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Tools and our brain

We often hear about how technology doesn’t change the brain. Or, at least that technology doesn’t impact how we think in the short term. Evolution, we are told, takes much, much longer. This argument then forms the basis for treating technology only as a tool – something that we use and select for particular tasks (for a review of the differing views of technology, see Heather Kanuka’s excellent article(.pdf) on the subject). Norman Doidge, in his text The Brain that Changes Itself, provides many compelling examples of how technology, tools, and experiences can substantially rewire the human brain in a short period of time. While we may disagree about the impact of technology on humanity, it is difficult to argue that technology does not alter mental functioning. Computers, mobile phones, and web search form the basis of a network of and for cognition. Consider this study of how tools become part of the body. We have a reciprocal relationship with tools: we use them, they change us. As McLuhan stated: first we shape the tools, thereafter the tools shape us.


  1. Nicola wrote:

    Thank you for this post and the links – at the moment, I’m particularly interested in finding research relating to Parkinsons and the possibilities for how a very active human can either re-learn or learn very active movements in newer, different ways. With many different technologies relating to wrists – even things like a wearable vibrating bluetooth appearing as gadgets (even if they were not intended as a tool for that purpose) the impact of the vibration on the physiology – that kind of thing – its encouraging to know there is always hope !

    Saturday, July 11, 2009 at 12:32 am | Permalink
  2. Howard wrote:

    Some responding thoughts –
    1. I think there might be enough plasticity in brain function to account for some brain changes without evolution,
    2. The way the brain uses language and artifacts suggests that (maybe) function could follow form in this area without necessarily making substantial changes in physical structure
    3. I thought (this is really outside my expertise) that we really don’t know much about the speed of evolutionary change under intense stress.
    None-the-less, I would love to see changes in creative software to reflect the way my mind works. When I’m exploring new areas I need paper and pencil because I need to put pencil to paper without knowing what is coming next. Software seems to require me to have the thought fully formed. With text I’m ok, but I need a creative method for graphics. This seem difficult for me.

    Saturday, July 11, 2009 at 7:29 pm | Permalink
  3. Ken Allan wrote:

    Kia ora e George!

    I’m inclined to agree with Howard here.

    But, I’d be one of those who advocate that technology doesn’t change the brain, at least in the way some would have us believe. And Howard may not like to associate with someone who thinks that way.

    It seems that the whole issue stems from this word ‘change’.

    Of course learning to use a tennis racquet or a computer is going to change the brain. Of course we did some things differently before we knew how to use a computer to do the same or similar tasks. The fact is, we have learnt something by using these technologies. Learning changes the brain, let’s not deny it. Teachers and professors the world over spend their hours devising test papers to prove just that. If they weren’t hoping for a change happening in the brains of their students, there would be no need to test them.

    Whether we learn to write our books with a Dictaphone, typewriter or ball-point pen makes no difference. Each way learnt changes the brain. There’s even evidence to suggest that the technology used in writing the book has some bearing on the way we might write it. That’s because the brain does alter the way it thinks depending on the technology used for recording thought. No doubt that using a mobile phone to write a book imparts its own nuance to the finished article for the same reason. So it’s clearly understandable how using (present day) technology will put its stamp on whatever we do – even the way we think while doing it.

    But to make some great thing out of technology changing the brain such that the changes can be (in any small way) compared to those changes brought about through evolutionary development is gilding the lily a bit. Even to mention evolutionary change in the brain’s way of functioning is suggestive that this might just be attributed to the wonderful semigod-like stuff we call technology.

    Frankly, I think we are becoming a bit anthropocentric. We are so full of the idea of being human that we even want to subsume the technology into our being. One writer recently claimed that we ARE the technology. If we were the technology, we wouldn’t have to spend hours learning how to use the different and new devices that we may be confronted with all the time. There wouldn’t be posts complaining about having to choose from the 101 different apps that can all do the same thing.

    The brain is a wonderful organ, there is no doubt about that. That our technology helps us do things (perhaps) better, quicker, more accurately, you name it, is a tribute to humankind and the development of technology. I agree with all of that. But let’s not be any more anthropocentric. Let our brains follow their own evolutionary pattern, a path that has taken perhaps millions of years to get them to where we are today.

    Catchya later

    Monday, July 13, 2009 at 1:05 am | Permalink
  4. Nicola wrote:

    Howard, I agree with your point about creative software, it would be fantastic we could be creative without being aware that we are even using a technology.
    Ken, apologies I do not have a scientific background so will happily stand corrected on this, but I wonder if the changes brought about by science and technology – are not a separate thing or things ( but more a way of understanding better – the environment we have evolved into existing in / with i.e. we might already be the technology without even realising it? All the bits of metal/plastic/cables/silicon or whatever are just mechanisms for developing our understanding. Not sure if that makes sense !
    The book is brilliant – I’ve just been reading through the chapter on the developments for people who have suffered a stroke – its incredible.

    Monday, July 13, 2009 at 6:35 am | Permalink
  5. Ken Allan wrote:

    Ka pai Nicola!

    I follow your vision and agree with you. Tools? They are just mechanisms to help us. That’s what tools (and presumably technology) are made for and have been all about.

    But, that we are the technology? If you include our ancestors in all of that “we” then yes, but we stand on the shoulders of giants with the tools in the same way as we do with the ideas.

    Catchya later

    Monday, July 13, 2009 at 8:44 pm | Permalink
  6. Mark Bullen wrote:

    Ken has said, much more eloquently, what I was going to say. Surely the brain responds to all experience and, in the process often changes. Why should we be surprised about this? There seems to be an assumption that these changes are irreversible, that, for example, if we do all our reading on a computer we’ll lose the capacity to use books, or that our mind will be so used hyperlinks we will no longer be capable of sustained, deep thought on a topic, no longer able to think and process information sequentially. I think how we think and use technology is contextual. I use a computer differently than I use a book and my brain responds differently to the two but I still know how to exploit their unique affordances.


    Monday, July 13, 2009 at 11:13 pm | Permalink
  7. Jonah Tozman wrote:

    Although I agree with Ken et al’s perspectives, in my humble opinion, I would argue that in some ways, we are the technology.

    When we need something written, we hire a writer. When we need something developed, we hire a programmer / designer, etc. This is the same way we use technology (i.e., use a word processor for typing, Photoshop/Illustrator for graphic design, etc. We bind with the technology we use; we need to think like the technology we are using to maximize its (and our!) potential; and we need to understand the technology we are using to be able to apply it in different environments. So, although we are not the technology in and of itself, we become avatars of the technology and tools that we use. In a weird symbiotic way, we are at the very least, a ligament or organ of technology. The brain is not a person. An arm is not a person. However, to argue that brains and arms in relation to people are not akin to wires and microchips in relation to technology seems like wasted energy.

    One last thought… people have claimed for thousands of years that we were created by god, yet god resides in each one of us (a sort of macrocosm/microcosm relationship). Could it not be said then, that people created technology, yet technology has us inside each and every device/tool?

    Thursday, July 29, 2010 at 11:27 am | Permalink

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