"Is Technology Changing Our Brains?" The Guardian's Jackie Ashley asked me from the book I was reading on holiday last week. Jackie was fired up by a speech from psychologist, Baroness Susan Greenfield. I myself was lying in 90 degree heat on a sun lounger with other things on my mind, but it caused me to sit up. The story goes like this....
Once upon a time, (quite recently), Greenfield made a thought-compelling speech to the assorted deadbeats lining the benches of the UK's House of Lords. No doubt lost on them, The Guardian picked it up.
Greenfield set the scene, saying that traditionally: "Human brains programmed information and converted it into knowledge." Using the building blocks of words, grouped into components such as books, stories or a speech - our brains used that flow of information to build up a "personalised conceptual framework, where we can relate incoming information to what we know already." Greenfield continues: "Traditional education (and the brain's processing role within it) allows us to turn information into knowledge."
Now though, the brain operates in a completely different environment. The flow of words have disappeared, to be replaced by a barrage of fast, frenetic, non-sequitur images, icons and pictures machine gunned at our brains from every angle. We've learnt how to multi-task, thereby pulling information on parallel, diluted levels. The click-click, always online, never satisfied information environment has created a new information flow to the brain - the era of contemplation and 'the patient acquisition of knowledge' is passing.
So the question that's stressing Jackie Ashley, from listening to Greenfield, is this. If the method of input into the brain has changed, surely that effects the output?
Ashley's speculation on the brain's reaction and output is interesting, suggesting that this image/icon/never satisfied brain input can be attributed to rising agitation levels and general restlessness in classrooms. So is the PC responsible for the rising levels of Ritalin and Prozac consumption amongst today's kids?
On the flipside, I wouldn't mind having another look at this. I'll wager that the new brain input is developing a new level of intuitive, emotional and communicative skills amongst many of today's kids. As a kid I learnt how to gauge moods, either by listening to a tone of voice or looking in the eye of someone in front of me. Today's kids can do all that and more, interpreting each other's feelings by an IM chat, the punctuation used in a text message or god help us, the carefully selected choice of a 'smiley.' Maybe the PC is actually accelerating emotional and intuitive maturity amongst kids?
Who knows? There's a few quid in it for consultants to run studies - but frankly, I think we could do with finding out a little more.