Digital Human 2

In today’s world, we are overwhelmed with information from email, text messages, social media notifications, and news media, to name a few.  According to experts at IBM, “Every day, we create 2.5 quintillion [2,500,000,000,000,000,000] bytes of data — so much that 90% of the data in the world today has been created in the last two years alone.”  Satellites, cell towers, high-speed internet, Wi-Fi, and search engines help us access this data in almost magical ways. Social conditioning for the use of technology that creates and accesses the data comes in the form of non-stop announcements from tech companies about the newest devices and gadgets that will provide us with even more data; yes, many of us now know how many steps we take each day.

Quick facts and constant streams of data rarely get stored in long-term memory because the associative memory that comes with deep learning is absent.  Reinforcement of neural pathways necessary for long-term memory also is absent in a world of quick access to data.  Why commit information to memory when you can just Google it?

It is tempting to think that a Google Chip in our brains and digitally-connected contact lenses for readouts would be beneficial, but information would need to be stored in long-term memory for a Google Chip to access.  Once information is organized and placed in long-term memory, then our brains are faster than Google at accessing the information, not to mention the added benefit of being able to apply this information to the contexts in which we need it to solve problems, complete complex motor tasks, or think about meaning.

One of our shared values in the School of Education, Health, and Human Services at SUNY Plattsburgh is excellence in teaching.  Building new neural pathways and more complex synaptic connections takes dedication from faculty members who design engaging approaches to students’ learning.  Current students in our quick-access world may find the discipline necessary to build these pathways and connections more challenging than past students, in part, due to the myth of multitasking.

B0005204 Neurons in the brain

Pyramidal neurons forming a network in the brain.
Credit: Dr. Jonathan Clarke, Wellcome Images

I walked around the crowded library last semester during finals to see how students were studying and there was rarely a student who was not distracted by multiple devices.  Text messages, a quick click on a site unrelated to what was being studying came as easily as working a one-armed bandit in a casino; the psychological reinforcement principles are not that different between these things.  I could not help but think of George in Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.’s short story, Harrison Bergeron, where George and his spouse live in a future society when everyone has been made equal.  Regarding George, the author wrote,

And George, while his intelligence was way above normal, had a little mental handicap radio in his ear. He was required by law to wear it at all times. It was tuned to a government transmitter. Every twenty seconds or so, the transmitter would send out some sharp noise to keep people like George from taking unfair advantage of their brains.

Bringing greater focus to learning is a skill that is developed through discipline and requires a thoughtful use of technology.  I am not a Luddite; I do believe technology has a place in learning if used well.  Here are a few considerations:

  1. Emails come screaming in with bells like a three-alarm fire and distract thinking. Consider turning off the email notification on your computer and then only check email during specific times of the day.
  1. Consider not sitting in front of your computer for more than an hour at a time. Cognitive function improves during exercise (Ogoh, et.al., 2014).  If you have a problem to solve, take a walk as you think about it. Even better: walk with a colleague who can add a new perspective to solving the problem.
  1. Multitasking is not possible if you are using the same part of your brain for similar tasks (e.g., reading a book and reading text messages). You can only serial task in these instances by completing one task at a time (see more here).  Consider removing all distractions that compete with the same part of your brain needed to do the task at hand.
  1. Amid today’s vast sea of information, consider carving out time(s) each week for deep learning without any distractions. Close your email program, turn off your phone, put a sign on your door saying you are working on research, and give yourself the gift of deep concentration and learning.  Talk with your students about discovering this gift for themselves, it will not feel natural to most.

Disciplining the mind in a hyper-informational, high-tech society takes practice.  We can’t assume our students will develop this skill without some encouragement and guidance.  Technology does have its place.  In contrast to Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.’s story, there are times when I am trying to remember something and a Google Chip in my brain would be nice.

 

References

IBM. What is Big Data? Retrieved from http://www-01.ibm.com/software/data/bigdata/what-is-big-data.html

Ogoh, S., Tsukamoto, H., Hirasawa, A., Hasegawa, H., Hirose, N., & Hashimoto, T. (2014). The effect of changes in cerebral blood flow on cognitive function during exercise. Physiological Reports, Vol. 2 no. e12163. Retrieved from http://physreports.physiology.org/content/2/9/e12163

Vonnegut , K. (1961). Harrison Bergeron. Retrieved from http://www.tnellen.com/cybereng/harrison.html

 

Images

Digital Human Image (2014). Retrieved March 1, 2015 from: https://cliaoliveira.files.wordpress.com/2014/05/1512371_10202776268986474_571367483_n.jpg

Neuron Image (2011). Retrieved March 1, 2015 from: http://blog.wellcome.ac.uk/2011/12/07/feature-stroke-restructuring-the-brain/