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Book Review: iBrain – Surviving the Technological Alteration of the Modern Mind by Gary Small

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Does our compulsion to live life online make us smarter? Not according to Dr. Gary Small, author of iBrain: Surviving the Technological Alteration of the Modern Mind.

Dr. Small is a neuroscientist and director of the Memory & Aging Research Center at UCLA's Semel Institute for Neuroscience & Human Behavior. He has studied how technology has given us more resources, but perhaps is robbing a generation of critical thinking skills.

We are in the first techno-boom of the human race, but many of us experience a quiet panic, a perception that we are multi-tasking, yet things are slipping through the ether. Important things… things we want to do and can't focus on.

What we once wrote in a simple leather dayplanner now oozes from cell phone to email to the web of a thousand faces we call our friends.  This is your brain on technology.

So slow down and pick up a copy of iBrain. Small and co-author Vorgan explain how the pace of digital advancement forces our brains to evolve at uncomfortable speeds. While Small's focus is on the effects of technology, the book also does a good job of explaining the evolutionary brain process that has emerged over the time span of just a single generation.

Look beyond the benefits brought about by technology in life, medicine, science and our work, and you'll find troubled thinking, and a level of exhaustion caused by multitasking.

Small explains how unaware we are of the changes in our neural circuitry and how hard the brain has to work to master new things. This is especially true for the adult brain.  Sort of like that awkward feeling, if you're right-handed, of trying to comb your hair or brush your teeth using your left hand.

As we move toward these new skills, we do adapt, but at what price? The author says we drift away from fundamental social skills of communication and non-verbal social cues that are important in understanding each other.

Our ability to function changes as we age, and iBrain includes a well-written section explaining how the brain develops over time. Small refers to those who grew up with technology, who are now in their 20s, as "Digital Natives," while those of us two or three decades older than the Natives are "Digital Immigrants."

Turns out, Small believes the Natives will adapt well to technological progress and change. Young people have a greater ability to adapt to ever changing stimulus in the environment with their "young plastic brains."

So unless we can keep up with the younger natives, we will see the chasm widen between teens, parents and grandparents. At some point, we may no longer bridge the gap between the soundbite generation, who are likely lacking critical thinking skills, and we immigrants who are not fully grasping this new impersonal language, and not even sure we want to embrace complex technology.

We see differences every day in the social groups who do and do not read newspapers. We've lost our common foundation for news and opinion, with such diverse sources as HuffingtonPost.com, LifeHacker.com and Technorati.com becoming our go-to sources for a filtered information stream.

iBrain also delves into the reward/satisfaction mentality of web use and explores what for some people become obsessions such as email overload, porn, gambling and shopping compulsions.

It remains to be seen if social networking with Facebook, Twitter and the next new thing will remain popular. To many, it is a distraction obsession, delivering and sharing microbursts of thought. Will it become a true social tool, replacing something most of us grew up with: A neighborhood, with multiple generations enjoying the same experiences, across porches and backyards, instead of digital line to nowhere?

The distraction generation, the kids who learn how to deal with technology and may adapt better than us, are more able to process information quickly and make decisions faster too. But they are less adept at interpersonal communication, social skills and reading faces. We may be browsing and typing our way away from learned intelligence, and this is our wake-up call.

Small and Vorgan suggest we may some day discover technology is one of the most pivotal advances in human history. Let's hope we discover it's effects on intelligence before its too late.

For me, reading iBrain has already convinced me to become a Twitter quitter.

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About Helen Gallagher

  • sean

    hmmm.. not so sure if agree this right now.. I think the brain is capable of adapting to things pretty quickly with ease.. We a know where near using our brain to their full potential anyhow..