Multitasking Strengthens the Brains of Millennials and some thoughts on pedagogy

April 12th, 2011

Last week I blogged about a new study that shows how older people are easily distracted when they multitask, but the opposite is true for younger people. Here are bits from a nice summary of the paper:

Our findings suggest that the negative impact of multitasking on working memory is not necessarily a memory problem, per se, but the result of an interaction between attention and memory

In the current study, scientists compared the working memory of healthy young men and women (mean age 24.5) and older men and women (mean age 69.1) in a visual memory test involving multitasking. Using functional magnetic resonance imaging, the researchers tracked blood flow in the participants’ brains to identify the activity of neural circuits and networks.

Participants were asked to view a natural scene and maintain it in mind for 14.4 seconds. Then, in the middle of the maintenance period, an interruption occurred: an image of a face popped up and participants were asked to determine its sex and age. They were then asked to recall the original scene.

As expected, older people had more difficulty maintaining the memory of the original image. The fMRI analysis revealed why. When the young and older adults were interrupted, their brains disengaged from a memory maintenance network and reallocated neural resources toward processing the interruption. However, the younger adults re-established connection with the memory maintenance network following the interruption and disengaged from the interrupting image. The older adults, on the other hand, failed both to disengage from the interruption and to reestablish the neural network associated with the disrupted memory.

“These results indicate that deficits in switching between functional brain networks underlie the impact of multitasking on working memory in older adults,” said lead author Wesley C. Clapp, PhD, a postdoctoral fellow in the Gazzaley lab.

NBC Nightly News (I was at the gym, and it was on; I never watch the evening news) ran an interesting piece on this story. Jay Giedd, a scientist (for more on Giedd’s work see here) interviewed in the piece has scanned the brains of thousands of teenagers. He documents how multitasking makes the teenager brain stronger.

“[T]he brain [is] becoming more specialized by getting rid of information it doesn’t use. It’s like pruning branches, allowing the brain to strengthen the connections that will last until adulthood. The doctor scans the teens every two years as they grow up and tests their distractibility. The surprising news? All this multitasking might be making their minds stronger and serves as a cross-training exercise for the brain. There does seem to be a plasticity for the younger adolescents that allows them to get better at mulitasking, to a point.”

“If you look at college kids there are no alarming findings their brains are turning to mush. They seem to be handling this incoming data, and that pruning seems to be work.”

Another video provides further insight into the teen brain:

The teen brain has different features. It is more geared to the here and now . . .  Teens are very capable of many things. The brain’s ability to adapt and change, the upside is enormous if we could harness this for education. This is an incredible gusher of information pouring into the student’s brain from any sources. The teen’s brain is very capable of adapting to new challenges.

What effect does this information overload have on the developing teen brain? You can do more interaction with digital devices. There is a big debate over whether this is  more or less social.

Anything that is not, deep, reflecting, and slow is a waste of time. Immediacy is a big difference. They demand immediacy. Is that a good or bad thing? Unclear.

With multitasking, there is a task, you can’t do everything well at the same time as you could alone.

I have written at some length, anecdotally of course, how today’s generation learns differently from generations from years past. This research seems to somewhat bolster my gut instincts.

I intend on likning together all of these points in some format to explore what I view as the future of pedagogy in light of evolving psychological conditions. Here is the theory, in a nutshell.

Today’s generation, the so-called millennials (of which I am a member) learns differently (see herehere, here, here). Throughout their entire lives, they are constantly being inundated, even deludged, by a torrent of information from endless sources. This perpetual barrage of information has trained millennials to be able to adapt and acquire and understand this data. In science-speak, this refers to neuroplasticity, or the ability of the brain to adapt and change based on one’s experiences. A process, known as synaptic pruning, “eliminates weaker synaptic contacts while stronger connections are kept and strengthened. Experience determines which connections will be strengthened and which will be pruned; connections that have been activated most frequently are preserved.” Millenials who supertask–send text messages while watching a youtube video while surfing the web while having a conversation while studying–are flooded with information. Yet, this repeated activity effectively strengthens the “supertasking synapse.”  (that is the point of the above video).

Conversely, other synapses are weakend during this process.  While previous generations promoted the learning of certain skills–namely memorizing and researching, today’s generation do not need those skills. In fact, those skills are largely a waste of time–the opportunity cost of memorizing something exceeds the value of using that information for a more productive end. Any fact you could ever want to know can be instantly retrieved on Google, or even WestLaw. There is simply not a need to remember facts like once before. “Forgetting used to be a failing, a waste, a sign of senility. Now it takes effort. It may be as important as remembering. Facts were once dear; now they are cheap.” (The Information).

The key to future thought, in my opinion, is the ability to aggregate and understand vast amounts of data and do something useful with it. These are the skills our children are developing, and, for purposes of pedagogy, this is how educational lessons should be structured. This creative mixing of labor is a task that computers will not be able to accomplish (until the singularity that is). Attorneys, in particular, need not fear our new robotic overlords. As I previously wrote:

The nature of legal jobs will change. No longer will attorneys make their way by doing menial doc review. Attorneys will have to think of how to create value, either through assembling good transactions or engaging in smart litigation. Technology will certainly make this easier, but even so, not all attorneys can do this. Even if the aggregate of legal jobs does not decrease, certain types of positions will no longer be relevant.

These are the skills lawyers should learn, and these are the skills I hope to teach one day (did I mention I am going on the hiring market this summer?).

Relatedly, I just finished a fascinating book, The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood.

There are a few points I’d like to note.

First a few bits about the information deluge. We are being inundated with more information than ever before. An early definition of e-mail, way back in 1983, characterizes this new phenomenon:

“Electronic mail system can, if used by many people, cause severe information overlaod problems. The cause of this problem is that it is so easy to send a message to a large number of people, and that systems are often designed to the sender too much control of the communication process, and the receiver too little control.”

Second, a few points about information overload:

A 1963 study showed that “‘superoptimal’ information loads caused poor performance, ‘yet it should be noted that at highly superoptimal information loads (25 messages per 30-minute period) [JB: That is not that much. 25 messages in 30 seconds is a situation], the subjections are still asking for increased information levels.”

A 1980 study investigating “information-load paradigm” yielded a “tentative conclusion: information overload is real.”

Third, some notes on how people can cope with the deluge of information. I think these notes mirror what millenials are naturally doing: pruning old synapses and strengthening new ones that permit productive multitasking.

Strategies emerge for coping. There are many, but in essence they all boil down to two: filter and search. The harassed consume of information turns to filters to separate the metal from the dross; filters include blogs and aggregators–the choice raises issues of trust and taste. The need for filters intrudes on any thought experiment about the wonders of abundant information

These filters need not be limited to tools like Google. I think they also include the innate filter that we all develop to handle the flood of information. These are the filters that we should be developing in students.

Fourth, building on the brilliant short story The Library of Babel by Jorge Luis Borges, we have to remember the importance of searching and filtering–both from tools like Google, and the internal acquired expertise of modern-day supertaskers.

Searching and filtering are all that stand between this world and the Library of Babel.

Fifth, how will all of this affect the future of gathering information:

The old ways or organizing knowledge no longer work. Who will search; who will filter?

Finally, I want to point out a few passages from an article I recently read, titled  FROM WAGING WAR AGAINST LAPTOPS TO ENGAGING STUDENTS WITH LAPTOPS:

Because our students today do not think or learn the way we did when we were students, [FN7] it makes no sense to continue to teach them using the same outdated techniques. Instead, we must modify our pedagogy to meet their changing needs. However, deciding what to change in teaching is never easy. Instead of fighting tech- nological advances and student preferences, I believe that law professors should learn to bridle the energy and usefulness of the laptop and engage students in the classroom at the students’ technological level. [FN8] By ex- panding our teaching methods to adapt to students’ learning methods, law professors can help students become much more engaged in the material, resulting in a more active, exciting, and enriching classroom experience, both for the professor and the student.

In my research and experimentation, I found that digital-age students think and learn much differently from previous generations. First, they learn best from three-dimensional, discovery-based learning. Second, they can multitask and telescope, gathering information quickly from a variety of sources. Third, digital students need to be “powered up” to learn. In addition, they benefit from peer review and interaction in a collaborative environ- ment–more so than other generations. Finally, they crave immediate feedback and demand convenience.

First, while most professors think in linear fashion, moving from broad category to narrower categories usu- ally in a page-by-page textual format, digital students think more three-dimensionally, moving from one screen to the next on the computer without regard for context. [FN16] While a traditional learner (such as a professor) might need to enter a text at the beginning, a digital learner can enter at any location and exit at any time. Hy- perlinks make this *489 random access’ [FN17] possible and digital students are constantly “surfing the web” to discover information.’ [FN18] As a result, digital students are not passive, waiting for the author’s next sequen- tial move. Instead, students are the “drivers” of the information-gathering process, navigating their way through multiple layers of text on the screen.’ [FN19] The students like to be in control of “what, when, and how they learn.” [FN20] “They ‘accept as their right’ the ability to make choices and to customize the things they choose.” [FN21] They think of learning as a process of discovery. [FN22]

Second, digital students research by multitasking [FN23] and “telescoping.” [FN24] In multi-tasking, a stu- dent performs many acts at one time such as reading e-mail, taking notes during lecture, playing poker, and listening to music. [FN25] In telescoping, a student delves deeper and deeper into multiple screens and varied content seamlessly. [FN26]

Taking notes and watching PowerPoint slides are passive activities that do not engage these students. [FN30] Text alone often bores digital students. [FN31] Multimedia, such as computer graphics, video and animation, will help engage digital students by bringing ma- terial to life and helping them understand the context and relevance of the material to the “real world.” However, students need even more. They need their learning to be three-dimensional–not flat, linear or purely textual. They need interactivity where their minds (and screens) are turned on and working in overdrive. They need to become a part of the material through collaboration, interactivity, and simulation.

Digital students also crave peer review and interaction. Collaboration is at the heart of learning for them. [FN37] Learning is a social phenomenon as well as a cognitive process. [FN38] By bouncing ideas off of each other, students can *491 formulate their own opinions and drive the discussion themselves. They enjoy learning through discovery and discussion. [FN39] Their collaboration can either be in class, in person or virtual. [FN40] As a result, the professor no longer needs to be the sole and center point of learning; instead students have many resources from which to choose. Digital students often set up blogs for specific issues. They also e-mail and IM each other often (usually in the middle of class).

With regard to the last point–the professor is no longer the sole point of learning–relates back to the above point about filtering and searching. A professor should be a facilitator, but need not be the student’s only method of learning. That is why I frankly don’t give a damn about attendance requirements. If they can learn without me, more power to them. Not everyone is of this mind. This, no doubt, will threaten the entrenched professoriate. I embrace this change.

A few more points:

Digital students demand immediate feedback . . .

In sum, I have found that digital students, like students of all generations, need to be engaged to learn. [FN42] However, unlike other generations of learners, digital students become engaged by using computers as vehicles for three-dimensional, discovery-based learning. They learn from multitasking and telescoping, power- ing up in the classroom, engaging in peer review and collaboration, and receiving immediate feedback–all in a convenient environment that stimulates active learning. “Active learning facilitates long-term memory” [FN43] and allows students to develop their own creativity and thought process. As a result, students feel as if they have more control over *492 their learning and can guide it in a way that suits their needs.

On the use of laptops in the classroom, a topic I have addressed at great length:

I have learned to harness students’ energy, en- thusiasm and learning styles to engage them in the classroom on their side of the laptops. While they still peer at me from behind their screens, my students are more engaged, productive, animated, and critical in their thinking than when I used traditional print textbooks. They interact more with each other, and, from participating in and listening to that interaction, I can learn from my students. The best of these lessons: Students adapt to new tech- nologies easily, embrace them and expect them to enrich their everyday lives.

It is time to declare a truce in the war against laptops. We should join forces with our students and let them help us create enriching and engaging learning experiences using their laptops and other technology. Students have many innovative ideas and will happily help create web sites, blogs, wikis, and other web-based tools for class. So let’s stop worrying about what our students are doing on their side of the laptops; instead, let’s harness that multitasking energy and listen to the clicking in our classes with the satisfaction of knowing that our stu- dents are surfing our websites or Twittering us with updates on their learning.

I couldn’t agree more.

I apologize, this post was somewhat disjointed. I will clean these thoughts up in a more sensible format in the near future. Stay tuned.

A huge hattip to the inestimable Militza for explaining both Borges and Neuroplasticity. Very impressive.

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