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The Brain Unplugged From Technology: Implications for Learning in Young Children

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"Attention is the holy grail."

These are the words of David Strayer, a professor of psychology who studies attention and the brain. And last month, he organized a week-long camping trip with four other neuroscientists to experience for themselves how unplugging from technology affected their own brains.

This is an issue that the scientists on this trip consider of the utmost importance. As Strayer says: "Everything you are conscious of, everything you let in, everything you remember and you forget, depends on attention."

As the scientists and an accompanying reporter, photographer, and outdoorsman rafted on the San Juan River in Southern Utah, hiked along canyons, and camped -- far out of range from their BlackBerries, cell phones, and computers, they discussed the potential impact of technology on the brain. Does being bombarded by technology crowd out our working memories? Does it tax our abilities to process information? Does it impair our capacity to learn? They shared these and other thoughts with Matt Richtel, who wrote a front-page article about their journey for the New York Times on August 16.

Although the trip was meant to stimulate questions for research rather than provide any definitive answers, although the experience of unplugging was more powerful than some of them expected, and although the research in this field is still in its early stages, there are important findings in the research on young children that we can heed now. Here are some:

Children are less likely to learn new words in noisy places. Rochelle Newman of the University of Maryland has found that children in very noisy settings have trouble differentiating voices, even saying familiar words including their own names, unless one voice is less intense than the voices they are supposed to be listening to. She calls this "the cocktail party effect." For children to learn language in loud settings, she says, "they have to be able to "to separate the sound of the person talking to them from that background noise."

Children's play is less focused when the television is on, even in the background. Daniel Anderson of the University of Massachusetts at Amherst conducted a study with children from one- through three-years-old to see if having the television on in the background playing Jeopardy! affected their play. He and his colleagues found that the time children spent playing with a toy were only about half as long when the T.V. was on than when it was off. In addition, they found that episodes of focused attention were only three-quarter as long with the T.V. on.

Children who are better at focusing are more likely to do well in other tests of competence, such as literacy or math. Jeanne Brooks-Gunn of Columbia University and a group of other academics recently reviewed six studies that followed children over time. They compared children's school achievement in math and reading between the ages of eight and 13 to assessments of these same children between the ages of four and six. Out of literally hundreds of analyses, only three skills that children had when they entered school were strongly related to their later success in reading and math. Two are obvious: the children who had good math and reading skills when they entered school had good math and reading skills years later. But the third skill is less obvious. It was "attention skills." As Brooks-Gunn says: "Attention [skills] allow children to focus on something in a way that maximizes the information they get out of it."

What are the implications of these studies for parents and teachers of young children? We can't, nor should we, insulate young children from the world in which they live. They will need to learn to deal with technology, with too much information; and they will need to learn to multi-task.

In the New York Times story, Matt Richtel writes that the scientists on the rafting trip did come one conclusion: they all are "prepared to recommend a little downtime as a path to uncluttered thinking."

If, as science is beginning to reveal, "attention" is the holy grail -- it possesses the miraculous power that enables people to remember, to think and to learn -- then I believe we must continue to seek ways to help our children learn the skill of paying attention!