Brain Plasticity: Is the Internet Really Changing Us?

Any attempt to make broad statements about the technical abilities of our students is met with a variety of responses. Some folks are quick to embrace the heuristic value of terms like the Net Generation or Digital Natives. Others are equally as quick to attack such broad generalizations as counter productive, claiming that such stereotypes hide differences among students that are more important educationally than broad differences between different “generations”. Others accept the premise that many students’ capacities to use different types of “sensory input” have changed, but reject the corollary that schools and universities need to adapt to those changes.

As Sheryl points out in her post, it’s not just kids who are being changed, it’s all of us who are being constantly exposed to ever increasing amounts and types of media. I’m not sure if this is mainstream science or not, but increasingly I’m seeing references to processes by which human brains can actually reorganize to make better use of the rich information sources available to them through the process of “brain plasticity”.

A field of neuroscience, brain plasticity refers to the ability of the brain to adapt and change physically and functionally throughout life.

This research holds that our brains are being “massively remodeled” by our exposure to the internet, reading, cable and satellite television with hundreds of channels and hundreds of hours of ads, by video games, by modern electronics, by ubiquitous access music, by cell phones, digital photography and by the other gadgets that make up the “tools” of modern life.

Some researchers claim that understanding the concept of brain plasticity and adapting learning experiences can result in dramatic increases in learning. Mike Merzenich, a PhD in neuroscience from Johns Hopkins, claims to be utilizing these methods in older adults:

We have been training 70- to 90-plus-year-olds to be more accurate aural-language receivers and language users. After 40 hours or so of training, the average trainee’s cognitive abilities are rejuvenated by about 10 years, i.e., their performance on a cognitive assessment battery is like those of an average person who is 10 years younger.

Here are a couple of interesting, though non-scholarly, articles on the relationship between technology, learning and intelligence.

Are we getting smarter or dumber? | Newsmakers | CNET

[print version] Intelligence in the Internet age | CNET

The Kaiser Family Foundation did a detailed report that outlines the extent of media exposure by children 8-18 years old.

One thought on “Brain Plasticity: Is the Internet Really Changing Us?”

  1. Deeply interesting. We seem to have swung rather dramatically from the “cognitive pathways are made by age seven, after which the paving’s in place” model. Perhaps the truth is somewhere in between, but even if so, neuroplasticity has enormous ramifications for education. Did you catch the Buddhist Monk study? Probably the Wash. Post article is down, but this might still be of some interest:

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