How Technology Wires the Learning Brain

| February 23, 2011 | 15 Comments
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Kids between the ages of 8 and 18 spend 11.5 hours a day using technology — whether that’s computers, television, mobile phones, or video games – and usually more than one at a time. That’s a big chunk of their 15 or 16 waking hours.

But does that spell doom for the next generation? Not necessarily, according to Dr. Gary Small, a neuroscientist and professor at UCLA, who spoke at the Learning & the Brain Conference last week.

“Young people are born into technology, and they’re used to using it 24/7,” Small said. “Their brains are wired to use it elegantly.”

“The technology train has left. You have to deal with it, understand it, and get some perspective.”

The downside of such immersion in technological devices, he said, is that they’re not having conversations, looking people in the eye, or noticing verbal cues. “These are important ‘technologies,’ so to speak, that have evolved over centuries and are tremendously powerful.”

But that’s not the headline here. Small’s main point was this: “The technology train has left. You have to deal with it, understand it, and get some perspective.”

Video games, for example, aren’t just about repetitive tasks – many of them have built-in social components that allow kids to communicate. Texting isn’t about using a gadget — it’s about connecting with someone else.

“Texting is an expression of what it means to be human,” Small said. “We love being connected to other people. It’s a very compelling emotional urge, and it’s hard to give up moment to moment.”

That’s why one well-liked teacher Small knows gives her students a five-minute texting break in the middle of class. Educators also use texting in class as a means to gauge understanding of the subject and take instant polls, for example.

It might seem odd, but Small suggests also carving out time for face-to-face emotional exercises and in-person conversations to counterbalance all the inevitable gadget-communication.

“We can train empathic behavior,” he said.

TECH AND CREATIVITY

Is technology making us less creative? Parents and educators have been worried about this issue, wondering whether hours of playing video games will zap their inclination to write or paint or sing.

Small said the Internet trains our minds to have a “staccato” train of thought, jumping from idea to idea, like we do from Website to Website. Is that the most creative way to think? Do we have time to sit back and be thoughtful?

There is an undeniable Pavlovian response to certain stimulus – and the Internet happens to be the medium for gratifying the urge.

On one hand, we’re trained not to think deeply about subjects when we text quick snippets, Tweet short thoughts, or click on a simple thumbs up or thumbs down on a link. We experience information overload and have no time for reflection or problem solving.

On the other hand, technology trains the brain to be nimble and to process new ideas quickly. We become more open to new ideas, and communicate more freely and frequently.

“The brain is complex,” he said. “The answers are not straightforward.”

IS THE INTERNET MAKING US SMARTER?

In a study called “Your Brain on Google,” Small and his peers tested the brain activity of two groups — “Internet-naïve” (mostly 65 and older who had very little experience online) and “Internet smart”– while reading a book versus conducting a Google search.

In the “Internet savvy” group, there was twice as much brain activity in all parts of the brain while they were conducting a Google search than while they were reading a book. And in the “Internet-naïve” group, after a week of Googling subjects online, there was a significant burst in frontal lobe activity, which controls short-term memory and decision-making.

Small’s conclusion? “Google is making us smart,” he said. “Searching online is brain exercise.”

Technology can train our brains in positive ways, he added. Surgeons who play video games, for example, make fewer surgical errors. Those who play video games have improved reaction time, better peripheral vision.

“It’s a matter of finding balance,” he said. “Upgrade the technology skills of older ‘digital immigrants,’ and help young kids improve social skills.”

Other interesting nuggets from Small’s talk:
  • Is technology addictive? Another complex question. Small said the American Psychiatric Group doesn’t think so. But there is an undeniable Pavlovian response to certain stimulus – and the Internet happens to be the medium for gratifying the urge. For example, if you’re addicted to shopping, is e-Bay to blame? When triggered, dopamine creates powerful urges to keep it flowing. “The consequence of a certain behavior reinforces a behavior,” Small said.
  • Brains are malleable, much like computers. If we spend a lot of time engaged in a repeated mental task, the neural circuits will strengthen. Conversely, if we neglect those tasks, the neural circuits will weaken.
  • The “thinking brain” – seeing the big picture – is not fully developed in children. Empathy and the ability to perceive and understand emotional point of view and communicate that understanding has not kicked in.
  • The term “use it or lose it” applies to brain functions: 60% of synaptic connections are pruned away when not used.
  • What will happen to brain development as result of the evolution of the handheld tool? Genetic variants that adapt best to environment are most likely to survive.

For more about Your Brain on Google, watch this PBS report on Small’s study.

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  • http://twitter.com/vocabgenii Genii

    A 5 minute texting break, what a brilliant idea!

  • Roger

    Good article Gerry. As much as my 14 year old daughter’s addiction to texting, facebook, twitter and msn makes me feel uneasy, it doesn’t seem to be doing her any harm- she’s a happy kid getting on with life in the modern world. The pressure though is on for me to open up and keep up, not keep her back. Rog

  • Arrive2.net

    Its good to see this research which has something positive to say about the effect of using technology on brain power.

    I wanted to mention this research (http://abcnews.go.com/Technology/txt-msgs-kidz-spell/story?id=12800449&page=2) which shows that texting can benefit children’s language skills.

    Many Tweets that you read on Twitter are totally frivilous, obscene, or silly. Yet there are also people using Twitter who write tweets that are like abstracts to much deeper and richer ideas. For professionals who use Twitter, tweets are often an invitation to a blog, article, or other larger presentation of an idea…so it seems to me that although a Tweet may be short, it may still be encouraging deeper levels of thought. Also tweets are usually not isolated events. One tweet may be a simple, short idea but the tweet likely relates to many other tweets by that writer, and many of the writer’s tweets may fit together to create a bigger story.

    Bernard Schuster
    Arrive2.net
    Twitter.com/arrive2_net

    • Anonymous

      Thanks for the link — I’ll repost it.

  • Martin Lejeune

    Je suis enseignant dans une école qui offre le programme “1 laptop per student” et je suis heureux de lire les impacts positifis de l’utilisation des nouvelles technologies.

    Cela m’a convaincu de continuer de pousser dans le sens de l’intégration des IPod, Texto et tous les gadgets que les jeunes aiment utiliser. La socialisation est la clé de cette utilisation. J’y ai cru et là, j’en suis plus que convaincu.

    Je partagerai ces informations à mes réseaux sociaux…
    Du positif pour l’avenir de l’éducation.

    Martin Lejeune
    French teacher, cycle 1
    Massey-Vanier High School
    Cowansville, Québec, Canada

  • http://twitter.com/brad5patterson Brad Patterson

    Fascinating read.

    Glad my friend @vladkaslniecko gave me the heads up. Will RSS. Thnx, brad

  • VVG

    Something kids like and it makes them good learners as well. Don’t tell them!

  • Jen Desiderio

    I LOVE the idea of the 5 minute texting break – this would be a great reward for students as they go through a lesson. Unfortunately, students are not allowed to have their cell phones in class in my school…which is difficult, since we are constantly confiscating them when the students inevitably take their phones out in class (even to just check the time…). It would be so nice to be able to change this policy.

  • http://vkassardjian.pip.verisignlabs.com/ Vahe Kassardjian

    It’s also worth noting that for centuries, students have been using technologies such as pen and paper, as well as books and… even writing to augment their intellectual abilities.

    Numerous thinkers of the Antiquity, including Socrates, had opposed unproven novelties such as writing because it couldn’t reproduce the same emotions as speech, and because it impeded students capacity to memorize.

    To a vast extent, today’s educational technologies are just a few steps forward in that same trajectory.

  • Karen Stout

    I really like this type of thinking and wish everyone could get on board, so to speak. I think we need to turn something that has negative connotation for most educators into a way to reach and engage our young teens and students. If we show that we can learn how to use texting for instance in a positive way instead of just chatting, we are the role models for this and need to do it.

  • science teacher

    Try hiring these students to work in a business  – good luck getting them to complete a task and put their cell phones down.  Unfortunately the working world does not consist of google tasks.  And how does google help our nation’s ridiculous low math and science scores which are really necessary for many careers?

  • Robin

    There is no substitute for face to face interaction.  Technology may be our new means of communication, but, the computer and other means of technology are unable to fully use our senses to their full intent.  Having no form of expression to look at in response to our communication gives a false sense of what might have really been communicated.  With no voice intination, no facial expression, eye contact, or any of our social behaviors, we are loosing the war on exact meaning and expression.  We haven’t even touched on feelings that procede these expressions.

  • todd

    I just had a brain fart

  • deserteacher

    Very much appreciate the balance of this article–older, more tech; younger, more social. Maybe the older 65ers should hang out more with the under eighteens.

  • Aylin Graves

    More and more researchers are now concluding that the digital native-immigrant divide doesn’t actually exist. True that the younger generation is more “easy” with new technologies but the claim here that they use them “elegantly” is questionable. Likewise, the so-called immigrants may be slower users but deeper as well. Students will continue using these tehnologies regardless we teachers bring them into the classroom or not. So while there may be merit in showing them how to use these tools for learning, I don’t think we should go out of our way and introduce “text breaks”. On the contrary, we should be modeling the merits of contemplation and deep thought *precisely* because we live in an age of fast technologies and shallow thinking!