Saturday, August 6, 2011

Brain drain

A favourite recurring theme of many tabloids and popular TV shows is the idea that digital technology is damaging our brains or making us stupid. Tales of obsessive gaming, gambling and social networking are seen as evidence of the perceived dangers of new technology rather than further examples of obsessive behaviour which has always been present in society. The real question is how to deal with obsessive behaviour in general (eating, drinking, drugs, gambling etc have always been around); the net just gives us new arenas for such tendencies.

We've always been wary of new technology that we see as being "unnatural" (simply because it's new). The well-known example of men with flags walking in front of the first railway locomotives to ensure that they could not go too fast is a clear parallell. After that there were several scientific papers that warned that our brains would not be able to cope with speeds of more than 30 mph and these fears continued as the speeds increased. I remember discussions in the sixties and seventies on the damage television was doing to children and scare stories of TV-addiction were not uncommon.

Many scare stories quote scientific reports and studies to back up their claims but is there any real scientific eveidence for these dangers? This is the subject of the following lecture by Dr Paul Howard-Jones, senior lecturer at the University of Bristol’s Graduate School of Education, who has written a report The impact of digital technologies on human well-being. He has sifted through 170 studies on the relationship between digital technology and its effect on how we think and learn and in this lecture he discusses some of the most common concerns about the net and sees if there is any scientific evidence to back up these fears.

The idea that the internet is "rewiring our brains" is actually true but not in a negaitive way. The brain is vey plastic and is constantly adapting to new stimuli.Children's brains are more plastic than adults' and exposure to the media-rich environment of the net stimulates new ways of thinking and can lead to new strategies for learning. One clear point in Dr Howard-Jones' lecture is that we need to provide better support for children, parents and teachers in how to use the net to stimulate learning and creativity.

One area of digital technology that is highlighted as having the greatest potential for learning and creativity is gaming. The lecture gives examples of research on how gaming stimulates more parts of the brain than other learning activities and there is good scientific evidence for the present trend of gamification in education. Discussion of gaming in the popular press today still focuses on some people's addictions to simple "shoot-em-up" games instead of the complex and immersive strategy games that are in fact mainstream and that are being increasingly used in corporate, military and even academic training.

The basic skills we use on the net are far from new; we read, write, communicate, watch films and listen to music. The net enables us to blend all these elements in new ways and allow new ways to collaborate and work. Instead of scare stories, bans and limitations we should be spending more time helping people to use our digital media in a responsible and mature manner.

Read more about this in an article by Tony Parkin, Fear of technology that can turn our brains to mush (Merlin John Online)

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