Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Training the Brain

As a society, we are techno-addicts, shifting obsessively back and forth between gadgets, from smart phones and iPods to laptops and televisions, among others. Over the past 50 years, our consumption of information has more than tripled. The bulk of young people now spend 7-10 hours each day staring at screens—and that’s when they’re not at school or working! On average, we compulsively check our email about 37 times each day and visit about the same number of websites [1]. Awash in an ever-shifting sea of digital information, we all too rarely stop to consider the impact of this rampant technophilia on ourselves, our families, and our communities.

Several months ago, I argued on this blog [2] that the Internet is a mixed blessing, offering up the “Great Source” of information while simultaneously leading us toward the “extinction of experience”—that is, the absence of time spent outdoors in nature. If we are to stave off the deepening sustainability crisis, I suggested, our experience of reality must become less virtual and more “real.” Today I would like to build on this discussion. Instead of focusing on what we lose by not spending time outdoors, my emphasis here is directed at the influence of technology on our minds.

Last week, a cover story in the New York Times [1] tackled this timely topic and highlighted a number of revealing studies. Since you are likely a consumer of technology yourself, and thus have considerable personal experience, most of the results will likely come as no surprise. Heavy consumption of information technologies reduces attention spans and makes us more easily distracted. Regular email interruptions tend to increase stress and decrease short term memory, making it more difficult to learn or perform even simple tasks. Brain researchers are becoming increasingly convinced that excessive use of the Internet makes us more impatient, impulsive, forgetful, and even narcissistic.

More surprising perhaps is the multitasking myth. That is, with the exception of few “supertaskers” (about 3% of us), concurrent use of multiple technologies does not increase efficiency. Indeed committed multitaskers tend to be slower than non-multitaskers when attempting to do several tasks simultaneously. The problem, it seems, is that multitaskers have trained their brains to be highly sensitive to new information and thus tend to be easily distracted, always searching for that next digital tidbit.

At a deeper level, many psychologists now worry, and are attempting to document, what they see as impacts to our very identity wrought by a fixation on gadgets. The NY Times article cites one Stanford researcher, Elias Aboujaoude, referring to the “fracturing of the self” caused by excessive reliance on technology. Another Stanford researcher, Clifford Nass, thinks that, by limiting face-to-face interactions, heavy technology use reduces our empathy. The concern seems to be that all of this interaction with technology is somehow rewiring our brains in ways that diminishes our humanity.

Less than two decades ago, researchers thought that the brain ceased developing at the onset of adulthood. A slew of recent studies, however, demonstrate that the brain has the capacity to adapt throughout life, including in our senior years—a phenomenon dubbed “neuroplasticity.” To cite just one example, a study of Tibetan monks showed much higher gamma wave activity in the prefrontal cortex of the brain during meditation than in a control group, resulting in stronger feelings of happiness and compassion in the former [3]. The remarkable truth of the matter, then, seems to be that, one way or the other, we “train our brains,” actually rewiring parts of our neurocircuitry based upon the activities we choose to engage in. So it’s best to give serious consideration to the things we allow to dominate our minds.

Why are we so prone to techno-addiction? Some researchers suggest that, for the bulk of human evolution, an ability to pay attention to novel stimuli had a major survival advantage. To give the most simplistic example, that stimulus just might be an animal you’re hunting or a predator stalking you. More nuanced discussions have addressed the ability to recognize any novel patterns in one’s environment that might indicate the presence of food, medicine, or other items necessary for survival. Today, information technologies seem to tap into this ancient predisposition, making it more likely that we will become addicted to glowing gadgets.

Despite the tone of this piece, I’m no Luddite. On a personal level, I am a major technology user myself, and battle the daily siren call to “stay connected.” On a societal level, I see no path forward, whether sustainable or not, that does not embrace technology. So, as I see it, the key question is this: given our penchant for what may best be described as techno-addition, how are we going to learn to co-exist with information technologies?

Some psychologists compare our dependence on screen technologies to an eating disorder [1]. Like food, technology is now an essential component of our daily life. And just as a food addict cannot stop consuming calories, we must learn to moderate our consumption of technologies, both for ourselves and our children. At a minimum, this will require setting thoughtful constraints, such as limiting the number of times you check your email, and restricting children’s screen time to 1-2 hours per day (their choice of gadget?). In extreme cases, just as with any addiction, heavy technology users may require therapy to assess the underlying reasons for the repeated escape into the Internet [1].

The bottom line is that, despite their many advantages, phones, computers, and televisions can be dangerous tools. Our obsession with technology threatens not only our personal health, but also the health of our communities and even the biosphere. If we are to set sail and navigate a sustainable path into the future, we must limit the amount of time we allow ourselves (and our kids!) to be immersed in this ocean of information. Don’t forget to come out on the deck, breath the fresh air, and connect with each other and the spectacular world we inhabit. Your brain will be thankful.

1) Richtel, M. 2010. Hooked on gadgets, and paying a mental price. New York Times, June 7, 2010. (http://www.nytimes.com/2010/06/07/technology/07brain.html)

2) Sampson, S. D. 2010. The extinction of experience. The Whirlpool of Life (blog). (http://scottsampson.blogspot.com/2010/01/extinction-of-experience.html)

3) Kaufman, M. 2005. Meditation gives brain a change, study finds. The Washington Post, January 3, 2005. (http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A43006-2005Jan2.html).

Top three images courtesy of of Free Digital Photos: http://freedigitalphotos.net/
Bottom image courtesy of National Geographic: http://photography.nationalgeographic.com/photography/

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Transforming Education

Education reform is a phrase that is virtually ubiquitous in American political circles. Any outsider would assume—correctly, I’m afraid—that we never get education right. To give a couple of recent metrics, a 2007 study found that only one-third of US students could read and do math up to current grade level standards, and that one in four students does not graduate from high school.

While in New York City recently, I had the opportunity to listen to US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan present his reform vision to an audience of well over a thousand teachers. Duncan is a thoughtful, intelligent man, as well as a polished speaker, and I enjoyed hearing him speak about replacing the Bush Administration’s “No Child Left Behind” with a new alternative, “Race to the Top” [1-4]. “The Race,” as its nicknamed, is a $4.3 billion incentive program (read “competition”) designed by the US Department of Education to overhaul the education system. Key elements include performance pay for teachers (together with a system for firing teachers deemed “inadequate”) and a major boost in the number of public charter schools. States compete for large sums of money by demonstrating that they are aligning their education system with the new criteria.

I applaud the renewed emphasis on teaching performance. To my mind, we should go much further, transforming teaching into a high-status, well paid profession akin to medicine. With greatly increased salaries paired to much higher standards, we could recruit the very best teachers and offer them appropriate kinds of training both before and after receipt of their education certificates.

Why is teaching so important? Not, as is generally argued, because American kids need to keep up with youth in other countries so that the US can maintain its position in the global economy. No, teaching is critical because education reform—or, more accurately, transformation—may just be the key to saving civilization. As argued previously in this blog, techno-fixes alone simply aren’t going to cut it. Sustainability will depend on raising future generations of citizens possessing a different perspective on the human-nature connection. Specifically, we must counter the prevalent and erroneous notion of viewing ourselves as external conquerors of nature, and begin to understand that we are fully embedded within nature.

What most disturbs me about the ongoing debate over education reform, including the Race, is the virtual lack of conversation, let alone debate, about curriculum content. The unspoken assumption is that a shift in the delivery mechanism is all that is needed to “fix” education. Yet in addition to how we are teaching our children, we should be equally concerned with what we are teaching them.

Today, as for most of the 20th Century, education is about careerism, preparing students to successfully enter consumer society—that is, to be “upwardly mobile.” Although we are well aware of the environmental calamity facing us today, and the fundamental role of that “consumers” play in accelerating our pace toward disaster, education (K-16) is still organized as if no such specter is sitting out there on the horizon.

Education for the 21st Century should be education for sustainability, a system of teaching and learning that helps our youth understand how to live well in the world. At its root, sustainability depends on two factors: 1) human justice; and 2) an harmonious relationship between the human and nonhuman world (i.e., justice for nonhuman nature). One of the greatest problems with our present day education system is that it fragments the world into artificial chunks (biology, history, geography, math, etc.) and prevents us from seeing larger patterns and unified wholes [5]. A partial remedy to this curricular myopia, and certainly a fundamental element that deserves residence at the curriculum core, is ecological literacy, or “ecoliteracy” [6,7]: the interweaving of Earth’s natural systems, and the human role is those systems. Some remarkable progress is being made is the ecoliteracy arena [8], but we urgently need to find ways to scale up these successes so that they are applied more broadly.

Another key content element is what I have termed “evolutionary literacy,” or “evoliteracy” [9]. Whereas ecoliteracy focuses on connections and energy flow within the temporal snapshots of ecological systems, evoliteracy inserts the vertical dimension of deep time. The Epic of Evolution, from the beginnings of the universe to the present day, is our amazing origin story delivered by science [10-12]. As argued in recent posts, this grand, unifying saga, also called the “Great Story,” is capable of offering a critical dose of meaning and purpose to our lives. Far from the random, meaningless place so often portrayed in textbooks and the popular media, our universe is a stunningly creative place that birthed us through a long series of transformations, beginning with simple hydrogen atoms. Seeing ourselves as players in this 14 billion year old drama, and recognizing that our decisions will impact that next 14 billion years, may just be an essential element in achieving anything worthy of the title “sustainable.” Yet, at present, the Great Story is virtually absent from all levels of education, communicated, if at all, only as a series of fragments rather than a unified whole.

Rapid education transformation (as opposed to mere “reform”) is critical to the future of humans and millions of other species on this planet. We need a major mindshift, one that may only come through empowering future generations. So get informed. If you’re an educator, think about the underlying messages of your teaching, and how you might alter these in the direction of sustainability. If you’re a parent, find out what your children are learning in school, and make efforts to shift the content (as well as the delivery) in ways that will enable our youth to live well in the world. Earth’s future depends on our mobilization efforts.

Notes and References
1) Obama Offers “Race to the Top” Contest for Schools. Guardian News, London, UK, July 24, 2009. http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/feedarticle/8625198?FORM=ZZNR7.
2) Dillon, S. and T. Lewin. 2010. Education chief vies to expand U.S. role as partner on local schools. New York Times. http://www.nytimes.com/2010/05/04/education/04educate.html
3) Brill, S. 2010. The Teachers’ Unions’ Last Stand. New York Times Magazine, May 17, 2010. http://www.nytimes.com/2010/05/23/magazine/23Race-t.html
4) Race to the Top, Wikipedia entry: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Race_to_the_Top
5) Orr, D. W. 1994. Earth in Mind: On Education, Environment, and the Human Prospect. Island Press, Washington, D.C.
6) Orr, D. W. 1992. Ecological Literacy: Education and the Transition to a Postmodern World. State University of New York Press, Albany, 210 pp.
7) Stone, M. K. and Z. Barlow (eds.). 2005. Ecological Literacy: Educating our Children for a Sustainable World. University of California Press, Berkeley, 275 pp.
8) Stone, M. K. 2009. Smart By Nature. University of California Press, Berkeley.
9) Sampson, S. D. 2009. Dinosaur Odyssey: Fossil Threads in the Web of Life. University of California Press, Berkeley.
10) Berry, T. 1999. The Great Work: Our Way into the Future. Bell Tower, New York.
11) Swimme, B. and T. Berry. 1992. The Universe Story: From the Primordial Flaring Forth to Ecozoic Era. Harper Collins, New York.
12) I strongly encourage readers to check out a brand new website, Journey of the Universe, supporting an upcoming documentary by Brian Swimme and Mary Evelyn Tucker. This project promises to provide some excellent tools for educators interested in communicating the Great Story. Check out: http://www.journeyoftheuniverse.org/

All images courtesy of National Geographic: http://photography.nationalgeographic.com/photography/