Book Review: IBrain by Dr. Gary Small and Gigi Vorgan

When I was a child growing up in the 1950s and 1960s, there was a revolution happening, and experts said it wasn’t a good one. For the first time, most homes in the United States owned at least one television. In my home, we rarely talked during dinner. The TV was on, and we watched while we ate. And in the freezer cases of our supermarkets, a new line of products emerged– the TV dinner. Now Mom didn’t even have to cook; she had the option of taking a Swanson’s TV dinner — complete with chicken, mashed potatoes, green beans, and apple crisp for dessert — popping it in the oven for 45 minutes, and placing one in front of each family member, who could watch TV and eat a full meal without Mom slaving in the kitchen. The child-rearing experts yelled that we were all going to grow up with no social skills, and knowing no stable family life. The dinner table had always been the mainstay of family bonding. It was where Dad talked about his work-day, Mom talked about goins-on at home and in the neighborhood, and the kids discussed their day at school. Now, with the family unconsciously shoving food in their mouths while their eyes were glued to the “boob tube, civilization was at an all-time low, the experts said. The “idiot box” would turn us all into a society of morons. Our legs and arms, not to mention our brains, would atrophy. Eventually these vital body parts would go the way of the appendix, rendered obsolete and useless. There would have been a lot of truth to this, if our brains and social structure hadn’t adjusted to the new technology. When I re-entered the teaching profession in 1997, I was a different kind of teacher than I had been straight out of college in the mid- to late-1970s. The 20-year hiatus I had taken to pursue a career in the corporate world had produced a generation who could no longer learn from a textbook. I put in numerous extra hours on planning lessons that switched activities every ten minutes, and used a mix of visuals and electronic media. I was no longer a teacher, but a producer of five 42-minute variety shows each day. Children had the attention-spans of spiders, and they would fall asleep if you didn’t engage them in a classroom that resembled a three-ring circus! The book “iBrain”, by Dr. Gary Small and Gigi Vorgan, takes this discussion to the next level — 21st-century portable technology. You can’t walk down the street, or enter a public place these days, without noticing all the PDAs, cellphones, smart-phones, laptops, and MP3 players in use. Everybody is reachable, available, and accessible. Information is attainable at our fingertips. Likewise, when we ask for something, we want it — in fact we expect it — now! We are forced to multitask, interrupt a human-to-human interaction with a beep, and give a second thought to our safety when we are driving or walking and need to respond to a handheld device. The social scientists of the 1950s would cringe to see a lunch table full of friends, or business associates, individually texting between bites. “Digital Natives” — young people born into the “Digital Age” who have grown up with and are comfortable with technology will find their brains working differently than “Digital Immigrants” who have had to learn to adapt to the digital age. While Digital Natives have gained multitasking skills by the constant and adept use of technology, they have lost skills of face to face interaction. Examples are eye contact and interpretation of body language, two things they don’t have to master with electronic communication. Digital Immigrants, on the other hand, have the people skills, but are weaker in multitasking abilities of the Digital Natives. The authors call this generation gap between the Immigrants and the Natives, a “brain gap”. Just like prolonged TV-viewing can lead to a sedentary lifestyle, which has resulted in increased obesity, “technobrain burnout” can be a result of prolonged interaction with digital technology. But the prevailing postulate of “iBrain” — that the brain will rewire itself to deal with the increased technology, and evolve so that the “fittest” brains for that technology — is a convincing one. The authors are true Darwinists, and they present their case in a most compelling and engaging way. And although “iBrain” is not light beach-blanket fare, it is a pleasant read, and explores a change in our society which is affecting all of us.

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