NWA-PCUG Newsletter Article, November 2009
iBrain: Surviving the Technological Alteration of the Modern Mind
Authors: Gary Small, M.D. and Gigi Vorgan
Reviewed by Bayle Emlein, Secretary, PC Community, California
PCC News, May 2009

pcc (at) ix.netcom.com (click to email author)

This article has been obtained from APCUG with the author’s permission for publication by APCUG member groups; all other uses require the permission of the author (see e-mail address above).

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.

Gary Small is the Director of the Memory & Aging Research Center at the Semel Institute for Neuroscience & Human Behavior and the Center on Aging at UCLA. In previous books he popularized some of the new information on brain development, plasticity, and neurological changes.

This is a book, actual paper with static black ink. The book itself does not have a Web site, 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.

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, it’s missing large segments of the population. It seems to me that Dr. Small is stuck in a 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 the digital native generation 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 find that multitasking sets the mind up for errors and may not be as productive as linear focus sequential tasks. Since he doesn’t give his sources for these tidbits, it’s hard to check his accuracy against other studies.

Frequent anecdotes put the brain science into everyday life and illustrate how we’d see the neurochemistry in the everyday world. There are 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, often fail to develop social and interpersonal skills. Digital immigrants plod through information, missing connections. Immigrants generally know they are in foreign territory: 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.

I’ve heard that when writing was introduced to many oral cultures, it was lamented as the end of memory, since people no longer need to memorize 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.

Product Information iBrain: Surviving the Technological
Alteration of the Modern Mind
List price, $24.95
Gary Small, M.D. and Gigi Vorgan
Harper Collins, Publisher, 2008

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