How Technology Wires the Learning Brain
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.
“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 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?
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.