Over the last several months, I’ve been heartened to see that my obsession with how the human brain functions is becoming part of mainstream thinking. I’m referring to the incredible amount of media attention this organ has received recently from TV, newspapers, magazines and blog articles that extol the virtues of applying neuroscience knowledge – running the gamut from Jason Silva’s National Geographic Channel’s Brain Games, to the Globe and Mail’s or New York Times’ series on the way digital culture affects the way we think, learn and live.
If that were not evidence enough, one need only to look at the incredible array of brain games available through a Google search to realize that the educational industry has learned how to positively apply neuroplasticity – or the ability of the brain to be molded by our thoughts and actions.
I believe a great part of this educational interest in exercising our mind stems from an aging population’s obsession to keep our brains healthy into old age, as well as a new generation of parents and teachers looking to improve their students’ academic success. Increasingly, however, neuro-practitioners are popping up in fields such as sports and business as sports trainers or sales, marketing and communications practitioners see the merit of applying findings from the field of neuroscience into their athletic or business practices.
As a neuromarketing practitioner for over the last decade, I’m pleased to realize that many of the ideas that I thought were revolutionary when I first learned them are now fairly mainstream. For instance, many of us now know that decisions always have an emotional undertone that must be satisfied for a sale to be successful. And we even know which part of the brain is responsible and must be soothed to make this happen. Intuitively, good sales people know how to do this without any formal training on brain development. With training, even better business performance can be achieved with a simple distillation and application of key neuroscience-based information.
However, the danger is this type of performance enhancement can be undermined by the simple fact that the new technologies may not always be a friend to our brain. Our brains continue to develop and change with age and are influenced by what we do and experience in our lives. Professor Susan Greenfield of Oxford University puts it this way: “At a microcellular level, the infinitely complex network of nerve cells that make up the constituent parts of the brain actually change in response to certain experiences and change.
“Electronic devices and pharmaceutical drugs all have an impact on the micro-cellular structure and complex biochemistry of our brains. And that, in turn, affects our personality, our behaviour and our characteristics. In short, the modern world could well be altering our human identity.”
The question remains, if human identity is changing, is this good or bad? Unfortunately, some experts believe excessive use of modern technologies such as the Internet, computer games and cell phones can cause us to become more impatient, impulsive, forgetful and even more narcissistic. Some even believe that excessive dependence on cellphones or the Internet is a form of addiction. Websites like NetAddiction.com now offer self-administered tests to determine whether you might be addicted to your favourite technology. When researchers from the University of Melbourne measured student risk on the addictive nature of gambling, a known potential addiction, and the Internet, in a test of 173 college students, they discovered that while five percent of students showed some form of gambling problem, 10 percent were deemed to be in the at-risk for Internet “addiction.”
The lead clinical psychologist conducting the study, Nicki Dowling, acknowledges that the term addiction may be too strong, preferring to call it “Internet dependence.” Yet whether it is an addiction or dependence, there is no doubt that today’s students face a constant stream of stimuli that has never been encountered by any humans before. I believe that computers and cellphones pose not only a significant new challenge to focusing and learning, but in redefining human behaviour.
The risk is powerful for all of us, but it is particularly so for young people who are wiring developing brains. “Their brains are rewarded not for staying on task but for jumping to the next thing,” said Michael Rich, an associate professor at Harvard Medical School. “The worry is we’re raising a generation of kids in front of screens whose brains are going to be wired differently.”
Still, the proponents for increased use of technology in our schools far outnumber the naysayers. Andrea Lunsford, a scholar of writing and rhetoric at Stanford University collected 877 “freshman composition” papers from 1917 to 2006. Interestingly, she found almost no difference in spelling errors in almost a century (2.11 errors per 100 words in 1917 to 2.26 words today) and almost no use of “textisms” in the modern papers. But she believes she did find a big change – for the positive – in the length (more than six times longer) and the intellectual complexity (more researched arguments or reports) in the modern papers. “Student writers today are tackling the kinds of issues that require inquiry and investigation as well as reflection,” Professor Lunsford noted.
Rising educational standards, better availability of information and better teaching methods are no doubt partially responsible. But Prof. Lunsford believes another big reason is because students are actually writing more today than ever before. Her research suggests more than 40 percent of writing done by students is being done outside the classroom. “They’re writing more than any generation before,” she said, and she believes while social media is capturing their attention, it is also inadvertently turning the so-called “dumbest generation” from passive consumers of media to ones who have no problem talking back to it.
And who’s to say that composing a Tweet of 140 characters is less challenging for your brain than composing a Japanese Haiku of 14 words?
Still, the explosive use of social media does seem to pose certain challenges to writing and thinking – it can be difficult constructing a clear argument while wrestling with complex matters demanded by an academic paper when your focus is on updating your Facebook page. And a trust in a Google search does not negate the need to check the source. But perhaps these are niggling issues. Every new technology has its detractors, and every new medium is viewed with suspicion.
In an article in the Globe and Mail, Clive Thompson, a Canadian journalist and author of the just published Smarter than you Think: How Technology Changing Our Minds for the Better wrote: “In the 17th Century, the advent of the coffee house was regarded as the Facebook of the day, a morass of gossip where ‘scholars are so greedy for their news’ that ‘they neglect all for it.’
“A century later, the rise of the novel provoked similar concerns that youth would drown in morally debased, trivial tales. (‘Perpetual reading inevitably operates to preclude thought, and in the youthful mind to stint the opening mental faculties, by favouring unequal development,’ as one social critic fulminated.)
“Today, of course, we understand the powerful and delightful cognitive role of novels and coffee-house chatter, and carefully steer our students toward them.”
For better or worse, technology will redefine how our brains are wired and to some extent how we will use our time. The field of neuroscience will continue to explode with new information and insight into how our brains perform in this new world.
As for me, I’m looking forward to uncovering and devouring all those new studies, articles, blogs and TV programs that are focused on the brain. But despite what my friends and family might say, I might be suffering from a “brain information dependency,” but it’s certainly not an addiction.
Image: Modified from sccnn.com