now you see it

nysi_coverBrains and technology are interconnected. We invent new technologies with collective brain power, but at the same time those new technologies influence and constrain how we think, even if we don’t realize it. Playing video games, for example, may improve visual acuity, physical dexterity, reaction times, statistical judgments, and multitasking, and may slow age-related cognitive decline. And how about an anecdotal observation: consider how desktop OSs like Windows encourage multitasking, whereas tablets and phones, with their limited screen real estate, almost demand mono-tasking (the tablet version of Windows should really be called Microsoft Porthole). It’s a two-way street: cognitive abilities influence technology, and technology influences our cognitive abilities.

Because technology is ever-evolving, it shouldn’t be surprising that kids have different skills and abilities than adults. Kids now grew up using computers and watching TV while texting; they are probably better at multitasking than parents who had physical books and three TV channels. Those parents have different skills than their parents. Cognitive skills aren’t fixed or stable, over lifetimes or over generations. Brains aren’t hardwired, except for the ability to learn, interact, and navigate the world. If the modern world is different than last generation’s, modern brains will likewise be different.

Consequences of the brain’s plasticity run deep. That experience and environment affect “high-level” things like music or food preferences is easy. But they can also influence basic perception. In the illusion below, both orange circles are the same size, but the one on the right seems bigger, because it’s surrounded by small circles. It turns out that people in East Asian countries experience a stronger illusory size effect than Westerners, presumably due to cultural differences.

Titchener illusion

That cognitive skills differ between generations or cultures is the central theme of Davidson’s book, Now You See It. Understanding this often leads to the question: which skills are better? The only right way to answer that question, Davidson says, is this: it depends on what we ask people to do. There’s no generic answer for whether monotasking or multitasking is better—there is only the “goodness of fit” between a skill and a task to be accomplished. When cognition is thought of not just as a list of abilities, but as interactive, contextual, goal-driven skills, it becomes clear how many aspects of modern society are wedded to the past. Modern kids in industrialized nations are multitasking machines, but schools usually teach subjects one-at-a-time, and work on assignments the same way. 19th-century conceptions of education ill suit the modern brain.

Schools and workplaces, then, should be adaptive and flexible. If video games have benefits, maybe we can use them to teach. If kids are good at multi-tasking, then let them do that, rather than forcing them to do what their grandparents did when everyone was writing on chalkboards, and what their ancestor did when students were writing on clay tablets. If some people see the gorilla and some people don’t, then our different cognitive skills can make collaboration beneficial.

Flexibility of this sort can be accomplished in many ways. Maybe it’s as simple as giving people four jobs to complete in a week, however they want to divide them up, rather than enforcing one-at-a-time. IBM has mostly eliminated the prototypical “Powerpoint presentation” at business meetings, replacing it with a less structured collaborative meeting where participants engage in a group chat session while the meeting is ongoing. Attendees are able to use the group chat to flesh out nascent ideas without interrupting the speaker, and the format takes advantage of employees’ abilities to multitask and divide attention.

At its best, Davidson argues, using brain science to inform flexible “policy” can produce a real synergy where technology is employed and environments are structured around the cognitive skills of students and workers.

•     •     •

Pop science books often inflate a simple idea so that it explains everything. Mirror neurons are the magic beans that explain our very humanity; political differences lie entirely in the amygdala. Davidson’s book contains some of these exaggerations—mirror neurons make their mandatory appearance—but I think there is a fundamental principle here that’s important. Critics of Moneyball often focused on the specific application (i.e., signing players with a high on-base percentage) while ignoring the underlying principle (that some skills were undervalued relative to others). Here, too, the principle is simply to use brain science to inform how we structure schools and workplaces; be flexible and don’t assume what worked 20 years ago works now. Mirror neurons may or may not be useful for this, but their just a specific case of the larger rule.

But how do we best apply that principle? The US educational system is virtually defined by savage inequalities: underfunded schools and achievement gaps for children in poverty, children of color, and non-English speaking students. Yet most of the interventions Davidson suggests don’t seem plausible or useful for those schools and students. And besides simple morality, there are compelling pragmatic reasons to focus on precisely those schools and students: it’s more efficient. The “Cash for Clunkers” program only gave rebates for cars with poor gas mileage, and the reason was this: increasing your mileage from 10 to 20 is 50% decrease in gas use. Increasing it from 30 to 40 is only a 25% reduction. Farmers, likewise, get more from the first ton of fertilizer they use than the third.

Greater relative gains are made by focusing on those at the bottom first, rather than squeezing a bit more out schools already near the top. Giving an iPod to Duke students might improve pedagogy, but probably only a little, and only because so many other educational benefits and privileges are realized by students who make it to Duke. It’s like giving a drag-reducing suit to an Olympic swimmer: it shaves a meaningful 1/10th of a second from their lap time, but doesn’t help a novice. A school short on desks, teachers, computers, textbooks, or hot lunches isn’t going to be helped by an iPod.

What helps Prezbo’s students?

My critique is somewhat unfair in that Davidson never suggests brain science is an educational panacea. But we can’t just cleave of the question of “what the science says” from how—and where—it’s implemented, and who it is helping. If we’re using scientific data to help Duke students but not kids at an underfunded public school, it’s a waste, and morally wrong.


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