Dumbing down minds?

24th November 2006 at 00:00
Is IT a boom or a bust for our brains? Susan Greenfield looks at the possible side effects of the technological age

Is technology changing the way we think? Are icons replacing ideas? Is scrolling through menus stifling creativity? We need to find out fast or we shall sleepwalk into a society where technology rules and people are used by it rather than using it to develop their minds to the full.

As James Watson, co-discoverer of the structure of DNA, once acknowledged:

"The brain is the last and grandest biological frontier, the most complex thing we have yet discovered in our universe. The brain boggles the mind."

Because the brain is so sensitive, I am concerned that the use of some technology may be having unforeseen effects upon the developing minds of young people.

We are born with almost all the 100 billion neurons we will ever have and, after birth, the physical growth of the brain is largely a result of the growth of connections between these brain cells. These links form in response to the experiences of the individual, personalising the brain to produce the mind. Throughout our lives, this network of brain cells is ceaselessly dynamic: new connections form while others atrophy. Well-worn pathways become stronger and less used connections weaken.

Every experience we have, everything we encounter, every thought we have leaves, literally, its mark upon our brain.

For example, a small-scale study, Talking Stories on CD ROM - how do they benefit their users? Education 3-13, 33 (3): 32-37, M Donnelly, October 2005, found that when software was used to support reading, the recall and understanding of a story by Year 2 children was reduced when the interactive features were turned on compared to the "read to me" mode. The children preferred the interactivity of the software but learned less.

Of course, it is not the technology itself that causes the undesired effect but the way it is used. At the Institute for the Future of the Mind at Oxford University, we are trying to understand how technology can be harnessed to maximise young people's potential in learning, discovery and creativity, but we are also mindful of the possible and unforeseen "side effects".

One of our studies is examining how interruptions, such as mobile phone calls, texts and instant messaging, affect our ability to concentrate on a cognitively demanding task. Within this study, we are investigating whether new technology affects men and women, or people of different ages, to different extents.

We want to bring our research to bear on the way computers are used in schools. I would welcome views on how ICT has revolutionised the way you teach or has engaged young people in learning. Equally, if you have concerns about the effectiveness of ICT in helping children learn something specific, or have found that technology has a negative effect on the way young people think, I would be delighted to hear from you through our website www.futuremind.ox.ac.uk. Alternatively, you can write to me at the House of Lords, London, SW1 0PW

Baroness Susan Greenfield is professor of pharmacology at Oxford University and director of the Royal Institution of Great Britain

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