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iBrain: Surviving the technological alteration of the modern mind

Review by Bayle Emlein

This is a book, actual paper with static black ink. As far as I can tell, the book itself does not have a website, though Dr. Small has one that focuses heavily on the book--http://www.drgarysmall.com. I went there and was immediately blasted with a feature clip from a Los Angeles area TV show's brief review of the book and the topic of brain plasticity. Gary Small is the Director of the Memory & Aging Research Center at the Semel Institute for Neuroscience & Human Behavior and the Center on Agin at UCLA. In previous books he popularized some of the new information on brain development, plasticity, and neurological changes.

In iBrain, Dr. Small addresses the differences between the mental processes of "digital natives" and "digital immigrants." Digital natives are those born after about 1980, who have never known a world without computers, Internet, video games. Those born before electronic saturation have, with varying amounts of skill and willingness, learned to use these electronic extensions of the human mind. But no matter how proficient we become, we always operate as outsiders, immigrants with the slightest trace of accent, not quite able to function with the unconscious abandon of a native speaker in the digital culture.

The book has many short case studies-vignettes that make a point or describe how it looks in real life. While these are all probably valid for the group they describe, I'm missing large segments of the population. While the age division is probably accurate as a gross generalization, it seems to me that Dr. Small is stuck in his own restricted point of view that every kid in the industrialized world has the same kinds of experiences that his UCLA environment provides his family. Where are the single mothers holding down two minimum-wage jobs, the foster kids pushed out on their 18th birthday? I wonder what kind of differences Dr. Small would find in looking at the brains, and minds, of digital natives who struggle with basic literacy or with the English language. He frequently mentions that digital natives ‘multitask and parallel process with ease,' though other sources I've seen recently find that multitasking sets the mind up for errors and may not be as productive as linear focus on tasks in sequence. Since he doesn't give his sources for these tidbits, it's hard to check his accuracy against other studies.

Modern science does indeed allow scientists to observe the neurochemical and physiological changes in the brain caused by physical activity and by learning. Because we behave in different ways and learn different things, our brains are different from those of our ancestors. Different areas of our brains are developed, and different connections between those areas strengthened. The brains of digital natives are also shaped by their learning experiences. In this book, Dr. Small does a good job of translating the neuroscience into everyday language. Though he refers to the parts of the brain triggered by various kinds activities, he doesn't make a big deal about the physiology, which can be ignored without detracting from the points he is making. The few illustrations in the book are general enough to not add materially to the concepts. I would have appreciated better illustrations and more detail about the neurological connections. But I can find those in a current anatomy text, or online.

It is interesting that this essay into clarifying the difference between digital immigrants and natives is presented in the technology of the immigrants. iBrain is divided into chapters that discuss various aspects of the digital revolution and how they affect immigrants and natives alike. For example, the chain of neurochemical events that defines addiction to email, computer games, or gambling is ths same for either group. Each chapter is divided into short sections-essays on the topic that could stand alone. This helps make a potentially dense topic more accessible, probably even to digital natives who are used to interactive multimedia.

Frequent ‘case studies,' or anecdotes that put the brain science into everyday life and illustrate how we'd see the neurochemistry in the everyday world are presented, along with several self-analysis surveys. They are designed to help the reader figure out from her/his own behavior what might be going on inside his brain. The questions are worded in such a way that they add to understanding of the topic.

There are points for both groups to consider. Digital natives, left to follow their digital proclivities, often fail to develop social and interpersonal skills. Digital immigrants plod through information, missing connections. Immigrants generally know they are in a foreign country and haven't mastered the local language and customs. Digital natives might be surprised to consider that their citizenship in the post-information age is not necessarily an all-encompassing advantage. This might be a book you'd like to show to your acquaintances (including family members) who have a different orientation than you do. They don't have to read all of each chapter to glean the understanding that what we learn changes the physiology of our brains, which in turn changes the way we learn and potentially the content.

I've heard that when writing was introduced to many traditional oral cultures, it was lamented as the end of memory, since people no longer need to memorize long involved tales in order to preserve history and culture. Whether writing is ultimately a blessing or a curse, it appears here for the foreseeable future. The same can be said for always-on electronic communication. It's silly to lament a simpler past. It's equally silly not to use the tools now available to understand the implications of changes taking place and make the most of developments. iBrain helps folks from each side understand their own point of view better and gain some perspective on the other. Definitely worth reading while waiting for the next discovery in brain science. 

iBrain: Surviving the technological alteration of the modern mind
Gary Small, M.D. and Gigi Vorgan
2008, Harper Collins, 240 pages
List price, $24.95



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