A New Kind of Brain

Did you see this? Some recent observations about what technology is doing to the brain — wiring it for distractions.

Researchers say the lure of these technologies, while it affects adults too, is particularly powerful for young people. The risk, they say, is that developing brains can become more easily habituated than adult brains to constantly switching tasks — and less able to sustain attention.

“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 and executive director of the Center on Media and Child Health in Boston. And the effects could linger: “The worry is we’re raising a generation of kids in front of screens whose brains are going to be wired differently.”

About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than fifty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.

  • http://www.elementalcm.com Henry Zonio

    I think that we have to accept that brains are being wired differently than they have before. This has happened at each major technological jump. I think the concerns that arise come from a misunderstanding of how to utilize a brain that is truly wired to multitask. It’s not that they have shorter attention spans; it’s that they are wired to deal with multiple stimuli at one time. Because this does not fit into our current paradigms of pedagogy, we see it as a detriment and even label it ADD. What needs to happen is for educational models to catch up with kids’ new brains and find ways to engage those brains in a way that takes advantage of the “digital” nature they work in. These are kids that can read multiple books at a time, do research on them and write a report on those books all at the same time. They gather info and process it simultaneously. I think we just have to “suck it up” and innovate… if we don’t, they will when we get too old to stand in their way.

  • http://Krusekronicle.com Michael W. Kruse

    Henry #1

    I’ve seen several studies in recent months that challenge the concept multitasking. They suggest that focused attention for extended periods is still more productive than jumping around.

  • Jason Lee

    Henry #1: Just saying that high levels of tech stimulation and multitasking has no negative effect on learning doesn’t make it so. There are a lot of scientific studies coming out that are providing evidence that certain common forms of technology use have a negative effect on learning. Just because people are all driving faster doesn’t mean we should automatically increase the speed limit. Cars get less economical above certain speeds. And some turns become treacherous above certain speeds. Just because kids are using more technology doesn’t mean that it’s all good.

    That said, it’s certainly true that there may be areas where greater innovation is needed in learning environments. Obviously kids are going to have to be very proficient with computer programs to make it in the future. But this is not the same as saying it’s not harmful for students to text and FB willy-nilly.

  • jordan

    My concern is that while students are doing all this multi-tasking and attention shifting, they might not be really learning much of anything. They can read multiple books at the same time, but I’m not sure they have as deep a knowledge about the books.

    I’m a late 20something so I’m sort of at the first wave of this technology-induced ADD. I have gotten to the point that it is virtually impossible for me to do a single task for more than a minute or so. I’ve stopped reading all the way through most blog posts and just skim for main points. “If you can’t tweet it, I ain’t gonna read it.” It’s absolutely horrible and a deeply disturbing problem.

    Somehow we need to figure out how to teach people to deal with this huge influx of disparate information. Not only do you have to take in varying information, you have to assess the source/authority of the information as well. Perhaps we need to figure out how to do better filtering and assessment of valuable sources.

  • http://LostCodex.com DRT

    I don’t really care if it makes them marginally worse or better on tasks and education. That difference is immaterial.

    The big problem, to me, is that they are unable to relate to people in real time, they want to time shift. The relationship skills seems to be impacted.

  • E.G.

    Henry at #1 may be onto something.

    Here’s a recent article that I read in Canada’s national academic “trade” journal:

    http://www.universityaffairs.ca/should-laptops-be-banned.aspx

    The general gist… perhaps we’re just getting back to a pre-Industrial Revolution way of doing things. Maybe the idea of “focus, focus, focus” is only a cultural construct that comes to us courtesy of a factory labor mindset.

    Anyhow, I think that it’s something to consider. And, if true, we need to learn to adapt to it rather than fight it.

    Actually, scratch that. We’ll have to adapt to it whether it’s true or not. Things aren’t going back to the way that they were.

  • E.G.

    Oh, and one more thing…

    The media love to grab onto stories like this. The reality, however, is that students, for the most part, still prefer paper textbooks and pens/pencils on looseleaf.

    Sometimes I wonder if a lot of the drive to technology in the educational system is being driven more by the administration and instructors (and their perceptions of “students these days”) than by the students.

  • http://LostCodex.com DRT

    …and, I don’t know how many of you live in the extreme multi-task environment of today in the workplace, but I do. Part of what I now do is regularly host meetings with a room of people (anywhere from 5 to 20) and other meeting rooms around the US and world (mainly India). I am using MS Live Meeting to simultaneously plan and document what we do, teleconference, and exchange email and other ideas all in real time. When we walk out of the meeting we don’t have any follow up regarding minutes or outcomes or anything like that since we develop everything on the spot.

    I even get a little Jesus Creed in now and then…

    As short as several years ago people would come to meetings with a notepad (with a pen) or a computer just to take notes. Now, everyone is only on a notebook computer and meetings have much less structure. People IM back and forth during the meetings to some participants and not others. Voice conversation is one topic, there is several other IM and email conversations going on and then the live meeting has another perspective on it. It used to be that people had a firm “this meeting is now over” but now in increasingly just seems to fade into everyone working electronically with others and no one is now talking. The meeting ends in a whimper…

    I started to work with my wife a couple of years ago and she was startled by the number of interruptions and distractions that I have to deal with and still maintain work on longer duration activities. I will be working on something that takes hours to accomplish but stop and restart 30 times to take care of urgent issues. Sure I am more effective if I take big chunks of time to get something done, but I would not be as effective in making decisions to help others.

    People who are single threaded slow everyone down..

  • Richard

    While I can’t forgo technology entirely at this point, I am contemplating a “fast” from my laptop and going back to paper and pen for a while to improve my focus during the holidays.

  • http://LostCodex.com DRT

    I don’t want lecture, but it strikes me that many in religion and academia may not have a feel for the dynamic.

    The short attention span and multi-task environment puts a high value on collaboration. It does not matter as much what I do in my own silo, it is more important how effectively I can get the best ideas and best results from a crowd. That is inherently opportunistic, collaborative, relationship oriented. My concern is not the ADD, it is the lack of relationship because that is still quite important.

  • Anna

    If I recall Plato denigrated the spread of writing because it ruined people’s memories.

    And weren’t rabbis in Jesus’ time expected to have memorized the entire Torah?

    Every mode has advantages and disadvantages; we have lost much with the decline of oral culture and gained much with the rise of writing — I expect the same can be said of the kinds of changes occurring with the rise of the internet etc.

  • http://LostCodex.com DRT

    More Thoughts.

    The modern view of someone being able to answer all the questions etc is exactly that, a modern view. In the post modern world it is more important to harness the emergence of the mass. Less emphasis on the individual attainment and more on the connections. It is an advance but necessarily devalues the old thinking.

    Of course professors with deep independent knowledge will always be appreciated (no kidding). It’s just that this would be a specialty, not something all strive for.

    Making more connections is the basis of intelligence.

  • jordan

    DRT,

    Connections are great until “the masses” have the intelligence and focus of a squirrel. :-)

  • http://scienceandtheology.wordpress.com Justin Topp

    This reminds me of a conference that I attended a couple of years ago on pedagogy. The first speaker exclaimed that we were teaching the “dumbest” generation and that they couldn’t focus on anything. The next speaker (I kid you not) said that this generation would be able to do wonderful and amazing things that we couldn’t even dream of.

    I think they’re both wrong…

  • Matt H.

    A professor and friend of mine recently remarked about this phenomenon of “multi-tasking” which has become so prevalent in the classroom. He says, “Due to technology, what kids are doing in the classroom today is called multi-tasking. In my day they called it being rude.”

  • Susan N.

    Well, I’m not an educational consultant/expert, but in parenting and teaching my own children, I see technology as a good tool, but not to replace “traditional” learning. Too much technology is not necessarily a good thing. I think it does diminish one’s ability to focus for a sustained period of time. Critical thinking requires deep and sustained analysis. If my 10-year-old son spends too much time on his DSi, I see a direct and measurable effect on his listening and comprehension ability. With my older, teen-aged child, my concern was Facebooking and texting would hinder her ability to learn to speak in complete, articulate sentences! Because she’s a very responsible and level-headed personality, it is working out O:K so far. But what I see of her friends’ statuses is frightening. Grammar, spelling, mechanics…why bother? And, as another commenter already touched on, the interactions on social media lacks any depth.

    From my own personal experience, I love the easy access to information on the Internet. If you don’t have a plan and narrow your focus down, though, the enormity of it can swallow you (and your time.)

    I prefer to think of technology as something to be mastered; not something which masters me. ~Balance~…

  • http://www.elementalcm.com Henry Zonio

    It’s easy for us to decry the fall of… well, whatever we are going to miss because we don’t understand what’s coming down the pike.

    Whether you think it’s beneficial or detrimental that information is now being delivered digitally rather than linearly, it’s going to continue happening unless you plan on starting a new religious sect that will stop all progress before the Digital Revolution.

    Kids’ brains are wired differently today because the information they are receiving is being delivered differently. We can choose to point out all the negatives or we can look for how we can leverage the changes.

    Much of the negative research out there has very narrow sampling, focusing on “problem” students… and, yes, the same can be said about positive research. More comprehensive studies that cover a wider population spectrum as well as spanned over a longer period of time will give us a better idea of what is going on… but I doubt if any value judgements on whether this is bad or good are beneficial… These changes are here. They are a reality.

  • http://azspot.net Naum

    Steven Berlin Johnson wrote in Driven or Distracted:

    And of course, where reading is concerned — the piece starts with Vishal choosing between the computer and his summer reading — we actually have a real apples-to-apples comparison of US high school reading skills, dating back to the pre-Web era. They are essentially flat since 1992 for Vishal’s cohort, and slightly up for 8th-graders. How could reading skills not be damaged by all these distracting technologies? One potential answer is that—distracting as they are—they are immersing children in a world of *text*—so different from the television/telephone-driven teen culture that I grew up in during the 1980s. If reading skills aren’t in fact in decline, shouldn’t the burden of proof be on the tech critics?

    By the way, my favorite critic in the piece is Alan Eaton, the school’s Latin teacher, who calls the new tech a “catastrophe” and blames it for a steady decline in attendance in his advanced classes. Latin! You can’t make this stuff up. Why on earth are these children choosing to spend time exploring the communicative possibilities of new software when they can learn the communicative properties of a language no one has spoken for five hundred years? If Facebook and Twitter only manage to eliminate Latin from the extended options of a good high school education, they will have done us all a great service.

    See also The Gutenberg Parenthesis — Print, Book and Cognition


CLOSE | X

HIDE | X