“How Technology Rewires the Brain” Revisited (and What to Do About It)

Two years ago I posted a blog entry titled “How Technology Rewires the Brain.” Since then, I’ve been asked many times about the use of technology in formal learning environments, namely, face-to-face classrooms (as opposed to virtual classrooms where technology IS the delivery system). Love it or hate it, technology is here to stay.

computerbrainFirst, an important bit of cognitive neuroscience: The human brain is constantly rewiring itself! Brain scientists have a fancy term for this: neuroplasticity. The brain’s connections (synapses) between cells (neurons) grow stronger or weaker depending upon our physical environment and our physical/mental/emotional experiences. Furthermore, the brain constantly creates new connections even as it sometimes “prunes” or cuts away old connections due to lack of use.

With that said, technology IS one of the most powerful brain-rewiring tools of the twenty-first century. Yes, technology IS making our attention spans shorter, our need for constant stimulation greater, and our abilities to concentrate and focus weaker. However, if we know that’s what is happening – both to our own brain as well as the brains of the people we teach, train, and help learn – we can choose to do things differently. We can choose to teach, train, and help others learn in ways that take into account the brain’s technology-based rewiring.

For you, as a teacher or trainer, here are three ways to help others learn that are compatible with technologically-rewired brains:

1.  Divide the information or skills you’re teaching into shorter segments of instruction (brain-science principle: shorter trumps longer). Try to aim for a maximum of ten minutes of direct instruction followed by a minute or two of active participation in which learners actively “revisit” (review) what you’ve covered. Learners can pair up and ask/answer topic-related questions or write/state short summaries of what they’ve learned so far. You’re not “dumbing-down” your content; you’re just changing the timing of your content-delivery, which is what technology does.

2.  Always, always, always use as many images as you can to introduce and reinforce concepts (brain-science principle: images trump words). Images include: stories, metaphors, analogies, and case studies, as well as photos and other visuals/graphics. The brain is primarily a visual processor (and secondarily a verbal processor) and technology just strengthens this cognitive bias towards images.

3. Use social connections within the learning environment to strengthen cognitive connections (brain-science principle: talking trumps listening). Give learners time to discuss with each other (not with you) what they are learning about. Give them time to interact with each other in psychologically safe ways: to ask/answer questions, to help each other learn, to practice skills, or to play topic-related games. Humans learn primarily through relationships with others and technology capitalizes on this.

Here are a number of excellent resources to better understand how technology is rewiring the human brain:

Brain Power: From Neurons to Networks by Tiffany Shlain

How to Rewire Your Brain for Success
From: Big Think

8 Ways Tech Has Completely Rewired our Brains
From: Mashable

Author Nicholas Carr: The Web Shatters Focus, Rewires Brains
From: Wired Magazine

10 Ways Technology Rewires the Brain
From: ListVerse

As the Internet Rewires our Brains
From: O’Reilly Community

This is How the Internet is Rewiring Your Brain
From: Huffington Post

And one of the most interesting videos on this topic is from ASAP Science:

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