For good and bad, technology changes our brains. But then again, so does every experience we have. Our brains develop (throughout life) in interaction with our environment. As one neuroscientist puts it, our brains become what our brains do.
So what are our brains doing and becoming in the digital age? This field of research is booming and some of it raises concerns. When it comes to literacy, for example, Maryanne Wolfe, in a recent article in The Guardian, explained that “skim reading” is replacing deep, analytical, reflective reading. Skim reading means that our brains scan for words and we don’t take the time to return to an earlier part of the text to refresh our recollection or rethink and reevaluate our take on the subject. There seems to be evidence that reading on a screen promotes this “light” version of reading.
But don’t we all do skim reading at times, even with a magazine, a newspaper, or a textbook? Can’t skim reading actually serve a useful purpose – like finding a specific piece of information we are looking for? A colleague of mine recalls being amazed when he got to college and someone explained to him that there are different ways to read. He had inferred from all the reading tasks he had been assigned over the years that the only “correct” way to read was to read every word. For him, skim reading was a new and extremely useful skill. In fact, the skill is so useful that people have been known to spend money to become better at it; it was called speed-reading.
That doesn’t mean that there is no longer any need for deep, careful, critically analytical reading. We don’t learn deeply from what we skim. We can learn deeply from what we spend mental effort on in the reading process.
Here it is helpful to remember that learning is a biological process – the making and strengthening of connections among neurons in the brain into neural networks or maps. If we are looking for deep and enduring learning (rather than skimming for a football score), then we need to consider what makes for strong connections, because it is those strong connections that are easier to reactivate when we need to recall that information later. In order to create strong long-term memory (learning), our brains need to engage actively with the information and process it consciously in working memory. Hence, deep and enduring learning, when it comes from reading, will necessarily require focus, patience and effort and deep reading, not skimming.
If both skim reading and deep reading have value, however, shouldn’t we be teaching these skills to our students? Why should my colleague have had to wait until college to find out that there were different types of reading? Why should students not understand that their brains are processing in different ways when they read or otherwise interact with curriculum (and anything else in their lives) in different ways?
One of the reasons for the current emphasis on digital literacy is that it is required for college and career readiness. The concerns about the impact of the digital age on our brains are being felt in the workplace as well. In fact, an August, 2018 article in Forbes held that the secret to success for CEOs in the digital age is to rewire their brains to help them cope with the overload of digital information. Trying to keep up with all the texts, emails, news feeds and other digital input with which we are bombarded often makes us feel overwhelmed (and, for some, can actually lead to clinical anxiety or depression). At the same time, we can’t avoid and, indeed rely on, technology. The advice in the Forbes article, based on neuroscience research, is simply this – to differentiate between two types of activities, in the same way we differentiated above between skim reading and deep reading. First, the article advises, CEOs should schedule time (at least 20-30 minutes) of deep, thoughtful, unbroken work, and then follow that with checking email for 10 minutes. Giving our brains time to connect deeply with our work product and our thought processes provides an opportunity for “flow,” that feeling of being fully engaged and operating at a high level. Monitoring email is not conducive to flow.
If the advice is good enough for CEOs, isn’t it also something we should be teaching students?
Research suggests, for example, that the pressure to be constantly attending to all the messages we get on email and social media, makes us anxious. Research suggests that misplacing our smartphones induces a feeling of panic. And what happens to our ability to think and learn when we are in a state of panic? Cognition shuts down. Maybe managing panic and anxiety around digital technology is a 21st century skill.
I have presented webinars over the last year on Nepris on brain development and student study habits. Nepris is a great resource, by the way; it allows teachers to bring experts in various fields into their classrooms (virtually) for their students to interact with.
In these webinars, students are eager to check out brain myths, to find out why they remember some things and not others, and what happens to their brains when they are anxious or upset, or when they don’t get enough sleep. One favorite exercise I do with them helps make the point that the Forbes article made to CEOs – that we are not very good at multitasking and that deep thinking and deep learning require focus.
You can try this for yourself. Time yourself as you do this. Write down the following:
Multitasking is a misnomer 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23
Now do the same thing, timing yourself again, but this time, alternate between writing a letter and a number. That is, you write M 1 u 2 l 3 t 4 I 5 and so on.
Now, how did you feel the second time? Frustrated? Did you tend to make more mistakes? And it certainly took you longer. Students are good at drawing inferences from this experience.
As we learn about the implications of the digital age for our brains and those of our students, we can bemoan the fact that digital media are causing our students brains to develop with less capacity for and less patience for deep focus, complex thought, or we can teach them how their brains work and how to take advantage of their ability to adapt.
Betsy Hill is President of BrainWare Learning Company, a provider of cognitive literacy solutions. She is an experienced educator and has studied the connection between neuroscience and education with Dr. Patricia Wolfe (author of Brain Matters) and other experts. She has taught foreign languages at the high school level and currently teaches strategic thinking in the MBA program at Lake Forest Graduate School of Management. She holds a Master of Arts in Teaching and an MBA from Northwestern University. She is a former chair of the board of trustees at Chicago State University.