Thursday, July 1, 2010

Are electronic media making our thinking shallower?

 A recent article in The Daily Telegraph (6/28/10) includes a brief review of a new book, The Shallows, by Nicholas Carr, in which he "argues that new media are not just changing our habits but our brains".

Some selections from the article:

"When we go online we enter an environment that promotes cursory reading, hurried and distracted thinking, and superficial learning."
"Deep thought, the ability to immerse oneself in an area of study, to follow a narrative, to understand an argument and develop a critique, is giving way to skimming. Young users of the internet are good at drawing together information for a school project, for example, but that does not mean they have digested it."
"This tendency to skim is compounded by the temptation of new media users to 'multi-task'"...Modern management tends to laud multi-tasking as an expression of increased efficiency. Science, on the other hand, does not. The human brain is, it seems, not at all good at multi-tasking--unless it involves a highly developed skill like driving.

David Meyer, a neuroscientist at the University of Michigan, says: 'The bottom line is that you can't simultaneously be thinking about your tax return and reading an essay, just as you can't talk to yourself about two things at once. People may think otherwise, but it's a myth. With complicated tasks you will never, ever be able to overcome the inherent limitations in the brain'". 

Having just re-read John Milton Gregory's The Seven Laws of Teaching, the following passage in the Telegraph article struck me as especially relevant to teachers and parents:

"Paying attention is the prerequisite of memory: the sharper the attention, the sharper the memory. Cursory study born of the knowledge that the information is easily available online results, say the worriers, in a failure to digest it. Perfect for our soundbite culture, but no so good for producing an informed, subtle-minded electorate. In addition, the brain needs rest and recovery time to consolidate thoughts. Teenagers who fill every moment with a text or Tweet are not allowing their minds necessary down-time."

[Gregory, in the chapter on the law of the learner, says something similar: "Teacher and textbook may be full of knowledge, but the learner will get from them only so much as his power of attention, vigorously exercised, enables him to shape in his own mind."]

Research into the impact of electronic media on learning is still on-going. But its effects are clearly not all helpful. Classical education emphasizes thoughtful and deep engagement with ideas and words, not the superficial, randomness inherent in much of the electronic media students use so frequently. While technology can be a helpful tool, there are potentially devastating dangers that we must be alert to.

Below is a link to the article:


  1. "Teenagers who fill every moment with a text or Tweet are not allowing their minds necessary down-time."

    I think it remains to be demonstrated whether texting or tweeting prevent the brain from assimilating or synthesizing knowledge. I suspect that they do not, except for the case that they supplant knowledge-acquiring activities such as reading or tinkering.
    Lack of sleep, on the other hand, clearly has been shown to affect attentiveness, learning and decision-making.

  2. Joshua W.D. SmithJuly 2, 2010 at 10:19 AM

    1. One part of the issue is texting and tweeting and so forth at the same time as other things. A number of my students say that they have facebook on, while listening to music, and doing homework, etc. This sort of multi-tasking is detrimental to absorbing knowledge.
    2. If students transition from a difficult task like reading Homer, directly to texting or something, they do not take the necessary time to actually think about what they have read--they are immediately going on to some other task. Great ideas require thought and reflection, and students very seldom take the time to do so, as they have so many other media task to get to (in their view).
    3. The kind of reading and thinking patterns formed by reading electronic media are not the same as those formed by extensive reading and reflection. Thus, to the degree that electronic media patterns are what are forming students, to that degree they will not be equipped to actually follow a sustained argument in reading.

    So, the issue is not that for every text message the student sends, their I.Q. drops a half-point, or something as directly proportional as that. The issue is the habits of mind required by and formed by the kind of electronic media that inundates their context.