How digital is (or not) affecting the way we think

Wired brain imageMost of the books I read or came across in the autumn last year revolved around the concept of thinking, or thinking about thinking which is also known as meta-thinking.

This fortuitous red thread, whether the product of my unconscious mind or the workings of some grand scheme of things, made me realise that I have been tinkering for too long with the idea of writing a blog post about thinking in the digital age and how digital may have impacted my thinking patterns or that of my kids. Well, here it is it.

From not thinking to hyperthinking in a blink

So here’s the book list that made me think hard in October-November:

  • Don’t make me think by Steve Krug, a common sense approach to web usability,
  • Hyperthinking by Philip Weiss, on how to switch our brain functioning to adapt to perpetual change,
  • Blink by Malcolm Gladwell, on the power of thinking without thinking, and
  • The Shallows by Nicholas Carr.

I had read the first book in my early web days, and it was time for a refresher read. Don’t make me think is a classic ‘no-brainer’ if you pardon this expression; it has all the ingredients of a great read coupled with fantastically useful and practical recommendations to improving the usability of any type of website.

The second book only came out in November, but I was lucky enough to read an early version of it since I’m featured in the first chapter. The concept of hyperthinking, practically invented by Philip Weiss, a fellow IABC leader and successful digital entrepreneur, is quite fascinating and not to be mistaken with meta-thinking. Here is my book review as published by Gower:

‘Shifting your thinking patterns is the key to embracing change. HyperThinking is the kind of book you should read when you are in the middle of change, of a conflict, when you’re managing a difficult project, when you just changed jobs, when you had your first child, when you just retired. It’s a book about the way we think, or rather the way we think we think, and what this means for the rest of our lives. What this book taught me is that we have to live in a world where we cannot rely on traditional thinking patterns – these must be continuously challenged if we want to adapt to the ever-changing environment we live in. This is called hyperthinking, and it is giving people who want to make an impact on the world we live in a competitive edge. Some are natural-born hyperthinkers, others will have to learn it the hard way. This book will give you a headstart and will provide for an enjoyable and thought-provoking read. I’m proud to be a hyperthinker. Soon, you will feel the same way too.’

It’s on the third book that I would like to dwell a bit. I’s always a treat to read Gladwell’s perfectly crafted prose. His examples from the academic world are just mind boggling and I always wonder how he manages to make hold of all these academic works. Here are some examples of the research  you can read about and which confirms how powerful (and sometimes deceiptful) our snap judgements are:

  • learn about how to identify a lasting couple in just 3 minutes with the Mathematics of Marriage research of John Gottman;
  • discover why a 2-second video can tell you as much about a teacher’s teaching abilities that sitting all year-round in his or her class;
  • read about the methodology that American psychologists Silvan Tomkins and Paul Ekman have developed to read people’s minds through their facial expressions; or
  • plunge into your unconscious by taking one of the implicit association tests (IAT) developed by Harvard University.

Thinking beyond data: the knowledge paradigm

So has the process of thinking really changed since the digital revolution? Now that we have almost all human knowledge at hand thanks to the internet, how do we think, how do we initiate a thinking process? Nicholas Carr, in his bestselling book The Shallows, believes the brain has been affected by our ever-increasingly digital environment, together with several neurobiologists and brain specialists. But while the impact of the digital world on the way our brain is wired and works is relatively indisputable, how exactly it impacts our thinking patterns is still a mystery.

Carr mentions memory and how digital natives have developed a skill not to remember the data itself but how the data can be retrieved from the internet. I wonder how far this  mnemonic trick can be related to past techniques such as the method of loci or memory palace developed by the ancient Romans and Greeks; there is indeed a world of difference between remembering data by ordering it in your memory in a certain way, and remembering only how you ordered the data, not the data itself.

If digital natives do not get their facts straight and internet is not available when they need it, how will it affect their ability to think and to argue? I can see with my children how knowledge remains a critical component of their budding thinking patterns. But then my kids still read paper books 🙂

This blog post is not meant to provide answers, just to open up a debate on this issue. I’m interested in particular in what educators confronted with this question have to say about it. Do they experience a different way of thinking in class when confronted to the digital natives or millenials?

To think more about it

Here is a list of useful links if you want to explore this question in more depth, in addition to the above list of recommended reads:

Any other useful links to add? Just tell me in the comments and I’ll add them.

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