Is technology rewiring our brains? Technology continues to get a bad press

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Technology is a gift of God. After the gift of life it is perhaps the greatest of God’s gifts. It is the mother of civilizations, of arts and of sciences – Freeman Dyson

In recent blogs I have explored how technology gets a very bad press. Despite the massive positive impact that modern technology has in all of our lives, the accepted mainstream discourse surrounding technology often evokes a dystopian reality where technology does more harm than good.

Nevertheless I find it surprising that most educators, seemingly undeterred by overwhelming evidence to the contrary, continue to view the use of technology with suspicion and incredulity as, from this perspective, focusing on doubt, scepticism, danger and concern appears to be the sensible thing to do.

However, I believe this kind of thinking is based on the deeply flawed assumptions that, from the teaching angle, technology does not offer any real benefit to education, and that, from the learning angle, we would be better advised to tightly control children’s access to technology in any case. One of the often cited causes for concern is the suspicion that increased technology use might be adversing affecting brain development in children.

But we’ve been there before.

Take Marc Prensky’s thesis that digital natives’ cognitive capacity has changed as a response to living a technological world and that teachers ought to take this into account. This notion has been demolished by John Hattie and others on the grounds that the human brain is just not as malleable as Prensky implies. As Hattie says “the notion that Internet usage itself will occasion alterations or deterioration in cognitive capacities has no genuine support from within the known research literature”1.

In fact, according to leading neuropsychologists Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons the brain’s wiring “is determined by genetic programs and biochemical interactions that do most of their work long before a child discovers Facebook and Twitter.”2

Yet the concept that the technology is indeed changing our brains – in a bad way – continues to be propounded by popular neuroscientists such as Susan Greenfield, who are vociferous in expressing their concern about “brain changes” and the negative impact technologies may have on our cognitive ability.

Hang on a minute. Either technology changes our brains or it doesn’t. You can’t have it both ways.

My inkling is that it doesn’t, so I suppose what I’m asking is this: Is a constant focus on the negative aspects of technology preventing us from exploring the true potential of the effective use of technology in education? My research, experience and instinct are all telling me that the answer is yes and that we’ve irresponsibly convinced ourselves it is sensible to hold back the tech, whereas the sensible thing is actually to push on and explore how technology can support the processes involved in teaching and learning.

As Chabris and Simons conclude “there is simply no experimental evidence to show that living with new technologies fundamentally changes brain organisation”, whereas there is plenty of evidence that teaching and learning benefit from technology.

What do you think?

Your feedback and comments are always welcome.

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  1. Hattie, J. and Yates, G. (2014) Visible learning and the science of how we learn, London: Routledge
  2. Chabris C. and Simons D. (2010) Digital alarmists are wrong {Online} http://articles.latimes.com/2010/jul/25/opinion/la-oe-chabris-computers-brain-20100725 {Accessed 20.02.1014}
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  1. I don’t believe that technology is rewiring our brains but I do think that it is changing our behaviour. It is not uncommon to be apparently engaged in an activity whilst simultaneously checking in on social media or browsing on a mobile device. That gives the impression – quite accurately – of a lack of engagement and/or a low boredom threshold. But this is part of human nature; we have always sought to enhance our experiences of everyday life using the prevalent technology of the day. Have our brains mutated? I doubt it. Have our expectations and behaviour changed as a consequence? Almost certainly.

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