Are We Re-wiring Our Brains?

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by: David Armano

A while back, I created a visual titled “Anatomy of the New Creative Mind”. Download creative_mind.pdf 

I thought it would be interesting to use a “scientific” motif to help make the point that traditional creativity is evolving.  My goal was to point out that a multi-disciplinary, multi dimensional way of creative thinking is needed in order to create the kinds of experiences/communications needed to traverse the ever changing digital media landscape.

Then I come across this article in the Times Online titled: The next step in brain evolution.  The article makes the case that our brains ARE actually being re-wired as we engage in the “digital universe” and choose active encounters over passive consuming:

“To evangelists of the digital age such as Marc Prensky, an American consultant and author, modern interactive computer games are “deep, complex experiences” that challenge the intellect far more than, say, passively watching Big Brother.”

The article goes on to categorize people as either “digital natives” or “digital immigrants”.  The core difference is that digital immigrants use much of the same technology—but not in the same ways as the “natives”.  In other words, it doesn't come naturally.

“Technology is an essential part of my everyday social and academic life. I don’t know where I’d be without it. In fact, I’ve never really been without it.

That’s what makes Emily a “digital native”, one who has never known a world without instant communication. Her mother, Christine, on the other hand, is a “digital immigrant”, still coming to terms with a culture ruled by the ring of a mobile and the zip of e-mails. Though 55-year-old Christine happily shops online and e-mails friends, at heart she’s still in the old world. “Children today are multitasking left, right and centre — downloading tracks, uploading photos, sending e-mails. It’s nonstop,” she says with bemusement. “They find sitting down and reading, even watching TV, too slow and boring.”

The piece then goes on to describe how “digital natives’ engage in a "wiki" kind of thinking that allows for group development of ideas and thoughts combined with instant feedback:

“Just as the online encyclopedia Wikipedia has been built from the collective knowledge of thousands of contributors, so digital natives draw on the experience and advice of online communities to shape their interests and boundaries. A telling symptom is blogging. Where once schoolchildren and students confided only in their diaries, now they write blogs or entries on — where anyone can see and comment on them.”

And here is where the rubber hits the road for me.  The article concludes that this kind of “evolution” in thinking and behavior is not limited to physical age.  This is something that I believe in absolutely.  Just as the evolved creative mindset is open to all—so is the choice to engage in emerging media (pending that you have access to it). 

“Where is it all leading? Only one thing seems clear: changes propelled by the digital world are just beginning. Indeed, one of the markers between the natives and the immigrants — it’s not simply a question of age — is the intuitive acceptance of rapid digital change.”

Rapid digital change. 

That’s a pretty accurate way to sum it all up.  Rapid digital change is creating a kind of digital class structure—we are either “digital natives” or “digital immigrants” as the article suggests.  But I would take the analogy one step further.  I think the “digital immigrants” can choose to cling to the old ways and traditions or become digitally acculturated.  Those who become digitally acculturated enjoy the best of both worlds—they can still appreciate their traditions while successfully adapting  to the ways of the “digital natives”.  Likewise, digital natives can learn much from their digital immigrant counterparts.  For example, the intricacies of face to face interactions may not come as natural to a digital native and there is something to be said for sitting down with a book—sans iPod, mobile phone and PSP.

Here is how the article ends:

“Bostrom has no doubt that digital technology is influencing our mental processes. “Something as massive as our — for many people — daily interaction with computers and video players is bound to have a significant effect.” Anecdotally, it seems a lot of natives in this digital culture are apt at multitasking, doing several things in parallel. But nobody knows exactly what that effect will be. “In a sense it is a grand-scale experiment we are running. We are raising a whole generation in this totally new environment — without any firm evidence of what will happen to them.”

So in conclusion we don’t really know how this experiment will turn out—but the fact is that it’s an experiment in progress and the impact on human behavior is difficult to ignore.  The results will help define how we make connections and build relationships.  Because in the end, that is the universal human need. 

Excellent article—you should read in it’s entirety.  If you can sit still for that long. 🙂

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