This is your brain on technology

I just read an article “The web shatters focus, rewires brains” in the latest Wired How It's Donemagazine (yes, the paper-based version, not on an ipad).  One writer, Nicholas Carr, makes the case that the barrage of information and interruptions in our lives “shatters our focus and rewires our brain”.  The article (Wired June 2010 pp. 112-118) is adapted from his new book, “The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains”, to be published in June 2010.  He shares examples of research done to compare heavy to low Internet users where they fMRI’d their brain activity.  Heavy Internet users did have higher brain activity and that the brains of the low users after spending an hour a day online for a week then showed very similar brain use patterns.  Their brains were rewired!  This might sound promising whereby Internet use reroutes neural pathways but Carr argues that this is actually turning us into shallower thinkers, literally changing the structure of our brain.

Carr shares that since the 1980’s many have thought that introducing hyperlinks into text would increase learning, improve critical thinking, etc.  Hyperlinks would allow the reader to more easily switch viewpoints.  Researchers have learned though that there is a lot of overhead to evaluating hyperlinks, deciding to click or not, etc.  It creates a lot of disruption for the reader, reduces comprehension, and memory retention.
The Internet is an interruption system.  It seizes our attention only to scramble it.”
I’ll leave it to you to read the entire article – worth your time in my opinion.  It made me think about my own interactions with technology.  On a given work day when I am on my computer, I have e-mail, twitter, telephone, instant messaging (IM), cell phone, skype, all active.  Messages keep coming in, causing interruptions.  I do find myself often taking the easy out – read the email, check twitter, and of course respond to the IM (it must be instant) – rather than focus on developing that presentation, writing that report, analyzing the budget, brainstorming goals and priorities, preparing for the meeting, etc.  Multitasking right?  Or is it just a relentless barrage of distraction and interruption?  Carr says,
“Media multitaskers are suckers for irrelevancy: We are training our brains to pay attention to the crap.”
Hmmm, that sure is true when you think about how many messages from the various inputs you have, are useless time wasters.  Each one takes processing time for our brains to evaluate and accept or reject.  We can’t get that processing time back!  Carr suggests we are overloading our brains – what might be the long term affect of that?

Thinking about student learning, there seems to be a believe today that kid’s brains, these digital natives, are wired differently and that  they can handle all the inputs / outputs (IM, facebook, twitter, texting, music, videos, etc.) coming at them while doing homework, studying, etc.  Maybe they are wired differently and can do these things, but we should ask the question “at what cost” to true learning?

I think the adults in their lives need to help kids manage this reality. Kids may think they work better with all the distractions but that doesn’t mean it’s good for them.  Common sense might tell us that focus time is important some of the time.  We humans need to turn off the distractions at times to think more deep.  We need balance – broad inputs are important but so are deep ones.  Purely shallow knowledge and thinking is insufficient for true learning.  Just look at an accomplished athlete – when they are focused and producing, most other inputs are turned off.  Adults still need to teach kids “how to drive”…

Our schools are wrestling with the deluge of personally owned devices (POD’s) entering their buildings.  Most middle schools in our District require kids to put their PODs in their lockers. Some middle schools though are exploring how they might leverage PODs for learning.  I think this is a very important point in time for schools to make sense of this.  It will be important that the use of PODs is carefully managed.  I think they will likely need to be powered up and down through-out the day depending on the learning activities students are engaged with.  There is a lot for us all to learn about how to deal with the chaotic information and device world we live in and how to take best advantage of it for our learning and work.  In spite of the “dangers”, I am a firm believer that technology, used effectively and not allowed to run our lives, proves to be an amazing learning, engaging, efficiency, creative, … tool for all of us.

I’m curious what others think about these ideas.  Feel free to share your views with me here.


  1. Posted this response on my blog, but thought I would here as well:

    Brian, I was really struck by the Wired article you recommended, “The Web Shatters Focus, Rewires Brains“.

    The part that discusses hypertexts and multimedia texts has huge implications for creators of e-learning modules. One would think that multimedia offerings (e-learning that combines text, videos, simulations, etc.) would be more effective learning tools than pure text on the screen. But, the research the author (Carr) points out implies the opposite:

    In a study published in the journal Media Psychology, researchers had more than 100 volunteers watch a presentation about the country of Mali, played through a Web browser. Some watched a text-only version. Others watched a version that incorporated video. Afterward, the subjects were quizzed on the material. Compared to the multimedia viewers, the text-only viewers answered significantly more questions correctly; they also found the presentation to be more interesting, more educational, more understandable, and more enjoyable.

    I found it funny that while the article was poking at all of the “distractions” online from videos, hyperlinks, etc., the article itself was peppered with links, distracting videos on the site, etc.

    My take on the Internet as a thinking and learning tool, is the same as my take on diet and exercise – moderation is key. While the Internet gives users access to unprecedented information and opportunities, it can also lead to distraction and “shallow thinking”. I agree with your own blog post:

    There is a lot for us all to learn about how to deal with the chaotic information and device world we live in and how to take best advantage of it for our learning and work. In spite of the “dangers”, I am a firm believer that technology, used effectively and not allowed to run our lives, proves to be an amazing learning, engaging, efficiency, creative, … tool for all of us.

    As instructional designers and educators we must be careful to design learning experiences that emphasize deep thinking, critical thinking, visual-spacial skills, social consciousness and more. Teaching is an art and the Internet is just one of our paint brushes/tools. How we put all of our tools, thoughts and inspirations together requires true skill, passion and imagination.

    (Literacy is Priceless, Bon Education)

  2. Anna - thanks for sharing your thinking on this topic. There's a danger in blaming tools for poor human behaviors or activities. I think you've hit it on the head with your last paragraph. I think it speaks to an age of maturity that will come (soon) in our education systems, our families, and our personal lives as we learn better how to balance our use of technology. That with, as you say, skill, passion, and imagination should have the technology enhance and deepen our learning. Really in the sense of time, we've just begun haven't we?


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