Is technology rewiring our brains?

One of the more controversial claims around “digital natives” is that their brains are somehow wired differently from “digital immigrants”. I’ve posted often here about some of the issues I have with the concept of the “digital native” as generally conceived – this is the 38th post on this blog under the digital native category. See the whole set here.

The current edition of eCampus news has a short feature asking whether exposure to technology is indeed rewiring brains, and what sort of effects it may be having. While some scientists are skeptical that there are significant changes, others do think that some changes may emerge as children learn in different ways – not all changes being something to crow about:

When the brain spends more time on technology-related tasks and less time exposed to other people, it drifts away from fundamental social skills such as reading facial expressions during conversation, Small asserts.
So brain circuits involved in face-to face contact can become weaker, he suggests.

This one is new to me, and not something I’d considered before. Though as I noted, not all scientists are convinced. But as we consider how technology can benefit students, it is worth bearing in mind ways in which technology might actually hold them back:

Maryanne Wolf of Tufts University, author of Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain … calls that analysis and comprehension “deep reading.” But that takes time, even if it’s just a fraction of a second, and today’s wired world is all about speed: gathering a lot of superficial information fast.
Wolf asks what will happen as young children do more and more early reading online. Will their brains respond by short-circuiting parts of the normal reading  pathways that lead to deeper reading, but which also take more time? And will that harm their ability to reflect on what they’ve read?
Those questions deserve to be studied, Wolf says.

3 thoughts on “Is technology rewiring our brains?

  1. Tony Forster

    The Amazon reviews of the book on which the article is based are interesting

    for example:
    “It seems to me Dr. Small set about to write a book that would appeal to the fears of the digital immigrants, the fears of all parents, and the disparaging emotions of those who just generally feel that the world is going to the dogs.

    Dr. Small’s writing is full of emotionally laden language. Teenagers don’t just look at computer screens, they “stare”. Their music doesn’t play, it “blares”. Each chapter is prefaced by a short horror story about a cyberaddicted person.”

  2. Daniel Livingstone

    Thanks for that Tony.

    I think every person quoted in that article has a book out – which is more reading than I have time for I have to admit. (I have a growing pile of unread books that I really must get to!) I think on both sides of this debate there are authors who appeal to emotions, and overstate or understate actual evidence and research as suits their position.

    Thinking again about Maryanne’s comments, there was research (mentioned previously here somewhere) that showed the superficial reading as a habit was not limited to ‘natives’ but that even professors and researchers were developing the kind of shallow reading habits that Maryanne mentions.

    In which case, it should equally be possible to encourage and develop deep reading skills – although more thought on how to do so in future might be needed.

  3. Jenni


    If you or your readers are interested in reading more about this topic, two professors have recently written articles about the benefits of deep reading on Changing Lives Through Literature’s blog, Changing Lives, Changing Minds

    Professor Robert Waxler’s “Getting in Deep with Reading”

    Professor Maureen Hall’s “The Benefits of Deep Reading: Neuroplasticity in Action”


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