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How Technology Is Transforming Our Brains

2013 October 6

A while back, Bill Keller of The New York Times stirred up a hornet’s nest when he wrote a column worrying that joining Facebook would have a debilitating effect on his 13 year-old daughter’s intellectual faculties.  Technology advocates, including me, pounced.

Now there are new studies out that seem to support his argument.  One shows that using search engines decreases our memory and another suggests that GPS may atrophy our brains.  Discovery magazine has collected a half-dozen similar examples on its site.

I think the question itself is misplaced.  Clearly, we use technology to do things for us that we no longer are doing for ourselves and that means certain abilities degenerate.  Yet, it also means that we are freeing up cognitive energy for other things.  So what’s really important is not the skills we are losing but those that we need to develop.

What Makes An Expert?

We come into the world not knowing much.  We can’t speak, eat by ourselves or use even the most basic household objects.  Eventually, we start picking up patterns from our environment.  We start babbling phonemes (elementary units of language) and then begin to combine them into words, the words into sentences and so on.

We learn virtually everything that way, by combining low order patterns to form higher order ones.  Once we are able to understand language, we can absorb the patterns of others, learning values from our parents, social norms on the playground and eventually all the other skills that make up a modern life.

Experts define themselves by learning the highest order patterns through what Anders Ericsson, calls deliberate practice.  For example, a normal person can learn to hit a golf ball competently in a few lessons, but pro golfers continuously work to master even the most miniscule patterns inherent to the game.

In much the same way, surgeons spend years learning the patterns of the human body and experienced firemen become familiar with the patterns of burning buildings.  An expert has internalized the patterns of his chosen field and can act without thought or deliberation, but can operate seemingly by instinct.

How Machines Are Taking Over

The fear that new technologies lessen our ability to function is nothing new.  In Plato’s dialogue, The Phaedrus, Socrates worried that writing would diminish our ability to engage in conversation.  Certainly, machines have hampered our ability to do physical labor and have contributed to obesity.

What makes the new breed of machines truly different is that they are able to recognize patterns and learn in much the same way we do.  Researchers at IBM taught their algorithm to translate between French and English by exposing it to proceedings of the Canadian Parliament.  IBM recently sent its Watson computer to medical school.

Yet computers can absorb material much faster than we can.  In How to Create a Mind, Ray Kurzweil estimates that the human brain can recognize 100,000 patterns,  In its first year as a med student, Watson took in 600,000 pieces of medical evidence, two million pages of text and 1.5 million patient records.

Much like in the old fable of John Henry, we are beginning to realize that even our most ardent efforts will fall short.  Just as we can’t match the strength of a locomotive or the memory of a library, even the patterns learned in a lifetime of experience pale in comparison to the abilities that our new machines are beginning to acquire.

Why Marcus Welby Was Inefficient

If you find yourself unable to sleep and start surfing channels in the triple digits, you may come across some old reruns of Marcus Welby MD, a popular medical drama from the early 70’s.  It doesn’t look like anything you’ll see in a hospital today.

The first thing you’ll notice is how much medicine has changed.  You don’t see Dr. Welby ordering a barrage of tests or asking patients what kind of insurance they have.  In fact, he spends most of his time talking and getting to know each of his patients personally.  He was, by today’s standards, enormously inefficient.

In the decades since, we have learned to be efficiency driven machines.  We’re more data focused, evidence based and rational.  Mostly, we see this as an improvement.  After all, a doctor who treats more patients can cure more people.  Yet we’ve lost something too and letting machines take over gives us the opportunity to get it back.

As Sandy Pentland, a big data expert at MIT and one of the most cited computer scientists in the world, put it in a recent interview, “We teach people that everything that matters happens between your ears when in fact it actually happens between people.”

Skills For A New Age Of Inefficiency and Imprecision

The truth is that technology makes us both dumber and smarter.  In our technological age, we use machines to do many things we used to do for ourselves, so it shouldn’t be surprising that we’re getting worse at performing certain tasks.  We have been engineered by evolution to conserve our limited capacities by adapting to our environment.

We can, if we want, choose to maintain those skills by going to the gym to replace physical work or performing mental exercises on Lumosity to sharpen our mental faculties, but what should really concern us is building the skills we need for the the future.

Social Skills: Richard Florida argues that, as our economy is becoming more service oriented, we need to invest in social skills and points to studies that show that such investments can earn a handsome return.

Teamwork:  While computers excel at problem solving, they are less able to decide which problems are important to solve or what approach can best be applied.  Discovering “what is” and asking “what if” are two fundamentally different skills.

As Scott Page, an economist at the University of Michigan has found in his research, complex questions are often best answered by diverse teams rather than by homogenous groups or individuals, even if the latter are more talented.

The New Math:  As I’ve argued before, our future won’t be made as much as it will be designed and, for now at least, algorithms don’t design themselves.

Valdis Krebs of Orgnet points out that “Universities are still stuck on teaching 20th century math for building things rather than 21st century math for understanding things” and suggests that curriculums focus less on the mathematics of engineering (i.e. calculus) and more on the mathematics of patterns (i.e. set theory, graph theory, etc.).

The Power To Choose

What’s most important is that technology gives us more power to choose.  We are no longer stuck on the farm or in the factory, but are more free than ever to pursue our own passion and purpose.

For some, that will mean greater devotion to family and community, others may want to take joy in lost arts that have long outlived their usefulness and still others may devote greater time to matters of the soul.  As we free ourselves from the shackles of efficiency, we are more able to seek out value.

The reality of modern life is that we are all uploading old patterns to the cloud to make room for new ones.  The choices we make are our own.  We’re as smart as we want to be.

– Greg

10 Responses leave one →
  1. October 6, 2013

    Reading this post and your thoughts what strikes me is something that a friend and I have been talking about which is over reliance on technology and how those of us of certain age are pushed aside. When our successes have been build on the following quote:

    “We teach people that everything that matters happens between your ears when in fact it actually happens between people.”

    We know how to connect people and ideas but can’t write a line of code. This goes back to my recurring theme that technology is only a shinny tool and is being used to replace strategy when as you’ve said strategy should lead the identification of a tool. Us geezers can make technology work

  2. October 6, 2013


    Techno-optimism – the world of Wells’ Eloi.

    In the 1970s we expected 2010 to be a time of “leisure” with machines doing much of our work while we worked far shorter hours – maybe a 4 day weekend etc.

    The reality is very different – we are working longer and harder.

    I’m not sure I see the future being different.

    What I do expect is that technology will simply continue inequality if not reinforce it.

    This era is seeming more and more like Orwell’s 1984 (e.g. NSA).

    The Brave New World of the future may be more like Wells found with his Time machine and world with Morlocks too.

  3. October 7, 2013


    I think that goes too far. Technology is clearly more than a “shiny tool,” especially if you consider innovations like “B” corporations and Creative Commons as technologies (and they are generally considered to be). Yet they clearly are tools and we have a choice about how to use them.

    A generation ago, we thought that technologists would walk around in shiny silver spandex, instead we got hoodies. Everybody makes that choice to a certain degree and we tend trade up in some technology categories and trade down in some others.

    – Greg

  4. October 7, 2013


    I think you’re clearly right about technology and inequality. There is clearly evidence that technology is increasing returns to capital and decreasing returns to labor. However, there does seem to be some evidence that, globally at least, we’re working a bit less:

    – Greg

  5. October 7, 2013

    Greg: I may have overstated my opinion a bit. Technology is far more important than shinny. And like another tool it is not a strategy in and of itself but works best and delivers results best when it’s part of a plan with a strategy.

    Thanks as always you provide a rich and fertile field to play in.

  6. October 7, 2013

    The age-old mantra still applies: It’s All About Choice. Greg, thank you for this very insightful article. Every moment, we sit at the crossroads of a choice – – what happens after 10 years of using speed dial, then sitting in the emergency room, you need to call home from a hospital payphone; what happens when you’ve lost your bank access card and the teller asks you for your bank account number? The choice is ours: are we going to keep up our basic vital information/skills or not? To me, the most important choices are the skill to: Think (e.g. Facebook example), and to take Responsibility. Do we keep these or give them away – how much will our personal comfort zone allow?

  7. October 7, 2013

    Very true:-)

  8. Cassandra permalink
    October 14, 2013

    Hi Greg,

    I am in the Ray Kurzweil world since 1990’s.
    This does not mean to say I am a follower etc
    I just know the warning bells Ray has rung are right.

    I see the evolution myself of how this upgrading the human
    via the immersion with computers would take us
    We have to be conscious of the evolution that is happening

    I am female .I am not as stark, linear thinking as Ray
    Ray not birthing babies is missing some fundamental
    insights to his thinking of the future also.

    I am very excited about what has happened with technology
    While it may appear we are working harder as life is no longer
    2 D it is 4D 5 D etc… Multidimensional

    Meaning No more punching clock have to think on feet etc..
    Many options to choose from, many interests to investigate

    We are Not a life sitting in front of TV anymore.. so we are busier
    but for most part people are choosing what do with their time.
    Many more choices in everything now, travel the world is not a big deal

    The sitting around in leisure is not healthy for anyone
    We thought it pie in sky.. Come to Fl and see the emptiness
    of this life of ” leisure ” ~ Purpose is key to longevity.

    What is healthy is efficiency . This is what all the sensors computers do.
    Enabling us to have more time to be human..
    Meaning thinking, reflecting, spending quality time
    with love ones . social lives etc.

    Rather then driving to a store to find something. I can google it
    and see if it in stock, compare prices, get reviews..
    I can even do this on Amazon and have it delivered free.

    What this allows is our lives are getting more directed more focused
    On who what we really need, want etc… Again allowing the internal
    Human that is really us to emerge as majestic accountable present self

    The computers are building intelligence..
    Why we are calling AI/ now Intelligence Amplified IA
    as that is really what is happening…

    Artificial intelligence was name Media gave information tech
    but does not fit what is really going..

    The original Human ( our soul, consciousness, Being etc ) is emerging
    from the physical blah of sameness we became in industrialized
    world… Physical world became very unhealthy in 20th automation.

    Autos did much damage to the spatial human…
    Grids, isolation, stop using body as a whole system. The negatives from
    Instant gratification to projection of self and identity into car
    This and many other things had the human becoming disassociated from self.

    Computers are allowing the sensory immersion to arise now..
    Resonating, feeling, connecting, thinking , communicating with greater audience.
    Going places never leaving your living room… Expansion is Good !

  9. October 14, 2013

    Interesting ideas. Thanks for sharing them.

    – Greg

  10. Cassandra permalink
    October 14, 2013

    Hi Greg,

    I very much always enjoy the depth you are coming from
    Seeing a big picture and connecting dots I much appreciate !

    I am a Research scientist.
    What I wrote is not ideas.. It is Fact.
    Even though my style of writing is poetic it is black and white fact.

    40 yrs studying with much DATA FACTS Research
    as Global Behavioral Social Scientist on Aging.

    Social Scientist Used to run USA till Reagan
    came in and eliminated critical thinking using gathering
    Data and statistics to show what needs were etc.
    Reagan put all focus and $$ on Pentagon and Star Wars.

    Why 60% of every 1 $ you pay in taxes
    goes to WAR…. Nothing to humans or humanity
    or living etc.. which has made life a desperado world
    Not a Living world of humans engaging enjoying life.

    Basic bottom of Maslow pyramid of realized person
    is safety… NO one has safety today
    as we are Forced to live in 1913 standards
    in a 2013 reality.

    Why the human soul emerging via the wireless world is VIP.
    Humans operate on wireless anatomy of cellular communication
    this is science fact.. Biological Anatomy and physiology
    is just nuts and bolts of function..

    The operation is in cellular communication via wireless anatomy
    which works very well with the computer wireless world of cellular communication.
    It is like new DNA beyond the biology.. The Human being the original.

    I am in the health field.. I am working on moving health care into 21st Century,
    It is now based on facts like weight BP etc that do Not matter when a person
    is looked at as a totality… body mind heart etc working as one.

    What really matters to a person’s health wellness, longevity etc
    is the totality… the whole human system working as one.
    We get feed back on this via the person’s ” Patterns of Behaviors

    Patterns of Behaviors what a person does every minute
    The algorithms of DATA shows a person’s real health wellness.
    It is the behaviors that create the heart beat, the mind, the health etc..

    Source of human…. Brain is a organ like kidneys are organ
    Kidneys piss.. Brain is computer.. Brain is Not the Person.
    Sensory resonating is . Which then dictates Behaviors of Person.

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