Is technology changing our brains?

Is technology changing our brains? Probably not, writes cognitive scientist Dan Willingham on Answer Sheet. “The cognitive system is flexible and adaptive, sure, but it’s not that adaptive.”

Perhaps using technology “doesn’t change the basic cognitive architecture, but it knocks it around a bit.” If so, we could expect students to be better at skimming information and worse at reflective thought. That wouldn’t be a big deal, Willingham argues.

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.

Or it’s possible that new technologies are letting kids’ brains do what they’ve 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.

We can learn to cope with technology’s “opportunity costs,” Willingham thinks.

Update: The Age of Opposable Thumbs has replaced the Age of the Index Fingers, writes Anthony Mullen, the 2009 teacher of the year, reporting from the International Society for Technology in Education convention in Denver.

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  1. ALL new communications technologies have tended to have an impact on how people think…in ancient Greek times, concerns were raised that literacy would harm people’s abilities to memorize. (which it almost certainly did) The psychological effects of both printing and television were interestingly and controverially analyzed by Marshall McLuhan. See my post duz web mak us dumr?

    I watch very little broadcast TV, and when I do—either directly or via DVR—it feels bizarre. The commercial breaks that destroy the flow of the story, the network logo in the middle of the screen, the crawls at the bottom…all seem very strange and distracting. To the extent that the Internet displaces TV viewing, it may turn zombie-ism into some higher life form.

  2. I agree with David’s comment – we are constantly re-forming how we analyze new information and what we do with it. Imagine how dramatically the printing press must have changed life – starting with making literacy a necessity. And then the easy accessibility of books, in public libraries, made information so available in the past century. What’s wrong with even more information?

    There was a good deal less asked of students in the way of original thought in the past. While they may have memorized a great deal more (and I agree, there’s something to be said for that, especially poetry) they didn’t get to ask questions or formulate responses with their own ideas. This is still true in many schools in developing countries around the world – rote learning is the more basic way of schooling.

    The human brain needs to be flexible, and the ability of our cognitive brain to adapt is what has enabled homo sapiens to accomplish so much. And we’ll keep adapting, as we change the world around us.

  3. a synopsis of the issue in creative video

  4. SuperSub says:

    The overstimulation would have its greatest effect on infants and adolescents due to the rapid development of the brain. Perhaps one of the causes for the explosion of various cognitive, psychological, and learning disabilities is the expansion of children’s TV since the 70’s.

  5. I agree with SuperSub about TV and will take it a step further into video games and internet; I think all have worked to shorten attention spans, to decrease the ability for sustained concentration and effort and to instill the expectation of constant stimulation/entertainment. Schools have contributed to this with their reluctance to have kids sit still, pay attention and concentrate on their work or the teacher; it’s all about discovery learning, group work and “engagement”. Teachers are expected to entertain.

  6. SuperSub says:

    Just to further explain why I focused on TV… the majority of neural development occurs from birth to age 10 or so. While video games and the Internet are becoming more common in the later of those years, television is common for children as young as a year. Not to mention the whole industry of children’s TV that claims to improve learning.

  7. Since, the time has changed, the way of teaching too. Nowadays students are more inclined to online tutoring services. I think online tutors are best persons to guide students doing their studies. They provide 1-to-1 tutoring to the students. There are several websites available to help students learning math. I personally like My daughter uses it; she is in 8th grade and has improved a lot after she has started taking online math tutoring from this site


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