The Brain Basis for the Digital Daze of Millenials


6858063937_1fb1b7685c_z[We’re pleased to welcome Tim Brown of University of California, San Diego. Tim recently published a rejoinder to the article “Digital Technology and Student Cognitive Development: The Neuroscience of the University Classroom” entitled “On the Brain Basis of Digital Daze in Millenial Minds,” published in Journal of Management Education. Tim’s interview for the piece:]

  • What inspired you to be interested in this topic?

As a neuroscientist who studies child brain development, I strongly support the promotion of public policies that will help edify the minds and brains of our youngest citizens. So I’m quite interested in the recent widespread use of digital media by children and adolescents and the possible cognitive effects this phenomenon might be having on them. Scientifically, it’s a difficult question to pin down, but with our widely available new noninvasive brain imaging and recording tools (e.g., functional magnetic resonance imaging— fMRI, electroencephalography— EEG, magnetoencephalography— MEG) it should be possible.

  • Were there findings that were surprising to you?

One of the most surprising aspects of this topic to me is how very little peer-reviewed neuroscientific evidence there is (if Current Issue Coverany!) for this “digital daze” phenomenon. This is somewhat surprising in light of the fact that the phenomenon has been well documented behaviorally and because there seems to be a general consensus that the amount of time youngsters spend being “techno-tethered” is worrisome from a psychological health standpoint. It seems that some are taking for granted the idea that these brains are actually being “re-wired” to be shallower processors of information without the scientific evidence required to make this inference.

  • How do you see this study influencing future research and/or practice?

I think the issue is certainly an important one and I hope that some of the points I have chosen to emphasize will lead to more and better research on the possible brain effects of purported “screen addiction”. At the same time, as I suggest in the article, I also believe that brain measures are simply neither necessary nor sufficient for making informed decisions about many such public policy issues. Cognitive, behavioral, and academic measures should remain the stalwarts for assessing potential problems like this and for measuring the success of solutions that we put into practice.

An excerpt from the rejoinder:

Given what we know about how brains work, activities performed at such lengths must have some effects on the young brains involved. At all phases of human development and aging, our brains reflect within their structural and functional organization aspects of the activities, both mental and physical, in which we are engaged (Poldrack, Desmond, Glover, & Gabrieli, 1998; Ungerleider, Doyona, & Karnic, 2002). But as Cavanaugh and colleagues articulate, the concern is precisely that these youngsters’ brains are not really engaged during many of these tasks. And one principle that has emerged from developmental cognitive neuroscience research is that the growing brain shows a progressive commitment of resources with increasing age and decreasing plasticity overall (Stiles, Brown, Haist, & Jernigan, 2015; Stiles, Reilly, Levine, Trauner, & Nass, 2012). So in addition to fears that these protracted digital activities might be bad for students, we can also certainly imagine that some of this time might be better spent devoted to any number of activities that we know or suspect are good for developing minds and brains.

You can read the article “Digital Technology and Student Cognitive Development: The Neuroscience of the University Classroom” and Tim Brown’s rejoinder “On the Brain Basis of Digital Daze in Millenial Minds” from Journal of Management Education free for the next two weeks by clicking here.

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*Image attributed to Campus Party Brazil (CC)

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