Mind, Brain and Technology
Matt Richtel wrote a front page story in the New York Times today on tech gadgets and how the use of them might be changing the minds of the next generation.Hooked on Gadgets, and Paying a Mental Price
The heart of this newspaper article is -- How does the choice to attend to a virtual reality through the use of networked gadgets change the way we think? What are the benefits and risks of choosing one form of experiences over another? What are the consequences of our choices? The article implies that people who are plugged in are zoned out and that virtual living is ruining family life.Choice, interest, motivation and emotions structure cognition...
People vary in the choice of experiences they attend to, the degree of metacognitive work they choose to do on those experiences and their emotional investment. So how and why do we choose some experiences over others? The intellectual and emotional energy we invest in in reflecting on our choices help make our minds unique. The younger the child, has less control, but as we grow we gain more and more control and these choices will determine both the arenas and degree of expertise we develop across our lifetimes.
What we know about the brain is that it gets good at doing the things we choose to do with it. It is a self-regulating system.
Piaget describes cognition as a balancing act between assimilation (again) and accommodation (for the first time). We experience reality in the framework of what we know but that framework changes with every new instance. New experiences are understood by using a schema, a set of meaning-giving experiences that we have linked. If there is no match at all, there is not likely to be much understanding. That bit of reality will go over our heads--missing our mental processing. Where there is a match, the next part of processing is to understand how this experience is different from those in the past. This is where the mental schema is changed.
So the mind shapes experiences, and the experiences shape mind. And the goal is some sort of balance. If the experience is very similar, there is not much need for schema adjustment. But if the fit is rough, then more work is required to adjust the schemes so that the next match is a better one.
Those around us, and those we find through networking help us make our choices.
Parallel Processing vs Multi-tasking
Can we attend to more than one context, set of stimuli or task? Clearly it makes a difference what the task is and how well we need to attend to it. These are the choices we make each day.
But now that we watch the brain working scanning technology, we can gather evidence to support claims that we have the mental capacity to do more than one thing at a time. In Science (April, 2010) -- Etienne Koechlin of the Université Pierre et Marie Curie in Paris, France reports his new findings from scanning the brain while giving people problems to solve. He reports that our executive function in the brain can divide a task that would normally take place in one lobe across the two lobes and have the halves of our brains work concurrently if it is important enough for us to do this. So we have mental capacity to use each half of our brain to solve two similar and mentally complex puzzles at the same time.
So our two sided brain allows us to do two tasks at the same time-- parallel processing but we would need a different brain structure to do more than two tasks.
Neural and Social Networks are our technology for organizing our problem solving
What remains across studies is what we do with our brains is both shaped by and SHAPES our brain. If we keep trying to do something that is hard for us, our brains finds a way to help us. So it comes back to our choices. If we invest the energy to repeatedly try new tasks in new social configurations, it is possible that our brains will find new ways to operate or share operations with forces and tools that reside outside our minds.Parents (and teachers) can only choose for children for so long. They can enforce rules. You cannot read that book for more than 6 hours at a time, you cannot only watch television until homework is done, you can play video games that have a seal of approval, and you can't talk with strangers in chat rooms. But eventually each person gets to make these choices for themselves. Maybe schools should be places where we come to terms with the sort of brains we want to have and the sort of communities we want to belong to. Maybe we should be helping students understand the self regulatory aspects of thinking and learning, or reflection and community identity. Maybe if we spend more time in school helping students try on new identities and work people in different communities in our complex world,exploring the type of the problems that these people face, students will understand how learning shapes identity.
We can and should think about how technology use if affecting the mind. And we have a responsibility to help students think for themselves. And parents and educators should be more aware that that when they control what students do with their minds, they are influencing the structure of their brains. It is fine to raise the issue of what choices students and adult are and should be making with respect to technology in their free time. However, I wonder if kids today might have the right in the near future to mount a class action suit against schools with policies that have them spending so many hours learning meaningless content for superficial gains on simple tests.
What should we choose to learn, with whom, and why? These are critically important questions that shape the future.