Our Brain Online: Four Research-Based Articles Annotated

I’m teaching a new (for me) course next semester called “Technology, Values and Society.” It’s been in the catalog for some time, which may be why the description doesn’t mention digital technology as transformative. But that’s the approach I’m taking, with a focus on social media, information technology, and video games. Tangential to my academic planning, I’ve begun keeping an annotated list of related websites. Perhaps the four below will interest you. Each suggests that rather than dumbing us down, our digital technology is actually making us smarter.

Brain meditating

Brain meditating*

1. Google & the Brain. Tina Barseghian in “How Technology Wires the Learning Brain” (Mind/Shift, 2-23-11) reports on the work of neuroscientist Gary Small and begins this way: “Kids between the ages of 8 and 18 spend 11.5 hours a day using technology — whether that’s computers, television, mobile phones, or video games – and usually more than one at a time.” Many of us do – and that’s the majority of our waking hours. So what’s that doing to our brains? According to Small, the negatives include less face-to-face conversation and eye contact – with the danger of less empathy and less time reflecting and thinking in in-depth ways. The positives are that “technology trains the brain to be nimble and to process new ideas quickly. We become more open to new ideas, and communicate more freely and frequently.”

One of Small’s research studies compared brain activity of the “Internet-naïve” (mostly older folk) and the “Internet savvy.” He and his team found that while they were conducting a Google search, the “Internet savvy” had “twice as much brain activity in all parts of the brain than while…reading a book”; moreover, after a week of Googling, the “Internet-naïve” group had “a significant burst in frontal lobe activity, which controls short-term memory and decision-making.” Small’s conclusion: “Google is making us smart. Searching online is brain exercise.” Small also mentioned that surgeons “who play video games … make fewer surgical errors” and “have improved reaction time,” as well as “better peripheral vision.”

Brain sensing

Brain sensing

2. Super Mario 64 & Bigger Brains. The journal Molecular Psychiatry recently published a study conducted at the Max Planck Institute on 23 adults trained to play Super Mario 64. Based on this small sample, the researchers concluded that gaming “augments GM [gray matter] in brain areas crucial for spatial navigation, strategic planning, working memory and motor performance going along with evidence for behavioral changes of navigation strategy.” They predicted that “video game training could therefore be used to counteract known risk factors for mental disease…for example, post-traumatic stress disorder, schizophrenia and neurodegenerative disease [like Alzheimer’s]” (see KurzweilAI, 2-1-13).

Brain flying

Brain flying

3. Social Media & the Brain. Elise Hu’s short article “How Blogging and Twitter Are Making Us Smarter” (NPR, 9-17-13) led me to an excerpt of Clive Thompson’s book Smarter than You Think (Wired, Sep 2013). One of Thompson’s arguments is that even though much writing in social media – blogs, Twitter, Facebook, email – is far from brilliant, “The fact that so many of us are writing — sharing our ideas, good and bad, for the world to see — has changed the way we think. Just as we now live in public, so do we think in public. And that is accelerating the creation of new ideas and the advancement of global knowledge.”

To support his argument, Thompson cites studies which show that students write better, take more interest in the subject about which they’re writing, and thus learn more when they know that a real audience (not simply the teacher) will read their work (the “audience effect”) – and it doesn’t have to be a big audience either. “Having an audience,” says Thompson, “can clarify thinking. It’s easy to win an argument inside your head. But when you face a real audience, you have to be truly convincing…. Once thinking is public, connections take over…. Propelled by the hyperlink, the Internet is a connection-making machine. And making connections is a big deal in the history of thought—and its future.” He calls the Internet “the world’s most powerful engine for putting heads together.”

Brain admiring

Brain admiring

4. The Interest-Driven Brain.  Constance Steinkuehler, a game-based learning scholar at the University of Wisconsin-Madison,  argues for “interest-driven learning” in a  Big Thinkers video that features her work with literacy, games, and boys in an after-school program (Edutopia, 4-17-13). The largest population of gamers and of students who aren’t doing well in school are teenage boys. What’s going on? She compared reading they do in school with reading they do about online games. For example, one 10th-grade boy who tested at a 6th-grade reading level in school could read with 94-96% accuracy a World of Warcraft graphic novel with a 15th-grade reading level. “What it came down to,” Steinkuehler says, “was something called self-correction rates. When they choose the text, when they care about it, they actually fix their own comprehension problems more than two times as often as when they don’t care about the text…. If you care about understanding the topic…you will persist in the face of challenge….”

Brain nuking

Brain nuking

Just for fun: “Out, damned spot!”  Researchers at the University of Luxembourg reported in 2012 that inexperienced players of violent video games buy more hygienic products after playing. Apparently the players’ moral distress led to the need to cleanse themselves, what’s called the “Macbeth effect.” Actually, it should be called the “Lady Macbeth effect” 🙂

Brain celebrating

Brain celebrating

*I took the screenshots in this post in World of Warcraft.


About Lotus Greene

I started the blog called "Educating Lotus" in 2011, shortly after I began exploring the virtual world Second Life. With friends I met there, I migrated my virtual life to World of Warcraft (WoW) and joined an educators' guild. Lotus Greene is my gamer name, one I kept when I started another blog in 2015 called "Not Quite Ignored," which originally focused on the lighter side of news and now also includes political news and opinions.
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