Monday, June 29, 2009

Gord Hotchkiss, Neuroplasticity and Kids

Search marketing guru Gord Hotchkiss wrote an intriguing post last Thursday on neuroplasticity—the ability of the human brain to constantly adapt to its environment. In Grandma Via YouTube, he points out while this happens throughout our lives, and is generally called simply "learning," "there are two phases where the brain literally reforms itself in a massive restructuring: right around two years of age and again as teenagers."Pondering the implications of this in an age of rapid technological advancement, Hotchkiss asks: "What happens when our children's brains develop to handle something we never had to deal with as children? Quite literally, their brains function differently than ours. This becomes particularly significant when the rate of adoption is very rapid, making a technology ubiquitous in a generation or less."

To put this in historical context, had you been born as recently as the late 1700s, your brain development likely would have differed little from that of your parents, or grandparents
, because your lifestyle likely would have been very similar. That's certainly not to say that there was no progress taking place, only that it was much more gradual than today with major technological advancements fewer and farther between.

Author Tim Harford chronicled the accelerating pace of technological change lucidly in The Logic of Life:

"Imagine compressing the last million years of human history into just one year. Three thousand years would pass each day...On this compressed time-scale, our ancestors first used fire sometime in the spring. Despite this early breakthrough, new ideas were slow to arrive on the scene. Until late October our ancestors were still wielding the most basic stone tools...About December 19, the beginnings of civilization were visible: cave paintings an
d burial sites. It wasn't until December 27 that there was much evidence of sewing needles, spear throwers, or the bow and arrow."

Harford also notes that human living standards (a rough proxy for technological development) have increased as much since 1880 as the did from the dawn of humanity until that point. It was the industrial revolution of the early 1800s that really kick-started the process of accelerating technological development.

Getting back to Hotchkiss, this means that neuroplasticity has created greater generational effects since the invention of the steam engine than before that. Still, those differences remained reasonably subtle for the next 150 years or so. They became much more apparent only in the last half-century. The term "generation gap" was first used in the 1960s. Of course, teenagers and forty-somethings had always possessed different knowledge, interests and attititudes. But by the 1960s, neuroplasticity and the accelerating pace of change noticably produced for the first time a far more profound effect: teens didn't simply think about different things than their parents, they actually thought differently. Their brains didn't work the same way.
Hotchkiss identifies television as the primary cause of this difference, though certainly many other world-changing technological developments of mid-century also may have played a role, from the birth control pill to transistors and space travel.

The continued acceleration of technological development means that the brains of today's children will be even more different from those of their parents than those of the "generation gap" adolescents of the 60s were from their parents'. This will have profound implications for many areas of life: family structure, politics, business, you name it.

The most profound, however, will likely be in education. Effectively educating today's children to continue our human progress may require much different approaches than those of even a generation ago. Their brains work differently, not just from their parents' but also from their teachers.' Content-wise, education must pass along the wisdom of the past (e.g., philosophy, natural law, economics) as well as the knowledge of the present. Methodologically, we are in uncharted territory; no one can possibly know what approaches will work best, but a freer market in K-12 education
—where innovation can thrive and competition can help isolate and hone the best ideas—would give us a much better shot at identifying and utilizing the best practices for all of the coming generations that just don't think like you and me.


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