Philobiblon: The plastic brain

Monday, April 24, 2006

The plastic brain

A piece today in the Guardian about an address to the Lords by Baroness Susan Greenfield expressing far-reaching fears about the effect on the human brain of the digital world.

The brilliance of Baroness Greenfield's speech is that she wades straight into the dangers posed by this culture. A recent survey of eight-to 18-year-olds, she says, suggests they are spending 6.5 hours a day using electronic media, and multi-tasking (using different devices in parallel) is rocketing. Could this be having an impact on thinking and learning?
She begins by analysing the process of traditional book-reading, which involves following an author through a series of interconnected steps in a logical fashion. We read other narratives and compare them, and so "build up a conceptual framework that enables us to evaluate further journeys... One might argue that this is the basis of education ... It is the building up of a personalised conceptual framework, where we can relate incoming information to what we know already. We can place an isolated fact in a context that gives it significance." Traditional education, she says, enables us to "turn information into knowledge."

Now this is the comment writer's version of the speech, but on her account it does seem to be - as one commenter says - an astonishingly Luddite one.
That was the "basis of education" in the 20th-century, but a historically specific one. It was heavily text-based, but that was a function of relatively cheap print, a trend that began in early modern times, when the equivalent of the Susan Greenfields of the time were of course exclaiming about the dreadful effect on the human mind of all this flood of print.

The brain is an astonishingly plastic organ, and no doubt those of children and adolescents are developing different to they were a couple of decades ago. But it is developing in the world as it is now, FOR it is now. Damn good thing too!

But some aspects of the human psyche probably don't change much. An army major in Australia is commendably trying to save the memory of the men mentally crippled in the trenches of WWI, who suffered just in the ways that veterans of Vietnam and more recent conflicts do.

Madness and the Military: Australia's Experience of the Great War, by Michael Tyquin, is the first comprehensive study on mental illness in World War I. It shatters the stereotype of the tough Anzac, an icon that he argues Australians look up to today - but which never existed.
Major Tyquin says of the soldiers who were "mentally shattered" by the war - some of whom recovered, though many did not - "I think we've erased them from our public memory. We like to celebrate Anzac, and I use 'celebrate' now because I think we're getting away from the original intent.

4 Comments:

Blogger clanger said...

Hmm, kids who can think *and* chew gum at the same time. Crikey.

For at least 10 years TV 'yoof' programmes have had multiple data streams of text and images. It actually caused a stir when it first started to happen as a stylistic device.

Some folk focus on one thing at a time, others can more easily multi-task. Its not new, and I doubt either is better than the other per se. I'm always amazed that kids can revise for exams with loud music on, but some can.

I'd question how much of this really is cognitive multi-tasking. Computers look like they are doing lots of things at once, but a computer CPU really only processes one instruction at a time. Co-processors, GPUs, twin cores, and pre-fetching don't do my analogy any favours, but a computer traditionally did one thing at a time so quickly it looked like it was doing lots of things at once.

Hands up anyone who can honestly say they can *focus on* both listening (to song lyrics) and reading at once. Tasting and reading perhaps, but tasting isn't cognitive, its sensory. Perhaps we really can only process one thought at any one time, just like a CPU, and those kids are revising with loud audio wallpaper acting as a security blanket.

The use of digital media and sound-bite TV has always been condemned for reducing the attention span of kids to the point where they couldn't read a book (cf. numerous citations on The Simpsons about the MTV generation).

And then along came J. K. Rowling and kids started queueing outside bookshops at midnight. Go figure.

The best way of turning information into knowledge is to employ inspirational teachers in schools, and make the lessons exciting, relevant, and worthwhile.

Back this up with good children's TV. The BBC still do children's TV. ITV also used to do children's TV, but then it sort of vanished. Maybe Oftel decided to let ITV's standards slip even more to save a few quid.

4/25/2006 02:01:00 am  
Blogger Natalie Bennett said...

I think it is possible to "cognitively process" more than one thing at once - not with the same level of attention, however.

In a brief period as a radio producer, I used to often have to do three things at once. I'd be on the phone setting up an interview, listening to what the presenter was doing in the studio so I knew when I had to send the call through to him, and also listening to a feed coming up from Sydney. (I was only listening to that for one thing - a time call, because if there was one I'd have to cut it out before we rebroadcast the segment later.)

I couldn't do it now, being out of practice, but I did get quite good at it.

One thing is, I think, always in the "foreground" of the mind, but you can process other things in the background as well.

4/25/2006 10:22:00 am  
Blogger AYDIN ÖRSTAN said...

I would think that multi-tasking would be good to one's brain. Especially if the kids can handle it why complain?

I frequently attempt to task my brain by switching between the only languages I know: English & Turkish. I may read a chapter from an English book, then read a story in a Turkish magazine and then go back to English. The idea is to keep the brain alert and to force it to think in different "channels". I have even played with mixed language texts, but it was difficult to create them.

4/25/2006 04:36:00 pm  
Blogger clanger said...

Not entirely convinced as you say you are now out of practice. You may have trained your brain to do things without focussing upon them, at the same time as you were thinking about something else.

Bizarre connection: professional footballers do this. They train themselves to respond to a chance, either shooting or saving a shot, without thinking about it as a pure reflex.

I'm sure its possible to do two things at once, but not convinced it is possible to focus on two things at once (like, say, focusing on two objects at different distances, one with each eye).

Be warned-trying that last one will give you a headache.

Note that several of Clanger's female friends hold the view that women can multi-task, but men can't.

4/25/2006 04:54:00 pm  

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