Building 21st-Century Brains

How is your brain doing?  Does it need some exercise?  Some TLC?

The brain is cool for more reasons than we can count, and like anything cool in the world, it’s also mysterious.  There’s a lot we don’t know about it; for example we’re still figuring out “how clusters of neurons from the diverse regions of the brain collaborate to form consciousness” (thank you, Scientific American! [http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=people-only-use-10-percent-of-brain&page=2]).

So, is this super mysterious, super intricate thing in our skull enjoying the Digital Age?  Is the Internet making our grey matter strong like the muscles of an Olympic athlete or flimsy as scrambled eggs in a greasy skillet?  Is Google giving our noggin more exercise or helping it cut corners? And, most importantly, would Socrates be proud of the way we use our brain today?

Everyone is fascinated (and a little scared) by the new brain and have been for a while — just see where Google-searching, “reading in the digital age” takes you (we’ve included some results below).  What happens if kids these days grow up to have brains that are very different from those of older generations?  What would that mean?  “Health clubs for the brain” are popping up all over the place.  Take a look at this one, for example: vibrantBrains [http://www.vibrantbrains.com/] in San Francisco, CA provides a “brain fitness community” replete with a speaker series and various programs customized to enhance your very own noodle.

We’ve found an interesting collection of stories to help us get to the bottom of these questions.  Chief among them is an old Op-ed that we stumbled across in The Boston Globe written two years ago by Maryanne Wolf, a neuroscientist and the director of the Center for Reading and Language Research at Tufts University.  The Op-ed is outdated in some ways, but the discussion remains relevant:  Dr. Wolf was recently interviewed on Wisconsin Public Radio’s program, To the Best of Our Knowledge.Key Points in Wolf’s Op-ed:

“Parents, teachers, and scholars are beginning to question how our immersion in this increasingly digital world will shape the next generation’s relationship to reading, learning, and to knowledge itself.”

“Literacy is so much entwined in our lives that we often fail to realize that the act of reading is a miracle that is evolving under our fingertips.”

“Similarly poised between two modes of communication, one oral and one written, Socrates argued against the acquisition of literacy […] He believed that the seeming permanence of the printed word would delude them into thinking they had accessed the heart of knowledge, rather than simply decoded it.”

— Maryanne Wolf, Boston Globe:  “Learning to think in a digital world.”  September 7th, 2007.

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