by Cathy N. Davidson
So well illustrated by the famous youtube video of psychologist Daniel Simons’ experiment where a gorilla wanders un-noticed on court during a basketball practice, our propensity to see only that which we are trained or told or otherwise expect to see – ‘attention blindness’ – robs us of a much broader, often richer view of our lives. Quite apart from not ever seeing the other person’s point of view!
In 1998 I was named Vice Provost for Interdisciplinary Studies at Duke University. In that position, I had the privilege to help create transformative, cutting-edge programs across all of the university, from the arts to zoology, from the undergraduate liberal arts curriculum to the medical and law school. The uses of new forms of digital technology for learning and research was my particular focus, and I soon learned there was literally no subject – from ancient Greek to biochemistry – that has not been transformed by computational technologies. It was all incredibly exciting, but nothing was more deeply moving or more personal to me than helping in creation of our Center for Cognitive Neuroscience. I wanted to learn more about the brain in order to help with several online, connected learning initiatives my office was pursuing. I also was hoping that, by reading extensively in this new field of brain science, I might help my brother.
That brings me to a sobering truth: Understanding a problem does not solve it; diagnosing an illness does not cure it.
My brother Ken is three years younger than me. He was a brilliant child with an exuberant, outsized personality. He also complained of headaches most of his life. One day, soon after he turned thirty, he had a blinding headache that just wouldn’t stop. His wife Mary Lou took him to the emergency room at a hospital near their home in Denver, Colorado. Using the relatively new technology of the C-Scan, doctors diagnosed a large and growing benign tumor, probably congenital but now dangerous. They removed it and surgically destroyed what could not be removed with radiation treatments. The headaches went away but my brother lost some of his hearing and some cognitive faculties. Over the next two decades, he also suffered a series of small strokes that progressively diminished his cognitive capacities.
Ken’s condition is called “encephalopathy,” a diffuse brain disease that alters brain function. It is a condition that sometimes results from what, in Ken’s medical reports, is referred to as “over-zealous use of radiation.” Despite encephalopathy, my brother managed to hold down a full-time job for many years. With the help of his remarkable wife Mary Lou, he raised a son, has a beautiful home and, now that he is on disability, has enough savings to manage better than most of us could. It is a remarkable feat of family love and support and individual courage.
And nothing I learned from cognitive neuroscience could help my brother very much. I was able to help with physician referrals in his area, thanks to advice offered by my colleagues in brain science. And, from my reading, I was help to explain to my parents, who also live in Denver, some of the unpredictable, confusing, and ever-changing patterns and personality changes that come with strokes and brain damage. One day my brother is able to carry on a lucid conversation, while on another he can barely understand the simplest communication. On some days, that condition varies from hour to hour. No one knows why.
And that’s the sobering point I take to heart. For all that we know about the brain, there is infinitely more we neither know nor can control. Being modest about what things “cause” neural changes is essential. For all the changes in the brain that some pundits want to ascribe to technology, it is crucial to remember that, in fact, most of what we do as humans is a combination of biology on the one hand and culture on the other. We learn from those around us from the day we are born, and that begins a process of constant unlearning and relearning. We can accelerate that process in all kinds of ways – some good, some not.
But actual, physiological damage is something else. It comes from intrusions into the physical matter of the brain, and the actual destruction, or at least the degeneration, of brain cells. That kind of damage is caused by congenital conditions (such as my brother’s original brain tumor), illness, injury, substance abuse, or “iatrogenesis,” side effects from medical treatments such as radiation or chemotherapy).
Too much use of the Internet does not hurt your brain, but understanding some of how the brain works does let us use the Internet wisely – and that turns out to be very helpful to many people.
Here are some basic, useful facts about the brain science of attention that are helpful in understanding the dramatic changes in the ways we live, work, and learn that began roughly in April of 1993. That’s when the Mosaic 1.0 browser was made commercially available. Suddenly, the Internet and the Web could come into our homes and was no longer relegated to the science lab, the university, the military, and the government.
This interactive, connected world is different than what came before. For the first time in history, if I have a thought, I can write it or film it and post it to the Web and anyone anywhere in the world with an Internet connection can have instant access to it. No editor filters what I say. You and I can communicate directly. That’s incredible power, an astonishing tool for sharing knowledge and ideas. And that means we can also easily misuse and abuse this new instant ability. But it does not damage our brain.
FACT #1: The Internet does not make your children dumber or less capable of reading long books. In the summer of 2011, Scholastic Magazine released a survey, using the exact methods they’ve been using for generations, which showed that 15-year-olds today read more books outside of school than their parents read in a given year and, in fact, read more books than their parents did when their parents were 15. Walk into just about any bookstore and you will see a lot of prime real estate dedicated to “Young Adult (YA) Literature,” a category that wasn’t even invented before the Internet.
Now, it is quite possible that your 15-year-old is bored reading the same books you read as a child. It is quite possible that they also like graphic novels, animation, 3-D, youtube videos, online multiplayer games, social networking, and other digital forms not available when you were 15. But, then again, your mother also shook her head and wondered at some of what you liked at that age. That head-shaking, generation to generation, has been going at least since Socrates, and no doubt longer, before 400 BCE, too.
FACT #2: Monotasking is a myth on a neurological level. The brain human brain is thought to have over a hundred billion neurons and they are firing all the time. Brilliant neurophysiologists at Cambridge and at Washington University show that over 80% of the brain’s neural activity is spent in “brain chatter”—neurons interacting, the brain, in a sense, talking to itself. External distraction is actually relatively easy to manage compared to the constant stream of ideas the brain manufactures, most of which we don’t even pay attention to until a threshold is reached and suddenly we are all too aware that we’re distracted. Insomnia is a case in point. With no external distractions, the mind can suddenly be maddeningly busy and alert. In the Eastern world, there’s a 2000-year-old philosophical tradition based on the idea of mindfulness and the difficulty of emptying the mind of trivial, everyday thought. Even in the most serene meditative space, mindfulness is difficult to achieve. There would be a lot more Buddhas if single-mindedness, or mental monotasking, were easily attained.
FACT #3: Multitasking isn’t simply about technology. Of course it is stupid for your teenager to text while driving, but if you really want to protect your child, remove the other seats in the car. Accidents go up exponentially for every other peer in a car with a teen. Why? Because talking, joking, and laughing with your friends is qualify as more “multitasking” even than texting. Heartburn and heartache (the body’s pains or the soul’s troubles) are far more likely to distract you than technology.
FACT #4: Millennials are no wiser in the use of technology than their parents. Young people who grow up with technology can become more proficient in its use simply because, as with everything, it is easier to learn something new than to have to break an entrenched, different habit that may be blocking you from mastering the skill. Kids learn interfaces, the patterns become habitual, and they can build on those. But that doesn’t make them wiser about issues such as privacy, security, intellectual property violations, online bullying, or dozens of other social, emotional, and intellectual opportunities, challenges, and perils. They need parents who are informed and teachers who are skilled to help them make the best decisions about their life—online as well as off.
I flew to Denver to see my brother, who had been hospitalized for almost two months, and who seemed many times at death’s door. On March 14th, the day before my visit, Ken’s blood pressure dropped so low that his caregiver and physical therapist were not able to rouse him. I was sure he wouldn’t be able to go to the Denver Museum of Art, as he had requested, as we had planned. But when I called his house, Mary Lou assured me that he was dressed, ready, and eagerly awaiting the day. He, my dad, and I spent three hours together at the museum. Ken would pause before a work of art he admired, take it in, read the caption, and then move on. His joy was palpable.
How do you go from being nearly comatose one day to walking around an art museum with your sister and father the next? No doctor has been able to explain that. None of my reading in neuroscience sheds light on it either. All I can say is I am inspired by my brother’s valor.
Dedicated to and inspired by my beloved brother, Now You See It is also dedicated to all of us, everywhere, who have the privilege of being able to change and, if we put our minds to it, to thrive in a rapidly changing world.