Public Information Resources, Inc (PIRI) is the organization that presents the Learning & the Brain Conference. Last weekend’s Cambridge, MA conference was the 24th such conference, and PIRI’s President, Dan LaGattuta, said the turnout was the largest in eight years. Indeed, there were so many attendees that the keynotes had overflow rooms, and the Marriott, where the conference was held, filled all of its conference block rooms, which is why I wound up at the Hyatt, an enjoyable mile’s walk from the conference.
Why so many attendees this time round? I am certain it was the enticing topic of Modern Brains: Enhancing Memory and Performance in this Distracting Digital Age. Talk about a timely topic!
The conference began with three opening keynote talks discussing Modern Minds, Multitasking & Memory. The first talk, Digital Brains and Memory: Surviving the Technological Alteration of the Modern Mind, was given by Gary W. Small, the Director of the UCLA Center on Aging and the author of the recently published iBrain: surviving the technological alteration of the modern mind. He began by showing this youtube video:
It turns out that Small’s conference talk was quite similar to his talk given at the Center on Aging entitled The Impact of Technology on Your Brain.
As you may know, the developing brain – the brain of children and adolescents – is highly plastic, specifically because it is still developing. The plus side of this is that the developing brain soaks up new learning; the negative side is that the frontal lobes and the amygdala, which manage decision making and emotions, is a work in progress, and will not mature till the early to mid-twenties. Small stated that sixty percent of synaptic connections are pruned during this developmental phase, a “use it or lose it” process. In referencing a Kaiser Foundation study of a few years ago, which found children between the ages of 8 and 18 years spent 8 1/2 hours a day in front of a screen, Small went on to note that if more time is spent in front of a screen, then less time is being spent doing something else, so how will this impact brain evolution?
As one who uses email extensively (though my husband and I recently began “digital-free Sundays” :-)), I related to Small’s description of “email as an exercise in operant condition”, whereby the consequence of the operation reinforces the condition. The idea is that the hope of getting a useful, positive email, mixed in with all the spam, is what keeps us opening email.
Small touched upon a number of other topics including ADHD (thinking about ADHD kids and tech use is like the chicken and the egg issue, what is cause and what is effect?), sentences and emoticons activate different areas of the brain, and the 2008 Atlantic article, Is Google Making Us Stupid?, from which Small highlighted that we sacrifice depth for breadth and no longer have to memorize as much information. He also commented on multitasking, saying that we have a perception (actually, a misconception!) that we are able to multitask. In fact, “we are faster but less efficient” as we pay “continuous partial attention” to each of the tasks in which we think we are engaged. This comment on multitasking would be repeated multiple times by multiple people throughout the three day conference.
I found particularly interesting the Net Naive and Net Savvy study, which looked at “patterns of cerebral activation during Internet searching.” The results suggest that Internet searching could be a useful brain exercise for improving brain functionality.
Small concluded with the following points:
- We should pick and choose what we commit to memory, and choose the right tool for the memory task.
- We should find a balance – digital natives need to improve their social skills and digital immigrants need to improve their text skills.
- Future technology should build on the benefits of face-to-face interaction. (This surely has implications for online learning.)
And for his last point, which I found intriguing, Small suggested that the “immediacy of sharing in social networks may stifle creativity because everyone knows what everyone else is thinking, right away.” Ponder that one!