job or a task and they start doing it but they can’t stay oriented to it. They get distracted and they can’t get reoriented. When I started using the programs, I really didn’t see a lot of this. I would say now, 50 percent of students walking through the door have difficulty in that area.”

The kids also experienced trouble with non-verbal thinking skills, for instance having difficulty reading facial expressions and body language – skills essential for social situations of any kind.

As these skills are both related to areas of the prefrontal cortex, when a person has a deficit there, it’s hard to participate in the world, because this is the area of the brain where Young says our “mental initiative” comes from – our drive to go out and explore the world.

While her students face more extreme problems than the average teenager, her observations provide some additional validity to Gary Small’s research (see Part I).

“Perhaps not since early man first discovered how to use a tool has the human brain been affected so quickly and so dramatically,” he writes in iBrain: Surviving the Technological Alteration of the Human Mind. And this unprecedented rate of change is likely creating what he calls a “brain gap” between young and old that is occurring over a single generation.

Is rewiring our brains good or bad?

If too much technology is indeed getting in the way of “normal” brain development, is this necessarily a bad thing?

In Growing Up Digital, How the Net Generation is Changing Your World, author Don Tapscott calculates that based upon current usage of digital and video sensory information (estimated to be 8.5 hours per day for young people), an average teenager will have spent more than 20,000 hours on the Web and over 10,000 hours playing video games, which he believes will rewire their brains for speed and multi-tasking, developing new ways of finding, synthesizing and communicating information and providing them with “a giant opportunity.” Tapscott writes, this is “an opportunity to fulfill their intellectual potential and be the smartest generation ever.”

A final thought

I’m not sure of the source, but the gist of the argument goes like this: Is it the computer giving us Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) or is it more about speed and multiple lines of access? Maybe it looks like ADD because there is so much more to do to stay on top of the game.

Are we gaining or losing? If we don’t have to memorize a phone number or read a book for the information we are seeking, aren’t we freeing the brain up for other more important tasks? This is the question Dr. Michael Merzenich, another international expert in brain plasticity, pondered as he considered someone spending lots of time doing online activities – what is he/she not doing? “What are the cognitive tasks we’re ignoring?” he asks, “And what are the consequences of not doing these things?”

Even though we may be able to find all our answers on the Internet, Merzenich says, “I still have to believe that the invention, the creativity, these fabulous human assets, are absolutely dependent upon having rich resources and content in our very own brains.”

The alternative would be to argue that because we have machines that can do the work, why would we bother? “Is this what we want?” he asks. “Is our goal to create a brainless society?” Are we indeed just a click away from anything that we need, with no further thought required?

For good or bad, our digital world is certainly impacting how we use our brains, which in turn impacts how they are wired. How we source and process information, how we think and how we engage with one another will define, and continue to be defined by, how we use the connective technology available to us. It’s a cautionary tale on many levels for all of us in the business of bringing technology to market and effectively marketing that technology to engage with prospective customers.

Image: Monday Note

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