Or am I mixing up a couple of words here? I must admit: I’m pretty confused. I’ve been reading quite a bit about paper vis-à-vis technology. And I honestly cannot tell for sure which one will actually make you smarter or dumber. The fact that I’ve been reading about paper on my Kindle while reading about technology in magazines, obviously hasn’t helped.
The internet is rapidly and profoundly altering our brains.
A while ago, I read “iBrain: Surviving the Technological Alteration of the Modern Mind” by Gary W. Small and Gigi Vorgan. It has this story about a 2008 experiment at UCLA that actually showed people’s brain changing in response to Internet use. Twenty-four volunteers were asked to perform searches on Google after they had been shoved into a whole-brain magnetic resonance imager (MRI). Twelve of them were experienced web surfers, twelve were novices.
The experienced surfers showed much broader brain activity than the novices, especially in some particular area of the brain: the area associated with problem solving and decision making.
After having performed the searches, they all had to read a text without hyperlinks. This time, there was no significant difference in brain activity between the two groups.
And after only just five hours of web surfing, the brains of the internet-naïve subjects had already been rewired and were showing the same kind of activity as the brains of the experienced surfers. Quite remarkable, don’t you think?
If you manage to read on beyond this sentence, there still might be hope for you.
So, browsing the Internet seems to exercise our brain. The question is: is that a good thing? One would feel inclined to say yes, but there is some other observations to be made as well. Browsing the internet also overloads our brain: it goes haywire when we start clicking around in a digital document. To the extent that it becomes virtually impossible for us to do any deep reading or thinking. Or, to say it with the exact words of Clay Shirky: “The Internet trains our brain to pay attention to the crap.”
Oh boy, we’ve totally been screwed. Deep reading- or thinkingwise, I mean. But could it be possible that maybe, somewhere, there actually is an antidote?
Retrain your brain with dead-tree technology.
When was the last time you actually jotted something down on a piece of paper? Since you’re still reading this post, chances are: not too long ago.
Using an MRI-scanner, the exact same tool as Professor Gary Small used, researchers at Indiana University found that writing by hand is more than just a way to communicate. One group of children practiced writing letters in print; the other children practiced seeing and saying the letters. After four weeks of training, the kids who practiced writing, seemed to be a lot better off. They showed brain activation similar to an adult’s and could recognize letters a lot better than the group of children who didn’t practice writing. So writing by hand still seems to be very important for one’s development.
But how do you get your frenetically texting, tapping and typing kids to still practice writing print letters by hand?
Learning handwriting on an iOS device. No kidding.
In order to teach your kids handwriting, you go to the iTunes app store and buy an app like “abc PocketPhonics”. So your children will think learning to write is a game. Some parents seem to think it a good thing for handwriting having nothing to do with paper and ink anymore. So much for the dead-tree technology.
The tools we use to help us think, actually shape our thinking.
But wait. Is paper’s part really played out in a world controlled by touch screens? Well, according to Michael Canfield, author of the book ‘Field notes on science and nature’, making notes and drawings on paper is the quintessence of good scientific documentation. Because they capture the development of the thinking, methods and even peregrinations that go into the particular work.
Written notes are more useful to history, for establishing the meta-record of how the research was actually done than just the data itself. It records the human creative process, the thinking behind the thinking.
Rest assured, paper and technology are likely to exist peacefully for many years to come.