Friday, January 23, 2015

Do our #gadgets make us stupid?

Apparently not, in neuropsychologist Daniel Willingham’s informed judgment (“Smartphones Don’t Make Us Dumb”). He says being glued to screens for most of our waking hours does not diminish our ability to concentrate – since “mental reorganization at that scale happens over evolutionary time,” not within the lifespan of any individual. Instead, we (and our kids) are losing merely the desire to concentrate as we are lured by endless entertainment opportunities. Prof. Willingham also points to research showing “that the amount of leisure reading hasn’t changed with the advent of the digital age” – and, besides, “brainier hobbies have never been all that popular.” This raises all sorts of interesting questions – is the absence of statistically significant experimental evidence reliable evidence of absence? And what about some studies which contradict Willingham’s statements? Caleb Crain [“Twilight of the Books”], for example, has cited studies showing that “we are reading less as we age, and we are reading less than people who were our age ten or twenty years ago”; that between 1992 and 2003 the proportion of [American] adults who qualified as proficient readers (who could, for example, compare the viewpoints expressed in two editorials) declined from 15 to 13 percent”; that in the  Netherlands in the mid-1990s, college graduates born after 1969 were reading less than people without a college degree born before 1950; etc. Let’s hope this time the majority neuroscientific opinion is on more solid ground than the near-consensus which produced the assault on dietary fat, for example.

In fact, this is what Willigham ultimately evokes – hope. He recognizes that “luring us toward near constant outwardly directed thought, a situation that’s probably unique in human experience.” This could potentially suppress activity in the “default mode network” which is essential for daydreaming and creativity (and, some would add, for intuition, holistic understanding, empathy, attachment, and overall existential grounding). So “will we actually lose our ability to daydream?” Willingham’s reassuring response: “Let’s hope not.” But to the extent that we might, there is a bright side here, too: “Daydreaming often distracts us when we’re trying to get something done. And reflection can turn ugly, as when we ruminate about some past insult or error.” So if DMN activation is dialed down, we could be happier and more productive. To make sure that we avoid excessive DMN dissociation, Willingham recommends occasional digital disconnect. But given the lure of constant entertainment (and, we might add, infograzing) how easy will it be to mobilize this sort of determination – for adults, but also for kids and adolescents with developing brains? What Prof. Willingham offers is essentially hope,  and I am wondering how scientific and evidence-based this can really be.