THE TECHNO BRAIN DRAIN
The Hamilton Spectator
Friday, October 17, 2008
Page Go 2
Review and Response by John Picone
What caught my attention was the introductory title of this article on the front page of the GoFriday section of the newspaper: “This is your brain on Google: Why the modern mind is suffering.” The title is a play on the title of Daniel Levitan’s book, This Is Your Brain On Music. The article is informed by an interview with Gary Small, M.D., one of the two authors of iBrain: surviving the technological alteration of the modern mind (HarperCollins). The co-author is Gigi Vorgan.
Small’s assertion is a simple one: “Digital technology is rewiring young brains.” Small is a Harvard-trained psychiatrist and director of the Memory and Aging Research Center at the University of Californai at Los Angeles. And he’s worried! Bombarded by digital technology, he says, our brains are adapting, altering not only how we think but also how we feel and behave. “There’s the concern that we could be losing something about how we define ourselves as human beings… We’re talking about significant brain changes happening over mere decades rather than millennia.”
In an experiment at UCLA, he used functional MRI scanners to study the brains of volunteers – some computer-savvy, some Internet innocents – while they searched Google. Their neural activity was distinctly different. But he found that after only five hours of Internet practice, his Google greenhorns were activating the same circuitry as the pros. The naïve subjects, he writes, had rewired their brains.
His concern is directed at the young, the adolescents who “tend to be the most digitally dug in.” He notes that young people aged 8 to 18 expose their brains on average to 8 ½ hours a day of digital and video sensory stimulation (watching television, playing video games, using the computer). Small is quoting a recent Kaiser Foundation study. “If you expose the brain to repetitive events, you’re going to tweak those neurocircuits. They’ll be strengthened and made more efficient,” he explains. “And if you don’t expose it to other events, other neurocircuits will be weakened.”
In this light, Small is worried about the neural pathways needed for developing traditional one-on-one skills, verbal and non-verbal, such as picking up cues from facial expressions and body language. “My concern is that the quality of our lives will change for the worse. We’ll feel less connected.”
In citing the chronic multi-tasking of the teenager, Small points out that this propensity may impair development of the parts of the brain that help give us the big picture, to focus and have the ability to delay gratification. Too much time in cyberspace and video-game land could stunt frontal lobe development in some teens. “It’s possible that they could remain locked into a neural circuitry that stays at an immature and self-absorbed emotional level right through adulthood,” he writes.
Perhaps the most frightening statistic of all is that an estimated 20 per cent of the younger generation meets the clinical criteria for “pathological” Internet use. They are plugged in so much that it interferes negatively with almost every other aspect of their lives. The worst brain-sucking culprit, according to many parents, are video games, blamed for turning players into glassy-eyed, deaf zombies. And worse. One wonders, of course, what responsibility these same parents are assuming for their children’s upbringing.
In sum, “My position on video games is my position on technology,” he says. “Let’s understand it and use it with balance.”
My personal response to Small’s observations is twofold. First, as a high school teacher of thirty years, I can only concur with what I perceive as behaviours among young people that subscribe to the observable phenomena Small describes. To me, there has been a conspicuous alteration in young people’s decorum even in the last five years. Not to my surprise, this parallels the increasing prevalence of PEDs, personal electronic devices.
Such behaviours are even more salient in music education that demands attitudes and actions by young musicians in band that are quite the antithesis of those behaviours Small is concerned about: respect, sensitivity, cooperation, responsibility. It is my observation that young musicians are more forgetful, leaving instruments at home or music in their locker. The are more often late or absent from rehearsal and do not afford the conductor the courtesy of informing him or her ahead of time that they will not be in attendance.
Focus in music class or at rehearsal is poor. I have to point something out to a musician several times before they “get it.” Inappropriate and distracting chatter while the conductor is explaining something to the whole band or making an important announcement about an upcoming concert is prevalent. The studio is left in a mess with water bottles on the floor and methods books forgotten on music stands.
The most obvious behaviour that supports Small’s concern is what I perceive to be practice, preparation for rehearsal, that is increasingly less effective, if it happens at all. Clearly, technological pursuits and distractions at home are the main thieves of quality practice time. Couple this with a decreasing sense of responsibility to and for other members of the band, and it becomes increasingly difficult to move toward performance standard in time for the Christmas Concert.
And disheartening beyond words is the musicians who comes to rehearsal “plugged in” to his iPod right up to the point of the conductor asking him to remove the earphones and get ready to tune or warm up.
My second response is the other side of the coin: it would appear that the band experience is the perfect antidote to the lack of neurocircuitry development Small is concerned about. The successful and happy band musician must develop focus, self-discipline, respect, responsibility and a sense of cooperation to counteract the egotistical self-absorption nurtured by the inordinate amount of time spent by young people with PEDs. It’s possible that practice time at home, if rendered irresistible by the conductor through careful repertoire selection and instruction on effective self-directed practice strategies, can “rob” the musician of some of the 8 ½ hours each day on the computer.
My experience in this course, Music and the Brain, has, among many other things, impressed one aspect of our brain upon me: it can learn. It can change. And we are capable of changing it!
In the face of brain-sucking technology that is becoming increasingly a part of the adolescent culture, I can only muster my courage, redouble my efforts, and renew my passion and commitment to music education. It may be our only hope.