What? Come again? Rewire young people’s brains? Yes, that sounds like some kind of scary 1984/Brave New World experiment to be resisted. But the reality is that digital technology is already rewiring everyone’s brains.
The issue is whether we are both smart enough and wise enough to learn how to help students rewire their brains in ways that maximize their intellectual potential — and, one would hope, their emotional, moral and spiritual capacities as well. (And maybe reduce their blood pressure a bit at the same time?)
Technology writer Nicholas Carr writes in “Wired” that surfing the Internet for as little as five hours is all it takes to begin rewiring our pre-frontal lobes in ways that tend to reduce our attention span. Expanding on that theme in his new book “The Shallows,” Carr stresses that he is not a Luddite who proposes that we reject technological innovation. He says that we need to figure out how to cope with the unanticipated downside of our new digital miracles.
Carr cites scientific management, named Taylorism after its inventor Frederick Taylor, as an innovation that brought its own problems locked inside. Taylorism standardized tasks and thereby standardized output. And I, for one, think it’s great that all the bolts in our airplanes were built to strict standardized specs. But the downside of routinizing manufacturing systems was that the rigidity stifled innovation and creativity, while driving workers berserkers.
While the Internet has proven itself a blessing, it has not been an unmitigated one. The Internet is the embodiment of distraction. Wow, this is interesting, but whoops, let me click on this link because it looks intriguing. And then this one and that one and this.
Multi-tasking has also become a new way of life. But as we can see from the traffic accidents that result from people who try to text and drive, such distractions risk preventing us from doing any task well.
At the individual level, that’s a car crash. As the societal level, it could be a train wreck.
If computers and cellphones are changing our brains in ways that make it harder for us to focus and think deeply, we need to figure out a wise response, for us as individuals and for our culture. The challenge lies in devising ways to enjoy the benefits of innovation while minimizing the damage from often-unintended consequences.
Which leads me to Internet guru Clay Shirky’s comments about education today on CNN’s GPS (Global Public Square), the thought-provoking show hosted by Fareed Zakaria. Shirky, whose throwaway insights are often more brilliant than the labored observations others require a lifetime to develop, noted that ever since the 19th century, modern societies have chosen to spend enormous amounts of their treasure and time on teaching five- and six-year-olds how to read.
That’s a massive leap of faith for a culture to make. Doing so must have been a hard sell at first, particularly when times were tough. But somehow people instinctively knew that helping young people learn how to read would make them better people, people who would in turn create a better society.
So it seems that the times require a new leap of faith in teaching children how to quiet their minds as much as stimulate and stretch them.
I think back to the much-dreaded mandatory “nap time” I hated in kindergarten. None of us actually fell asleep. Was that actually intended to help us learn how to still our minds between bouts of childish exhilaration and intense concentration? (Or was it just a way to give harried teachers a break?)
But maybe we could start by finding ways to make tapping into our brain’s ability for reflection appealing. First we need to develop strategies that help young people to learn how to tap into islands of mental tranquility within a world of unrelenting distraction. We also need to help them build the habit of doing so, by making it fun.
Meditation offers a proven path toward calming the brain. Research on transcendental meditation confirms that it confers mental and physical benefits. Disciplines such as yoga are also credited with improving mental focus in addition to the physical benefits.
In his book, Carr cites research that suggests a powerful antidote to the downsides of distraction may lie in experiencing nature firsthand:
A series of psychological studies over the past twenty years has revealed that after spending time in a quiet rural setting, close to nature, people exhibit greater attentiveness, stronger memory, and generally improved cognition. Their brains become both calmer and sharper.
Richard Louv coined the term Nature Deficit Disorder to describe the way modern life has alienated children from the natural world. Urbanization and parental fears have conspired to rob children of the opportunity to experience the special joy of roaming the woods alone.
As a result, children do not learn to appreciate the value of nature and the importance of protecting the environment. Moreover Carr reports that experiencing nature firsthand also enhances our ability to demonstrate empathy and compassion.
Does this mean I should haul all 240 of my students to Baker Woodlot and hold classes there? Sound appealing, but I am not sure the provost would agree.
Carr cites research that showed people who viewed pictures of rural settings exhibited greater calm that those who were shown city scenes. So I may experiment with showing a slideshow of images of the wild, while requesting that students turn off Facebook and cellphones for a moment.
But I would also argue that rewiring youngsters brains so they learn to love nature and can think clearly about the duty that implies must come much earlier in their upbrining. By the time I get them, as freshmen in college, their hormones have kicked in, which may be even more distracting than the Internet.
Yes, I know school budgets are shrinking. But parents with elementary-school-age children could volunteer to organize nature walks. Middle schools could invest in putting in a school garden or a hoophouse or greenhouse so that youngsters can learn the joys of digging in the dirt and having a tomato to eat to show for their efforts. Architects could be encouraged to create schools that look less like prisons and more like conservatories.
The challenge lies in experimenting with ways to help young people develop a full range of mental gears and the ability to shift through them smoothly.
And we may well fail, at least at first. I think many of us are still struggling with how to teach critical thinking. Finding ways to help youngsters train their brains requires not only a new curriculum but a truly new mindset.
However, I feel a special urgency. We need to create new generations of people who can handle the pace of change our world now demands, especially as the consequences of climate change and financial instability require to adapt quickly and well. I want succeeding generations to use technology well without burning out or tuning out.
Though some will argue that this is mind control that poses a threat to traditional values, the fact is that making the leap of faith to teaching young kids how to read helped shape a better world. Making the investment and commitment in teaching youngsters how to calm their minds by learning to love nature may be our best of hope of saving the planet, including saving it from us.