By Stephanie Levin
Digital technology may well be the darling of the 21st Century, but is it good for your brain? When I ask college students if the onslaught of information affects their brains, or how they learn, there is a digital divide in responses. The 20 year-olds and under grew up connected, yet will admit that focusing on one thing for any length of time is problematic. Wedded to their phones, they glance at them numerous times in class, jump when it jiggles and bolt out of the class to answer it; and as for critical thinking…humm, is it necessary?
Half of my students sleep with their phones, and have separation anxiety at the thought of being disconnected from them. In contrast, students in their late 20s and upward tend not to be connected all the time. They are certainly not connected 24/7, tend to ask questions and generally are more engaged in class. This age group reads both online and printed text. About 80% of the 20 under group didn’t read on or offline. Everyone used social networking.
No one could tell me if being wired all the time takes a toll on the brain or if multitasking hampers attention or interferes with information assimilation. But, I could tell them that research bears out that the brain is, indeed, affected by the constant barrage of technology, and that the brain needs a break; after all, it’s a muscle for thinking, not a machine.
Is there too much technology? There’s no question that technology has yielded stupendous results in our lives, our jobs and communication. But studies continue to show that over-dependence on technology, multitasking and constant connectivity is creating a distracted generation with a short attention span. Studies out of Stanford, MIT and UCSD find growing evidence that multitasking frazzles the brain making it less productive. Heavy multitaskers have trouble paying attention and filtering out irrelevant information. The failure to filter suggests that they’re slowed down by that irrelevant information, according to a 2009 study from Stanford, or in other words their cognitive ability is impaired. While multitaskers think they are accomplishing more, studies show the opposite to be true. Their performance suffers, greatly. The brain is not wired to multitask efficiently and effectively.
To Read or Not to Read, or Do We Read Differently Online?
In his book The Shallows, Nicolas Carr poses the question is Google making us stupid? The questioned taps into educators’ anxiety about how the Internet is changing the way students read and the way we read as more textbooks and information is online. Is reading online sacrificing our ability to read and think deeply? Carr suggests that the printed page focuses our attention and promotes creative thought, while the Internet encourages rapid sampling of small bits of information from numerous sources. The brain reads differently online and offline; the online brain scans and gleans information, often taking in bites or small bits of information; the offline brain scans less, tends to read rather than scan, underlines and stops to contemplate and reflect more than online.
Ultimately, education is about communication and the numerous ways to communicate. Today’s student is constantly connected and relies on social networking to stay in touch. Yet, MIT professor Sherry Turkle and author of Alone Together, notes, “technology is the architect of our intimacies, and the relentless connection to it has led to a new solitude.”
For the student that has grown up multitasking, reading online and communicating online, the question of how the above affects the brain may be irrelevant; but for those of us teaching this generation, these questions are entirely relevant.
Pashler, H. “Attentional limitations in doing two tasks at the same time.” Current Directions in Psychological Science,1992.
Ophira, E. Nass, C. Wagner, A. “Cognitive control in media multitaskers.” Proceedings of the NationalAcademy of Sciences, Vol. 106 No. 33, August 25, 2009.
KQED Education media-rich ESL lessons on New Media Literacies explore these ideas.
Lesson Plan – Distracted by Everything – Being Wired at All Times (PDF)
Should students have access to cell phones and laptops in class? Do they need to be wired at all times? Is it possible to learn while multitasking?
Stephanie Levin has been an ESL instructor for many years. She is trilingual, and has taught at San Diego Community College, USF and City College San Francisco. She has also worked as a freelance writer and is the author of two books and numerous magazine and newspaper articles, none on the brain. Her interest in the brain and all it’s multifaceted intricacies began when she was a freelance editor for the Brain Tumor Foundation over a decade ago. Her immediate interest in the brain and education began when she noticed how differently both she and her students read online and offline.