Old Dogs Can Learn New Tricks, aka Neuroplasticity

Brain as play doh

With the advent of each technological advancement comes a discussion of its impact upon culture, society and how people think.  The printed page, typewriters, radio, television and now the internet have undergone such analysis. Journalists and researchers are now pulling the alarm as the rewiring which occurs in the physical brain through frequent exposure to the internet becomes increasingly apparent.  The relatively new field of neuroplasticity provides insight and an explanation of the actual physical changes to the brain and the resulting impact on learning .

Early brain research led to the formation of the localization theory.  Scientists found particular spots in the brain were responsible for specific functions, such as speech, control of the left arm or hearing.  They concluded that damage to a specific area would lead to the irreparable loss of the specific function controlled by that area.

But researchers working with victims of war or serious accidents discovered patients could learn a skill even when the part of the brain which handled that skill was damaged; the plasticity of the brain was acknowledged.  The easy, quick learning of children and their brain’s plasticity was accepted, then in the 1970’s Dr. Michael Merzenich demonstrated that this plasticity exists from the cradle to the grave.

His cleverly designed studies show that radical improvement in cognitive thinking is possible no matter the age of the individual.  Paying close attention to something which requires highly focused attention will redesign the brain and change the mapping system the brain utilizes to perform the function.  This adaptability has upsides and downsides.

Adult learners can acquire a new language or take up dancing, while habitual liars will increase their facility in lying as extra white matter in the prefrontal cortex develops to handle the task.  Oversurfers of the internet will stretch out their brains and be distracted more easily; and multi-taskers will become less deliberative and less able to think and reason out a problem.  They may think they’re more skilled, but it is at a superficial level.

Internet users touch keys and a mouse, click here, drag there and receive a steady stream of input through physical, visual and audio sensations.  That and the quick results of Google searches and the unending trail of hyperlinks actually create a need for mental stimulation, information and impressions.  Users become adept at scanning lots of data, recognizing patterns and quickly deciding what is relevant.  The plastic brain adapts to handle the bombardment of stimuli, but to the detriment of other skills.

Inductive analysis, critical thinking, reflection, and deep thinking become harder and harder to do.  The brain struggles to follow lengthy narratives or involved arguments, and the movement of new information into long-term memory occurs less frequently.  As restlessness is hardwired into our brains, concentration becomes increasingly difficult.

I have experienced aspects of this phenomenon myself.  Three years ago I enrolled in a masters level graduate program thirty years after graduating from college.  Heading back to school is challenging in and of itself, but I think my online activity made it even more challenging.

For years I’d followed hyperlinks, multi-tasked, and bounced from site to site. I quickly scanned sites using an “F” shaped movement of my eyes rather than reading thoroughly, flitted from blog post to blog post, jumped between multiple browser tabs and along the way began to crave sensory stimulation.

Then came my rude awakening. Graduate school classes consisted of 2-5 hour lectures with outlines on an overhead projector or a PowerPoint presentation at best. Readings were often dense, linear arguments (particularly in theology classes) and research papers required critical thinking and analytic skills. Not much sensory stimulation happening, unless you counted trying to avoid watching other students flit between screens on their laptops.

It took a year to shift my brain into academic mode.  Gradually my attention span lengthened,  the ability to follow convoluted arguments improved, and my writing reflected improved critical thinking skills. I noticed the regained skills diminished over breaks when I utilized the internet and social media more. Granted, some of the learning challenges may be related to being a Middle-

aged Student, but my re-acclimation to streams of sensory input and mental stimulation certainly wasn’t helping.

I’m not a Luddite and I’m not about to cancel my ISP, but as a result of my exploration into neuroplasticity, I am more intentional when I use the internet.  It’s a fabulous tool for communication and information, but I want to use it more than be shaped by it.

What’s been your experience?

I researched the topic for a class on teaching methodologies.  If you want to explore further, here are some links.  Follow them at your own peril.

Anderson, Sam. “In Defense of Distraction.” New York 42, no. 18 (May 25, 2009): 28–101.
Bush, Harold K. “Brain Memoirs:  Thinking About Thinking.” The Cresset. Accessed January 13, 2013. http://thecresset.org/2012/Advent/Bush_A2012.html.
Carr, Nicholas. “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” The Atlantic, August 2008. http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2008/07/is-google-making-us-stupid/306868/.
———. “The Juggler’s Brain.” Part of a Special Issue: Technology; Excerpt from The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains.  Kappan,  92, no. 4 (December 2010): 8–14.
Carr, Nicholas G. The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains. Norton pbk. [ed.]. New York: W.W. Norton, 2011.
Neulieb, Christine. “Changing Our Minds.” Commonweal 137, no. 22 (December 17, 2010): 15–18.




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