My daughters are different than I am. And not in just the obvious ways: like age and gender. They’re different in the way they use technology. The reason why lies in the way the brain is formed. In today’s Just Behave, I’d like to explore what might be happening to our children’s brains.
Several months ago, journalist Nicholas Carr asked the question: Is Google making Us Stupid? In past Just Behave columns, I’ve explored the impact of Googling and Internet exposure on our brain, including a fascinating study conducted at UCLA’s Semel Institute with Drs. Gary Small, Susan Bookheimer and Teena Moody. I had the opportunity to chat with Dr. Moody about the study. One of the things that emerged was that it appears that our brain literally rewires itself as we become more familiar with technology. There’s nothing particularly startling in this. This neuronal plasticity is the mechanism of learning. But not all brains have equal amounts of plasticity. Generally, the younger the brain, the more plastic it is. So, one wonders, what happens when you grow up with digital technology?
The building of young minds
As we grow from infancy, there are two periods where the brain is particularly malleable: the first 3 years of our lives, and the years of adolescence. During these times, our brains are literally building themselves from inside so they’re equipped to handle life as an adult. We are shaped by what we do during these times. It’s no coincidence that those are also the most challenging times for parents: the Terrible Two’s and the equally daunting teenage years. As our brains go through wholesale rewiring, we push against the constraints of our environment, including the boundaries set by our parents. It’s all part of growing up.
The process is called pruning. Here’s an urban myth that helps explain it, courtesy John Medina’s book, Brain Rules: A college had completely redone their grounds over the summer, with lush, manicured lawns, gardens and fountains. There was only one thing missing from the design: pathways. As September approached, the construction company was pushing the college president for his plans on where the cement pathways would go. Knowing the pathways would be permanent, he kept delaying. Finally, as the fall term was imminent, he said to the construction team, “Come back next year. I’ll give you the plans then.” The workers were taken aback. No pathways? But the president wouldn’t budge. Disgruntled, they packed up and left for the year.
Over the next year, students began cutting across the grounds to get from class to class. Over time, the most efficient pathways were defined by thousands of feet, and large islands of untouched green grass also emerged. The most used paths soon became clear. The next fall, the workers returned to get the plan from the college president. “There”, he said, pointing out the window at the network of pathways, “there’s your plan. Put the pathways where people walk.”
As we grow, we keep the pathways we use all the time and the ones we don’t grow fainter through disuse. The brain “prunes” away these pathways, concentrating on strengthening the ones we use more often. We focus on the mental skills most important for survival.
A monkey by any other name
One of those skills is the ability to recognize faces. Humans can recognize and distinguish thousands of faces, which is remarkable, when you think about it. But if we were shown pictures of 12 different chimpanzees, or sheep, or lemurs, most of us couldn’t tell one from the other. They would all look alike. Is this because humans are especially distinctive in their physical features? No, it’s just that our brains have been optimized to tell our Uncle Joe from Paris Hilton. It’s rather important to our ability to function in the world. But what about babies? This was the question Olivier Pascalis at the University of Sheffield set out to explore.
Dr. Pascalis found something remarkable. Up until 6 months of age, babies could distinguish the faces of different monkeys. By nine months of age, babies lost this ability unless they had ongoing training in distinguishing one monkey from another. If they did, they retained the ability. In normal development, the time when babies start to be able to distinguish the faces of people close to them falls into this same time period. As we gain the ability to recognize human faces, we lose the ability to tell one monkey from another, unless we specifically work to retain this ability through ongoing stimulation. Like the pathways in the college common, if we don’t use these abilities, they simply disappear.
So, if our brains are creating pathways, what happens when we throw new environmental factors into the mix? What happens when we expose our children to something we weren’t exposed to during this same pruning period? They simply become better at it. And they do it in a way that we can never duplicate.
If you learn a language as a child, you learn it as a native. You develop a fluency that you’ll never achieve if you try to learn the same language as an adult. My wife was born in Canada, but her parents were both born in Italy. Her father immigrated at the age of 18, and her mother at the age of 10. My wife learned English from birth. Her mother learned English as a teen. Her father learned English as an adult. The difference in fluency is noticeable. My wife, of course, is fluent. English is her native tongue. Her mother has a very faint accent, but she is more comfortable in English than Italian. Her father still struggles with some of the idiosyncrasies of the English language and has a noticeable accent, despite the fact that it’s been the language he uses every day for almost 50 years. And that will never change. These differences have been hardwired into their respective brains through pruning.
Just like my in-laws exposure to English, new generations are being exposed to a totally new language from birth that we had to learn as adults: the language of digital technology. My daughters learned it from birth. They’re digital natives. And I, even though I spend several hours a day on a computer, will always be a digital immigrant. It’s a profound and fundamental change that we’re just beginning to see the impact of.
iBrain: Digitally Designed
It’s this generation divide in digital fluency that Dr. Moody’s co-researcher, Dr. Gary Small, examined in his book iBrain. As with any attempt to over generalize human populations, the divide between digital natives and digital immigrants is not so neatly drawn. The normal distribution curve that’s ubiquitous in human populations raises its head here as well. Within digital natives, there are outliers on both ends of the curve. There are those that are addicted to digital interfaces, whether it be mobile texting, video games or YouTube. And there are Luddites here as well. Similarly, there are remarkably wired seniors as well as those baby boomer age and older hanging onto their non-digital worlds by their fingernails. Indeed, one of the challenges in the UCLA study was finding enough participants that fit the definition of Internet “naïve”. But when you average out the curve, with the left being digitally “wired” and the right being “naïve”, there’s no question that the population under the age of 30 (the apparent divide between immigrants and natives) has moved significantly to the left.
Again, let’s come back to my daughters and I. For a 47 year old, I’m remarkably “wired”. Yet my daughter’s use technology in a way I would never think of. I tend to translate my needs into available technological frameworks. I am amazed by that technology. I constantly back “benchmark” against what I remember as a child. The fact that my email goes instantly around the world still bewilders me. But for my daughters, the technology isn’t amazing. It simply is. They don’t translate, they just use. Of course you use Google to do your homework. Why wouldn’t you? Of course there are a thousand websites specifically devoted to whatever fleeting interest happens to occupy your mind at this point in time. Why wouldn’t there be? Of course I can see exactly what my friends are doing on FaceBook, whether they live next door or in Korea. What’s so remarkable about that?
Stand up comedian Louis CK said, “we live in an amazing, amazing world and it’s wasted on the crappiest generation of spoiled idiots”. Louis is clearly in the digital immigrant camp, and I’m sure you also have to be over 30 to appreciate Louis’s view of things.
The give and take of digital fluency
There is no end to the profound implications that this digital divide could bring to our world. Remember, for everything we get better at through exposure, there are also lost abilities through lack of use. If we become better are navigating online because we spend 10 hours a day on a computer, but we loose the ability to communicate face to face because those 10 hours are spent by ourselves in a virtual cocoon, what are the impacts on our world? Dr. Moody and I touched on this in our interview (full transcript on my blog):
Dr. Moody: I can only comment on this just from personal experience with my children. I haven’t done research on how children interact with the internet. I’ve read some of the papers but I’ve not done any research on that. But it does seem that, you know, they interact more readily and more fluidly. It’s amazing how quickly your kids can navigate across something on the internet compared to how I do. Of course, I’m pretty computer-savvy, I use the computer hours a day. So I think there is a difference between young people and old people. Young people, I think they’ve grown up with it, they accept, you know, MP3 players, cell phones, visual impact touch screens – all that is so natural to them and some of us are still trying to figure out how to program our DVD players.
Gord: Right. But I guess there’s speculation too that as they become more comfortable with technology and it becomes more of a natural extension of how they communicate, there’s potentially a trade-off there. I mean, the whole concept of pruning is that you get better at what you do all the time and you gradually lose capabilities in the things you don’t do very often. And so might this mean, for instance, that the young are losing the ability for face-to-face communication or more kind of focused reasoning over a longer period of time.
Dr Moody: You know, I think that’s a very real concern, and I know that people are looking at some of those issues, attention in particular. The studies that I’ve actually looked at have used computer gaming to enhance visual attention. So we know that you can actually enhance attention using internet gaming practice. But it might be, as you say, that you also have a negative impact for longer periods of attention, like being able to read an entire article versus clicking around and having this immediate visual gratification of changing very quickly. So I’m not aware of the studies that have looked at the negative impact on attention. I’ve actually been looking more on the positive end of how attention has been enhanced and how people are developing computer packages to help children with ADD for instance be able to focus for longer periods of time. But certainly, just it seems that young people have shorter attention spans. I’m not aware of the research, however.
An attention deficit world
As Dr. Moody said, an area of concern is in the fragmented and fast paced online world, the notion of attention is significantly different than it was for us as children. Everything now is bite sized, YouTube length and hyperlinked. Are our children losing the ability to pay attention to anything for longer than 30 seconds? Is the world becoming attention deficit? There does seem to be proof of that happening. A number of studies have linked excessive TV watching under the age of 3 to increased incidence of ADHD. Remember, this is the critical period of pruning, where the brain is being optimized for its environment. If that environment is one of jump cuts, bright colors, loud noises and a different stimulus every second, the brain will change and adapt to that. Unfortunately, that environment isn’t the real world.
What’s equally ominous is what happens in the second period of extensive pruning and brain plasticity: adolescence. It’s during this time that the brain develops its ability to create social connections and empathize with others. During this process, friends become the most important thing in the world. But what happens when the majority of contact with friends is not face to face, but Facebook to Facebook? The brain has evolved to communicate most efficiently when we’re physically in the presence of our counterpart. Are our children sacrificing their ability to connect?
These are very new areas of research. Academics are just beginning to explore the impact of technology on our culture and society. Ironically, those doing the exploring are digital immigrants. Do the natives care as much as we do? Are we just clinging to things because those are the things we know? As digital natives eventually inherit the positions of power, how might that change things…how might that change everything?
Opinions expressed in the article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land.