A Neuroscientist's View on the Effects of Technology on the brains of readers
Recent advances in educational neuroscience are helping educators understand the critical role which teachers play in building brain capacities, and its importance to students’ learning and self-control. Teachers change brains. When they teach, the impact on a students’ cognitive development is foundational. But the effects of technology are starting to show that they can impact the brain with almost as much significance as a teacher can.
Throughout our lives, the cerebrum—the largest portion of our brain—fine-tunes itself to adapt to the world around us. This occurs in largely three stages. The first is of proliferation - associated with brain building. This stage is highly dependent on childhood experiences like play, socialisation and hearing stories read aloud. It involves creating new synaptic connections and fiber tract connections. The second stage is that of pruning. Pruning includes reduction in unused synapses - new connections made to represent knowledge, and axonal fiber tracts, the highways that allow newly learned information to integrate with past knowledge and experience. That is, removing connections which are used less often. For example, elimination of auditory perceptual connections - picking up on sounds and speech of other languages. It is these connections which are helpful for learning a foreign language, but if eliminated with time, the ability to learn a new language becomes more difficult.
The final stage is consolidation, occurring during early brain maturation, which helps us respond to things automatically, without thinking. The human brain is a statistical analyzer. After thousands of repetitions of slightly disparate stimuli, it begins to map for commonalities. Over time, it will automatically respond to familiar situations in the same way. For students, you can understand this idea with revision. The more times you redo a set of past paper questions, the better and quicker you will become at answering them. This is because the nervous impulses which control your responses are strengthened every time you do the set of questions.
Spending too many hours looking at screens can change the shape of the brains of all people; babies, teenagers and adults. Although research is still primitive, and the databases of evidence for or against the use of technology is not yet enormous, there is some data with blaringly obvious results. It is these results which we cannot hide away from for much longer.
Before the deluge of iPhones, iPads and other devices, the average person had an attention span of about 12 seconds. Now it’s believed that we can only concentrate for about 8 seconds on average before moving on to something else. That’s an attention span of one second shorter than a goldfish, or a reduction of 11% compared to the goldfish.
Our brains are becoming accustomed to a constant overload of visual information, including text, graphics, videos and other digital stimuli. Our brains are learning to scan information and pick out what appears important whilst disregarding the rest. Rather than reading articles deeply, we narrow in on snippets of detail and form key takeaways. We’re reducing the amount of pruning and consolidation which our brains are able to do.
Because of this, many researchers fear that our brains are losing their facility for prolonged concentration, such as is required to read novels and other long-form writing. Some studies indicate that the key skills needed for critical thinking and long-term learning are being replaced by a shallow engagement. This is largely due to our split attention spans.
It is important to note that there has been research which shows the benefits of technology on our cognitive functions. For example, a Princeton University study found that expert video gamers have a higher ability to process data and to make decisions in comparison to non-gamers.
There is no doubt that time will tell us more. For now, it’s important to do everything in moderation and monitor your own cognitive function and abilities to ensure it is maintained at the maximum possible level.