Disrupted humanity, is technology affecting our brains?

Technology might change what it is to be human. If this is right, then ensuring this a change for the better and not for the worse is the most important challenge of this age. This is the single most important message of iDisrupted.

New research shows that students appear to understand a lecture better if they take notes using a pen, instead of a computer. If you are old school, and were bought up using a pen, the findings may not come as a surprise, but it just goes to show that our intuitive judgments on the dangers of technology may be more right than we realised.

The study was carried out by psychology researchers at Princeton, led by Pam Mueller. Their guinea pigs were 65 students studying one of five TED talks. Each student was either given a laptop disconnected from the internet or one of those paper things we used to call notebooks, before the word got hijacked and was applied to a type of computer.

It turned out that the students armed with a laptop took more notes.  So far then that’s one nil to technology. The students were then questioned on the TED talk they had watched.  First they were tested for factual details.  Both sets of students did equally well, so I guess that takes the score to two one in favour of the computer.

Then they were questioned on comprehension. And here the story was quite different. The students who took notes by pen did better. They were then tested on recollection of the talk a week later. The pen users achieved higher scores.  See The Pen Is Mightier Than The Laptop For Students Trying To Memorize Their Study Material for more.

Umm, I reckon the football score analogy breaks down at this point. Comprehension and memory recollection should count as three goals each, or something. I award victory to the pen, and by a big margin.

But this makes a serious point. As a species, we have been around on this planet for around 200,000 years, that’s homo sapiens, – my species. I assume that is your species too. Writing was invented around 99 per cent of the way through this time period. The invention was probably a good thing, but there may have been a negative side to this.  Before the invention of writing we used to rely on our memory more often.  The story teller was an important person, and we used to listen to long drawn-out stories, which we then memorised. Along came writing and things changed. Pick up a book from the 18th or 19th century and see how long and involved the sentences were. Maybe, back then, with our legacy as verbal story tellers and listeners, we were better able to grapple with long sentences, and long rambling books by Dickens which didn’t seem to go anywhere for page after page.

If you write something down, if helps us understand it better – that is undeniable. But maybe the advent of writing had a negative effect on our cognitive skills too.

The art of verbal story telling really came to an end with the introduction of the printing press. Maybe the printing press was the important innovation since the emergence of writing itself, certainly it spread ideas like nothing had done before and may have underpinned the technological and social revolutions of the 18th 19th and 20th centuries. But maybe it had a negative effect on us too. It is a kind of racism, albeit one that may not have any social consequences, to assume that modern humans are more intelligence than our ancestors of 30,000 years ago.  The technology called the pen has had a massively positive effect on the human race, but it has had a negative effect too. The writers of the 20th century were not necessarily brighter than memorisers of 30,000 years ago.

Now the pen is giving way to the keyboard. Maybe it is only a matter of time before the keyboard gives way to verbal dictation to computers, and then to brain interfaces.

It’s progress, but each change comes with its downside.

As species we have been around for 200,000 years, we evolved to live a hunter gatherer life, it is surely absurd to imagine that evolution has equipped us with the ideal make-up to flourish in a technology age.