Archive for May, 2011

Wise old heads

May 18, 2011

The commercial popularity of medical self help books seems to be a testament to the desire of the digital immigrant to prevent the spread of tropical diseases in the digital homeland, or at the very least to enjoy a greater quality of life than any previous generation has experienced.  Concerns about dementia, coupled with new discoveries in brain scanning can also illuminate a major theme of this blog: a critique of the Digital Natives Digital Immigrants model.

In a new book, Secrets of the Grown up Brain: the surprising talents of the middle aged mind (2010),  Barbara Strauch argues that brains actually get better at lots of things with age.  She challenges the factoid that we lose up to a third of our brain cells as we age.  In a healthy person, the brain stays reasonably intact.

As Hercule Poirot, Agatha Christie’s  fictional detective was fond of saying, our brains consist of grey cells, but they do not work alone.  They are connected by bundles of nerve tissue, which are white in appearance and these white cells are covered in a fatty substance called myelin.  (So there is some truth in the insult hurled at Billy Bunter, Owl of the Remove at Greyfriars School.  We are fat heads.)  However, current thinking is that the more myelin we have, the better we think, because the myelin has some function in helping the white matter connect the grey cells.  Current research appears to suggest that the process of covering the nerve fibres with myelin continues well into middle age, and, moreover, that this is a good thing.  Strauch refers to the result as “great connected brains”, able to think better, see patterns, connect ideas.

If you follow this blog, you might expect that I will now link Strauch’s findings to Marc Prensky’s idea that young people’s brains are wired differently.  What all the brain research reveals, is that our brains are plastic, so Prensky is partly correct.  The net generation, through their exposure to and use of digital technology, do think differently, but do they think better? Strauch would suggest better thinking comes with maturity.  I think the more interesting conclusion is that our brains are capable of change throughout our lives.  It is not that the Net gen brains are wired differently, it is that all of us are changing in our mental capacities throughout our lives.  In colonial New Zealand, a British immigrant who adopted coarser colonial ways was said to have “eaten his toot”;  “toot’ being a corruption of the Maori word, Tutu, for a poisonous berry responsible for the deaths of large numbers of sheep.  It seems we can all “eat our toot’ and become digital natives.

It may be a fact that “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks”, but it is a factoid when we apply that adage to human beings. Toot! Toot!

Amazons or Athenians, what tribe is this?

May 17, 2011

In the legends of Ancient Greece. are the stories about warrior women, the Amazons, whose queen Hippolyta was finally subdued by the Athenian hero Theseus.  The story of their marriage forms the backdrop to Shakespeare’s play, A Midsummer’s Nights Dream.  The moral for the Greeks, presumably was that men were the superior sex.  Modern thinking has debunked that view, but it comes to the surface again in pseudo scientific guises

In a book published in 2006, (The Female Brain) the science writer Louann  Brizendine developed a thesis that women’s brains work differently from men’s.  One piece of Brizendine’s  evidence was seized on by a large audience, the claim that women uttered 20,000 words a day against the 7,000 spoken by men.  The Daily Mail for example argued “It is something one half of the population has long suspected – and the other half always vocally denied.”  The Washington Post : “Women talk too much, and men only think about sex…you need a Ph.D. to figure that out?”   The book went into numerous translations with much the same effect .  The German publisher wrote in their blurb “Warum gebrauchen Frauen 20 000 Worter am Tag, wahrend Manner nur 7000?”

However, none of the people who seized on this claim actually bothered to look seriously at her evidence.  The Female Brain certainly is a weighty tome with about thirty percent of the text given over to footnotes, making the book look academic.   Fortunately, Mark Lieberman from the University of Pennsylvania did comb through the book looking for the evidence and found just one reference to support this claim.  It came from a book by Alan Pease and Allan Garner.    Pease is the author of self help books on letter writing and body language which always struck me as more entertaining  than useful.  Lieberman read their book Talk Language: how to use conversation for profit and pleasure  (2003) (Pease Training Corporation) and found that Pease had no evidence to support the claim either.

See Liberman’s blog  http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/

There is research however in the linguistics literature which argues the exact opposite.  Janet Homes, for example in Women, men and politeness found that men spoke more, on average, than women.  Liberman lists a lot of the research into the incidence of talkativeness and none of it supports Brizendine’s claim.  In the year following the publication of Brizendine’s book, a study published in Science tracked 210 women and 186 men and found that women used about 3.5 per cent more words than men.  Given the result, the size of the study and its methodology, this scarcely validates Brizendine’s claim.  Perhaps the most compelling argument is that Brizendine finally agreed to remove this assertion from future editions of the book.

Why then did so many people seize on this claim and why do commentators still continue to present it as fact?  In his study of this controversy (You are what you speak) Robert Lane Greene labelled this tendency the “intellectual id”, the eagerness with which people will believe something they almost desperately want to believe is true.  William James put it another way;  “A great many people think they are thinking when they are really rearranging their prejudices. “  The fact is that we tend to form an opinion, then we look for evidence to support our point of view, while rejecting that evidence which contradicts us.

I suggest, that as with Louanne Brizendine, so with Marc Prensky.  As I have argued so often in this blog, his Digital natives, Digital Immigrants argument is fallacious.  There is no more evidence there is a generational difference in brain function than there is a gender one.