Technology has afforded the possibility of transcending time and space, stretching our human capabilities far beyond what was previously imagined possible.
Regardless of time restrictions, geographical location and budget, the information age human demonstrates astounding feats of wizardry, maintaining distant relationships, booking flights, ordering food, cabs – just about anything – with a few undemanding swipes of the smartphones that line their pockets.
And whilst these bolstered capabilities afford a pervasive society-wide illusion of productivity, there’s one inescapable problem that our clambering, swiping fingers just can’t contend with.
Evolution. Has technology met its match?
While technology has promised us the ability to do as much as possible in the shortest timeframe, our brain is actually not designed to have so many quick (often unfinished) encounters with virtual people, information and tasks.
The possibilities of tech have set the standards very high when it comes to our capacity to absorb information – its rapid growth, in combination with our innately inquisitive nature, indicates that we are unlikely to stop constant processing any time soon.
Even though this has had a lot of very positive effects in education we also need to be mindful not to over-ask.
We become better students through the quality of the information that we internalize, and not through its volume.
It is only when information becomes crucial knowledge that we know we have succeeded as students and as educators.
The Biology of Attention
To understand what I’m getting at here, it’s worth turning back the clock 1.8 million years to our earliest common ancestor, Homo Erectus.
Picture this; primitive humans would live in small hunter-gatherer societies.
One day, they decided it was time to leave. They waved goodbye to the safety of tree cover to explore pastures new.
But with new territory and fruitful potential, came new predators and fresh problems.
What tactics were required to deal with such change?
Alert and vigilance to new sounds and visual cues, after all, this was survival.
It meant more information had to be allowed through the ‘attentional filter’ to focus our ancestors attention toward potential threats – the complex set of cognitive processes that work in unison to focus our brains attentional resources to the outside world.
This filter, also known as the prefrontal cortex serves as the Central Executive Officer of our brain. It helps us see the big picture and make overarching decisions that determine which activities we are going to engage in to get us through the day. This filter is not a tactical instrument, we use it to define a strategy in our lives and to make big life decisions.
As author Daniel Levitin writes in his book ‘The Organized Mind’, it is this attentional filter that has allowed humans:
“To become the most successful species our planet has ever seen. We have managed to survive in nearly every climate our planet has offered (so far)…our success owes in large part to our cognitive capacity, the ability for our brains to flexibly handle large amounts of information.”
These cognitive capacities evolved and flourished in simple societies.
But in the information age, where we consume 5 times more information than we did in 1986, they aren’t quite as effective.
In fact, our cognitive processes have seen a rather dramatic re-shuffle.
To put into perspective just how far behind we are, consider this; the capacity of the conscious mind is estimated at 120 bits per second.
60 bits per second is required to understand a single conversation, meaning we can barely understand 2 at once.
And yet still, despite these limitations, as former Boeing Scientist and New York Times writer Dennis Overbye notes “from traffic jams in Singapore, to the weather on Mars, humans have more information than ever sent in their direction.”
All of this combines to create a rather sobering fact. Our attention is being pulled in a multiplicity of directions, at the same time, all the time. Due to the growing abundance of information processing, we allow our cerebral cortex to do less of the ‘big’ decision making.
Eventually this will be detrimental to human productivity, in a world that requires machine like efficiency.
The Problem of Multi-Tasking
Attention is a limited capacity resource. And our brains have evolved to focus on a single thing at any given time.
The attentional filter that evolved to keep us on task and ensure our train of thought remains constant and focused has been challenged by the very same device that enables our ubiquity in the first place.
It’s rather an interesting paradox don’t you think?
We constantly stare at screens, try and stay up to date with the local news, international news, business news, and technology news. Maintain relationships with family, loved ones. Work nearly 60 hour weeks and stretch ourselves far beyond what is (in cognitive terms) possible.
Yet as professor of neuroscience at MIT, Earl Miller showed, multi-tasking is a façade, exacerbated further by several streams of electronic information.
Making it considerably harder to pay attention, recall information, or switch from one job to another in the longer term.
He suggests that “our brains are not wired to multi-task well…when people think they are multi-tasking well, they are actually just switching from one task to another very rapidly. And every time they do, there’s a cognitive cost in doing so.”
By checking emails whilst deciding what you’re going to have for lunch that day you become a whole lot less efficient.
In biological terms, this comes down to multi-tasking leading to an increase in the stress hormone cortisol as well as the fight-or-flight hormone adrenaline, which can over stimulate your brain and create mental fog.
And if that wasn’t bad enough, multi-tasking also creates a dopamine feedback loop, effectively rewarding the brain for losing focus. In short, we can become addicted to multi-tasking and the false sense of accomplishment that it brings.
The very part of the brain we rely on so heavily to maintain focus, is also the area of our brain hijacking attention.
As the Zen masters said, “constant nagging in your mind of undone things pulls you out of the present.”
What can be done to counteract this and how can we fight back?
Daniel Levitin suggests we get ourselves organized.
Other than being ever-curious creatures, we also possess the natural talent to categorize. Categorization, just like vigilance and alertness is crucial for human survival.
Biologically speaking, this capability emerged as a means of differentiating edible plants from the poisoned ones; we have a natural instinct to distinguish one thing from the other and to assign some kind of order to them.
The best way to process the growing abundance of information is to categorize it from the get-go. This can also be applied to our daily lives
To prevent any form of multi-tasking we need to assign a clear time and place to our activities.
A tip that Levitin gives is to dedicate time slots to respond to e-mails, rather than continuously replying. This way focus can be maximized throughout the day.
Another example is getting organized to such an extent that cognitive capacity isn’t being delegated to mundane questions like: ‘Where did I leave my keys?’ or ‘When is my rent due?’
And the best thing about categorization, is that it is lead by that part of our brain that has been heavily underwhelmed by the temptation of multi-tasking; the prefrontal cortex.
So how can we best apply the skill of categorization to the higher growing volumes of general information that students need to process for it to become crucial knowledge?
My answer as an EdTech entrepreneur would be to firstly bring some order into chaos and make sure that such material ends up in the right category.
Ask yourself what possible use the information you are looking at can have for you?
I built TeachPitch around the concept of categorization. Built on 4 essential categories, each piece ofcontent is then further assigned to other sub-categories specific to the theme of learning they represent.
Categorization system’s like this will help educators easily work with the most relevant pieces of educational knowledge whilst saving themselves time too.
Even though my business was built before reading Daniel Levitin’s great book ‘The Organized Mind’ I suspect both brainchildren were based on the same frustration to drastically simplify the way we deal with information overload.
Or as Levitin put it: “When you hear hoofbeats – think horses, not zebras.”