What Pinker says:
If you train people to do one thing (recognize shapes, solve math puzzles, find hidden words), they get better at doing that thing, but almost nothing else. Music doesn’t make you better at math, conjugating Latin doesn’t make you more logical, brain-training games don’t make you smarter. Accomplished people don’t bulk up their brains with intellectual calisthenics; they immerse themselves in their fields. Novelists read lots of novels, scientists read lots of science.
And our brains somehow handle all sorts of things.
The New York Times has another of those “modern technology is bad for kids” articles today: “The Risks of Parenting While Plugged In.” This one, instead of blaming modern technology (TV, video games, computers, mobile phones—take your pick) for rotting kids’ brains, blames the gadgets for making parents ignore their kids. “Some child development experts,” as the article puts it, are concerned that parents become so engaged with their gadgets, checking email or reading websites, that their kids become jealous and resentful, even resorting to biting and hitting to get their parents’ attention. (Though I rather like the example of the kid who makes his mom set the microwave timer when she says she’ll be just a couple minutes more.)
But really? The gadgets make them ignore their kids?
It’s not the modern technology. It’s the parents. I see parents browsing through title after title in bookstores, ignoring kids pulling at their legs. I see kids squirming and squealing in strollers while their parents wander through just one more store at the mall. I see kids climbing over end tables in doctors’ waiting rooms while their parents read magazines, happily unconscious of the glares directed at them by others less unaware.
Nobody blames the books or the strollers or the magazines for making those parents ignore their kids. Why should we then blame the Blackberrys or the netbooks? Some parents with gadgets engage with their kids and some parents with gadgets don’t, just as some families make shopping a family excursion and pay attention to everybody’s needs and interests and stamina.
It’s not the technology. It’s just that some people don’t put their kids very high on their priority lists.
I’m struck yet again by what seems to be a unifying theme running through what I thought were disparate areas of my life. Once upon a time, I’d have told you that streamlining and simplifying things to focus on one concept at a time was a good idea, but these days, I’m seriously into complexity.
- Nutritionally, it’s better to eat a variety of real (that is, fresh) food than to rely on multivitamins and other supplements.
- Sure, there are all those high-tech exercise machines that isolate specific muscles, but if I want a challenging workout, point me toward the free weights or the balance balls or the yoga mat. Complex exercises work not only the body but the brain, and are interesting enough to keep me coming back for more.
- Learning by doing almost always seems to work better than learning by rote. No matter how carefully I read a software user manual, I never learn as much about how to use the application as when I simply sit down and start using it by trial and error (and only occasional recourse to the manual as reference).
I’ve thought for years now that starting with the basics is not always the best idea. Sometimes jumping into the midst of something (fencing or teaching, for example) to get a good taste can tell you what you still need to learn, and let you focus better on learning it.
Interesting essay by Clay Shirky in the Wall Street Journal this weekend–“Does the Internet Make You Smarter?
No surprise that this would appeal to me, a long-time fan of Steven Berlin Johnson’s Everything Bad Is Good for You. And it turns out there’s a book due out next week: Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age. Sounds like yet another book that may end up on my iPad to-be-read virtual shelves.