Saturday, April 12, 2014

Our brains are always changing. Get over it!

Another week, another article about the coming downfall of Western Civilization. It's a genre that dates back to Socrates's laments about the luxury and tyranny of youth (often mis-quoted). Western Civilization hasn't fallen yet.

(OK, so it's fallen and gotten back up several times since then, but it's hard to blame the collapse of Rome or the Black Plague on children rudely crossing their legs, or talking too loudly.)

In our modern scientific era, the genre has taken on a neurological cast. The next generation's failings are damaging their brains, crippling our nation's ability to think, to innovate, to lead, oh, and GET OFF MY LAWN!

This week's contribution to the field is a Washington Post article: "Serious Reading Takes a Hit from Online Scanning and Skimming, Researchers Say." According to cognitive neuroscientist Maryanne Wolf, web-surfing, e-mail, and other short-term reading commitments are re-wiring our brains, so we're no longer as good at deep reading long works. We've replaced linear reading skills with non-linear reading skills. As the article says, "scanning, searching for key words, scrolling up and down quickly" have replaced the ability to "remember where key information was in a book simply by the layout...[such as] a protagonist died on the page with the two long paragraphs after the page with all that dialogue." 

(You can see how that would be a problem. The ability to quickly find the protagonist's death scene based on the text layout of the page is far more critical than the ability to scan for key words, now isn't it?)

Yes, sure, our brains are being re-wired. Our brains are always being re-wired. That's how we process information. That's how we learn. Our brain is an amazing adaptation: it's an adaptation to allow adaptation. As humans, our fundamental trait is flexibility. We are able to manipulate our environment, but also to modify our behavior to fit our ever-changing niche. That's what the brain does.

So if the brain is being re-wired, it's because it's trying to better fit our current needs. And does anybody seriously believe that our future is going to involve more in-depth exposition on James Joyce and fewer hours spent on Wikipedia? That reading one text without intermission is going to replace near-miraculous modern technology that allows us to look up all connecting information as we read?

I can only imagine the article that must have run in Ye Olde Washingtone Poste after Gutenberg revolutionized printing: "Prior to the so-called innovation of the printing press, we developed an ability to scan our environment, search for key information, and quickly make connections between disparate pieces of information. But now, weighed down by the cognitive changes forced on young minds by the structures of printed tomes, our children are losing this ability, replacing it with a simplistic, linear understanding of the world, learning more about the shape of paragraphs than the shape of the world around them. Oh, and GET OFF YE OLDE LAWN!"

Don't get me wrong, there can be serious consequences to technology shifts, and modern reading/writing habits aren't all good. This study showed, for example, that hand-writing class notes, rather than typing, leads to better learning outcomes. But could we stop it with the hand wringing over the fall of Western Civilization? That got old with Plato.

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