Wise old heads

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!

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