Is the ‘net changing our brains…

I’m not sure where to file this one, but Jackie Ashley picked up on a speech in the Lords by neuro-biologist Susan Greenfield. In particular Ashley notes:

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.”

Put like that, it is obvious where her worries lie. The flickering up and flashing away again of multimedia images do not allow those connections, and therefore the context, to build up. Instant yuk or wow factors take over. Memory, once built up in a verbal and reading culture, matters less when everything can be summoned at the touch of a button (or, soon, with voice recognition, by merely speaking). In a short attention-span world, fed with pictures, the habit of contemplation and the patient acquisition of knowledge are in retreat.

  • Mmm.. Jackie Ashley would probably have been better advised to just quote the section of Susan Greenfield speech that she’s rewritten in the article you quoted, Mick.

    And it’s interesting to note that Greenfiled’s argument is not that the net is changing our brains.. but that future generations may not use the same conceptual frameworks as we do. i.e. some future society may think about information differently.

    On book-reading, in particular, she references the National Literacy Trust –

    Does this mean that young people are acquiring different skills? According to the National Literacy Trust, who I would like to thank for their help, there is currently no conclusive evidence that reading standards are deteriorating. On the other hand, there is evidence that the enjoyment of reading has declined in the last five to 10 years. Also, children perhaps have more interests competing for their time. They may be spending a lot less time just playing or doing nothing. Of course, doing nothing would presumably include thinking and letting your imagination roam free.

    And as several commenters at the CommentisFree blog noted.. the widespread use of the written word is a relatively recent phenomenon.

    Ironically Susan Greenfield provides an example of this in her complaint on the possible increasing reliance on visual icons –

    Already the visual icon is often substituting for the written word. Soon the spoken word will be increasingly available. If we soon have voice-interface computers—such computers are in the near future—embedded in our clothing or personal effects, you might simply need to ask your watch for the date of the Battle of Hastings.

    The Bayeux Tapestry, anyone?

    In short..

    Don’t Panic!

    [I will point out that Susan Greenfiled is on firmer ground with her comments on how drugs affect the brain.. ie in her own particular area of expertise]

  • I should probably have quoted this section of the speech by Susan Greenfield –

    Navigation on the internet is wonderful if you have a conceptual framework in which to embed the responses that flash up. We should not assume that all children nowadays will be so well equipped. The UK Children Go Online investigation by Sonia Livingstone at the London School of Economics found that 92 per cent of nine to 19 year-olds have accessed the internet from a computer at home or at school, but 30 per cent have received no lessons at all on using the internet. Only 33 per cent of regular users of the internet have been taught how to judge the reliability of online information. We now have access to unlimited and up-to-date information at the touch of a button, but in this new, answer-rich world surely we must ensure that we are able to pose appropriate, meaningful questions.

    “how to judge the reliability of online information”…. how? indeed.

  • Marshall McLuhan had it spot on: the medium is the message.

    He was talking about television, but it is also true about the internet, just as it will be about the next big thing in communication, whatever that may be.

  • Occasional Commentator

    Susan Greenfield: (via Pete) “Only 33 per cent of regular users of the internet have been taught how to judge the reliability of online information

    As if there is good education to help us judge the reliability of printed information. The internet is doing a fantastic job of helping us realise just how incompetent every other source of information is.

    Noted by Ashley: “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’

    If anything, this is easier online. With a book you just get one version of events. It’s much easier to quickly access other narratives by a few clicks online. Who’s going to buy 10 books on the same subject and read through them all? With the internet, it’s much easier to dip into various narratives for as long as it takes to decide if you think the author is a good writer.

    Noted by Ashley “The flickering up and flashing away again of multimedia images do not allow those connections, and therefore the context, to build up

    Nonsense. There’s hardly any pics on Slugger for example. The average newspaper has more pics than most blogs I’ve seen.

    I’m usually the first to attack the internet and defend books but this speech seems rubbish. I think the best method is to use books and the internet together, and this would be a better use of time then exclusive use of either. It’s the TV that I have no time for when it comes to it’s attempts to educate, except for wildlife documentaries.

  • Harry

    When watching television the brainwave pattern experienced by the viewer is similar to that experienced when asleep, I have read. So, watching television is a form of dreaming.

    Surfing the net using a cathode ray tube – scanning at 625 lines per second – should similarly induce sleep-like brainwave patterns I would have thought. What does this mean for information retention?

    New products are soon going to come to market utilising nanotechnology that will have the optical qualities of paper. Roll-up plastic screens that you’ll be able to put in your pocket or store away are also in the pipeline. It will be interesting to see how technology which more closely resembles the optical qualities of traditional learning material will impact this whole area.

    It was a good thing that this subject was raised.

  • Bizarre. This sounds like a requiem for the past world of the Kennedy era of TV politics, 1960-2004. It surely has passed no-one’s attention that the internet is almost entirely experienced in text.

  • Fraggle

    pitchfork wielding neo-luddism