your brain on google

Last night I watched the first 30 minutes of the Frontline episode, “Digital Nation,” in which MIT and Stanford professors discussed the deleterious effects which the Internet and virtual reality have on their students’ ability to think (if you don’t know the meaning of the big word in that last sentence, maybe you’ve been spending too much time on the Web).

As one of the professors observed, some concepts require deep, concentrated thought, which people who are continually multi-tasking are losing the ability to do.  Some of the students who were interviewed seemed to illustrate the problem, as they spoke in loud, rushed sentences, as if they felt hurried to get through their content so they could get on to the next text or tweet.  Has anyone else noticed that it is becoming difficult to hold a normal, courteous conversation with people who are always wired?

One of the professors said that he felt constrained to use multi-media technology in the classroom to keep the students’ attention.  I think that this may be the last thing we want to do.  If multi-tasking and media blitz are the reason why students can’t think, then shouldn’t we be intentionally low-tech if we want to engage our students in deep thought?

One other anecdote.  One of the profs (from Stanford, I think) said that he quizzed students on the reading and lecture, asking general questions which anyone who was paying attention should have easily known.  The average for the class was 75%.  His point was that we aren’t able to multi-task as effectively as we think.  We need to do fewer things, and do them well.





13 responses to “your brain on google”

  1. Ron Brown

    I’ve noticed the same with individuals who take notes during sermons as well as lectures. Though most would disagree with those findings.

  2. You think causing classrooms to intentionally go in the opposite direction to society will be a good idea?

    I’d compare that to shutting off phone lines and returning to mail.

    “Some of the students who were interviewed seemed to illustrate the problem, as they spoke in loud, rushed sentences, as if they felt hurried to get through their content so they could get on to the next text or tweet.”

    Was that a line in the program or your own opinion?


  3. Lee

    AMEN!!! I’m a college student (at your alma mater nonetheless) and I too have found that far too often people who are “wired” are almost impossible to have a real conversation with, and the worst is in the classroom. the students “taking notes” on their fancy new macbooks that mom and dad bought for them are generally on facebook,, playing games, or even watching movies (I saw one girl burst out laughing in the middle of a very serious discussion in class once).

    low tech is the way to go I’ve found, I can’t study with all the distractions anyways.

  4. Carter

    I can see both sides of this argument.

    On one hand I find taking notes on a laptop to be much easier. I’m not a fast or organized writer when it comes to using a pen and paper, taking notes on the computer grants me this freedom. It also allows me to keep all my content organized, centralized and flexible (I can change what is on there easier).

    On the other hand I think using devices such as laptops in class creates a far more impersonal environment. I would assume this is why I find myself struggling to use my computer in a classroom of only 5 or 6 people; I feel like I am alienating myself from the group. In a group of 30+ it doesn’t feel much different since the crowd already creates a impersonal environment.

    I would argue that this carries over to the teaching style as well. If a class is heavily lecture format, then it feels impersonal. Regardless of if I am using a laptop or taking notes on paper, I have a higher tendency to zone out. Conversely, if a teacher is integrating interactions such as discussion, acting things out, objects, activities, etc. The teaching ceases to become something I am just copying and becomes something I have to actualize.

    The professor who feels forced to integrate media doesn’t understand what he’s doing (IMO). It’s not that media is the only thing that grabs a classrooms attention. It’s the fact that media is something other than pure lecture. I would argue that what is really required for keeping students involved is just using other methods other than the “I lecture, you copy notes” method.

  5. Tyler

    Is it fair to ask the pop-quiz professor that he might have a view of knowledge that is quickly becoming outdated? It seems that memorization is no longer the skeleton key to scholarship but rather the ability to effectively search and locate the answers via encyclopedia or, if you like, google. An example: suppose I and a roommate are living in downtown Grand Rapids. In order to know how to get around town, my friend memorizes the bus routes and schedules and the necessary street maps. I choose to download the schedules, routes, and maps on my iPhone which can easily be accessed at any point in my daily travels. Does my friend really contain more knowledge than I? Or do we each have equal access to it in different forms? I’m not saying I am fully on one side or the other, just providing a different way of thinking about this issue.

  6. There’s a great book called “Crazy Busy” that I listened to on CD (ironically, while multi-tasking), about this very subject. I highly recommend it.

  7. Yooper

    Hmmm…so, where do you stand on the issue of PowerPoint presentations (which the Church has really embraced)?

    I have never been very good at multi-tasking – I guess it is just the way that I have been programmed. 🙂

  8. Thanks for posting this Mike.

  9. Ron Brown

    If the ability to have or recognize deep thought and it’s usefulness is an outdated view of knowledge, or that knowledge is only memorization, both of which are implied in an earlier post, clearly we are losing our younger folks to the world.

  10. Brian

    You wrote – “Has anyone else noticed that it is becoming difficult to hold a normal, courteous conversation with people who are always wired?”

    The word “courteous” adds another whole dimension to this conversation. Why are so many so rude and crude in their online communication?

  11. Brian

    If in our classes and churches we don’t shoot for deeper thinking, where will people be equipped to do it? We may lose some folks, but the alternative may be to lose everyone to shallowness….

  12. mikewittmer


    That was my own perception. It struck me because it reminded me of my own experience with a few exceptionally wired students. They do seem to speak more rapidly and loudly than others–and they tend to be less reserved in interpersonal communication. It makes me think that there may be a connection.

  13. Yooper

    “…They seem to speak more rapidly and loudly than others-and they tend to be less reserved in interpersonal communciation…” Perhaps it’s genetic? Because it sounds like me – an Italian who lived many years in the U.P. 🙂

    I am 100% in support of using the technology of the era in which we live. However, I find it difficult to throw together a PowerPoint presentation for a lesson just because we have projectors in every room of our church and it is expected.

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