Miles O'Brien: Is technology rewiring teens' brains?

My friend Miles O'Brien produced a cool piece for PBS News Hour about "what could be happening to teenagers' brains as they develop in a rapid-fire, multitasking world of technology and gadgets."

You may know the PBS correspondent best from his many years as space and science reporter with CNN—he also slummed it on a few BBTV episodes (1, 2, 3).

This News Hour segment (above) is great, but the companion chat with his kids (below) is also fun: a sober counter-point to the hysteria of "video games/texting/IM/the internet is destroying our minds." Suck it, tech-haters.

Watch video:
Is Technology Wiring Teens to Have Better Brains? (PBS News Hour)
Miles O'Brien: Teen Brains on Technology (a chat with News Hour host Hari Sreenivasan)


  1. I don’t know that maybe great for gadgets but some kids out there you get anywhere out of their environment for a bit and they seem almost lost. Like if you can’t commend+Z out of something they don’t what to do.
    Now once out they pick up other stuff fast, but ti seems ruined once they back into there technological surrounded cocoon

  2. I am wondering how being a digital native is going to transform social etiquette. I was raised to think that checking my phone during an interview would be rude, but in my experience that makes me an old-fashioned kind of person (even though I’m only 24).

  3. I’m glad his time in the Enterprise transporter room as well as on DS9 was enough credentials to get a job as a space and science correspondent.

  4. If we are wired to best adapt to our environments, and our environment is a product of the last generation’s adaption then we are evolving faster than we imagined. I reiterate the above sentiment, suck it luddites!

  5. Technology is definitely changing brain wiring. For proof, just watch the slow cuts in any movie from the 1940’s and compare it to any modern action movie.

    I am in my late 30’s and have been using computers extensively for over a decade now. My attention span is much shorter now. I think I can process several different things at once fairly well, but would have trouble juggling multiple similar inputs (like listening to two conversations at once). I do digital painting and when I paint, I like to listen to audiobooks and podcasts. There seems to be no conflict by listening to one thing while visually developing something else, in fact, I think it loosens me up a bit.

    I do worry that short attention spans and impatience will create a society of shallower people. They may know a little bit about more subjects, but not taking the time to delve below the surface may result in lots of rumors and misinformation being mistaken for truth.

  6. Everything we do and experience changes the wiring of our brains, so the answer to the question in the title is “Yes”.

  7. Magnetic resonance imaging is fascinating but it only captures the physical state of the brain, everything past that is serious detective work. It’s sad that O’Brien trots out the old “use it or lose it” fallacy. Doidge, Levitin, Sacks and many others constantly point to the erroneous tendency to think of the brain mechanistically, as being “hard-wired” or that it is impossible to “re-wire” past a certain age. Its a convenient concept to use when you want to limit discussion to support a particular view-point but in fact is a poor metaphor when trying to discover how brains are developed or maintained.

    On a related note, Miles himself sums up: “The bottom line is, with multitasking, you can do it, but there’s no free lunch: you pay a penalty, you don’t do the tasks as well”

  8. For the most part, I think the way that technology is effecting brain development isn’t harmful. Miles mentions fears of previous generations. Would be interesting to see what studies were undertaken on the effects of TV on brain development and whether they had any consequences.

  9. the final point made in the second video is the most important one, in my mind: our schools and educational systems need to adapt to work with all this. rote memorization of dates & places just isn’t worthwhile or exactly beneficial anymore.

    1. @franko: One of the few things cognitive scientists generally agree on is that some level of rote learning is required for deeper understanding. I would expect a chemist to have a huge set of facts about different chemicals memorized, a mathematician to have a good idea whether a particular integral is finite or not, and would expect an historian to have a lot of names, dates and places memorized.

  10. For the most part, I think the way that technology is effecting brain development isn’t harmful. Miles mentions fears of previous generations. Would be interesting to see what studies were undertaken on the effects of TV on brain development and whether they had any consequences.

    1. I think you mean “affecting the brain,” and I think it’s pretty obvious how harmful our current obsession with technology is, even before all this new research is completed. Sorry, tech-lovers, I’m with the luddites on this. It’s ridiculously clear that most people age 20 are useless at thinking critically, which requires you to maintain a coherent thought for more than 10 seconds without losing focus. If you can’t do that, you can’t do a lot of the most important things human beings can aspire to. Yes, I’m sure there will be new advantages to doing 30 things at once, and that the human brain will yield some interesting new developments, but that certainly doesn’t justify, in my mind, the incredibly apparent loss and danger we’re jumping into.

      The effects of TV on brain development? Isn’t that one obvious, too? It’s clear that we’d all be a lot healthier if we all chucked our tv sets tomorrow. Our physical health, our time management, our productivity, and the time we spent mentally active (as opposed to passive) would all get huge boosts. I’m not blind to the benefits of technology, and I’m not against using it intelligently. But most of us, certainly most teenagers, aren’t using it at all- they are complete slaves to it, addicted to the illusion of control it gives them over their lives. Good luck with that!

  11. Yes, rote learning is important. Human brain is not a computer processing data. What you have learned and memorized is the matter you work with to think.
    Understanding is not enough. Understanding something without learning it is almost useless. Understanding is important in the memorization process, but very often, you have to memorize something before understanding it.

    I am teacher in college, and we have this problem of students who do NOT want to learn. Ok, they “understand”. But they reinvent the wheel every year, it’s frustrating.

    1. I am teacher in college, and we have this problem of students who do NOT want to learn.

      That sounds really familiar. You’d need some reference data on past students, untainted by nostalgia, to look for changes.

    2. I agree that it is sometimes necessary to memorize something before you can understand it. Computer architecture is like that, the professor told us that we had to memorize the material, and it would make sense later. He had to repeat that 3 times during the course. and one day it started to gel, it was like a candle being lit. I say a candle because one it was slower than a light bulb, and it spread to the other students as they talked to the ones who were already lit.

  12. interesting piece. Of course, it still kind of mystifies me that we marvel at kids and this new technology, when it’s been around long enough that many of us have spent their adult lives sitting in front of an information firehose while working.

    I’m 38, and have been interacting with computers deeply and daily for the last 30 years. I’ve been multitasking on the internet for the last 21 years. I am far from alone- the 90s were basically a mass-induction into the internet. If you were starting a career in the nineties, the path of least resistance was definitely something internet-related.

    That said, I WAS raised at a time when there was a much stronger sense of place, and can participate in the “the world was so different when I was a kid” game.

  13. Did anyone pay attention to the PBS interview? look at how detached and uninterested in the moment the kids are. It was noticeable enough to be called out by the interviewer at 4:39.

    I am not a complete Luddite, much good comes of technology. However I don’t think that technology should be used as an excuse for the loss of social discretion. I figure Miles was trying to demonstrate a point for the camera, I just think it backfired on him. There is a time and a place, and I don’t like the current narcissistic trend towards slaving oneself to gadgets when, instead, people could chose to be attentive to their immediate society and work.

    If the social networks on your gadget is more important then the work in front of you, then you don’t do any work of true importance. (Excepting perhaps the case that the work itself actually involves the internet or social networking).

  14. I, too, ascribe to the school of thought which maintains that if a child or young person is not deeply interested and focused on the things -I- think are important then there must be some sort of flaw with that child.

  15. I’ve heard the argument in favor of the way digital natives do things by going on about Plato’s dialogue on writing in the Phaedrus. This is where writing is impugned because it will “implant forgetfulness in their souls;” which this statement is something most people will scoff at since we use writing to convey and store more information than Plato could have possibly imagined. The crux of the argument in favor of digital natives being if we laugh at Plato now, how will our concerns be seen in the future.

    That’s a pleasant thought and a good way to show off one’s knowledge of one man’s philosophy, but how many people who make that argument actually observe the way teens behave in school or look at what they learn? I’ve been in seventh grade math classes — in the U.S. — where students don’t get such concepts as subtracting a negative integer is in effect the same as adding a positive, or they arrive at products in multiplying by trial and error when there is no calculator handy. Yet the same students can’t wait to talk about accomplishments on Black Ops. In English classes I’ve taught, I go through the reinvention of the wheel with every writing assignment; and the technologically integrated assignments range from great to utter crap with most falling in the exceptionally mediocre. Let’s not even begin to talk about the whole issue with looking things up online; on second thought, I will begin and end it with students will believe the first thing they read without bothering to go any further.

    This may sound like I am a Luddite. To some degree this is true. From what I’ve seen the use of technology shouldn’t be an either/or proposition, but I fail to see how the growing dependence on technology is beneficial. Simply put: there needs to be a balance. No, I don’t know how that can be done, but I am willing to start trying to figure it out.

    1. That sounds like what many public schools have been like for as long as I can remember. It’s not technology’s fault, a lot of kids really just don’t care, and that’s the way it’s always going to be.

      Ten years ago it was because of gangsta rap’s influence that all these kids were slacking, before that it was the Generation X effect, and so on.

      1. Sad to say, but it isn’t just the slackers in public schools that are having this trouble. Even the good students are exhibiting these symptoms. The point is not about the students not caring; the point was that students are incapable of functioning without the use of a crutch such as calculators, computers, or cell phones, let alone the growing inability to retain lessons for longer than a week. So, no, it’s not just the latest bogeyman of “This generation is fill in the blank,” nor is it a “that’s just the way public schools are” problem; it has also become a problem in universities, too.

    2. I agree with you. I took steps in my own education to force myself to learn to do things versus using technology. While I was learning calculus, I could have bought a TI-89 and solved all the problems without understanding the process or I could stay with my TI-83. Staying with the TI -83 forced me to learn to do it the correct way so when I was out of calculus and doing differential equations I was able to know when my TI-89 was incorrect and I could solve the problem myself. But nothing could save me from the engineers problem of a run on sentence.

    3. You don’t sound like a Luddite. You sound like someone who has forgotten how much more demanding educational systems used to be, and how the teenagers who didn’t make it through them ended up. Technology is not why there are lots of people who aren’t interested in learning mathematics.

  16. I am a 29 year mechanical engineer at a production facility in southeastern Ohio. I work with people 10 to 20 years older than me and have the ability to have my email, Excel spreadsheet, Powerpoint, Chrome and AutoCAD running at the same time when I am designing things. I source parts from vendors, use emails and spread sheets to determine specs and design all of it in Autocad. NO PAPER. Documentation of everything while having music play in the back ground. And I text my wife, and play words with friends, and facebook….
    Today I was working with some people on a KAIZEN activity and making a PowerPoint presentation. One of my co-workers had to look away because I would change programs quickly and it was making him motion sick. I can get things like that done in half the time as my co-workers, not because I am smarter than them but because I have been using a computer since I was in grade school.

  17. Know why I love lit? Go read Forster’s short story “The Machine Stops.” It was written in 1909! Remember as you read that the automobile had just come out. They didn’t have radio. They didn’t have television. They sure as heck didn’t have anything that resembled the internet.

    Here’s a link to the story. Enjoy. :)

  18. Most of the criticism here speaks to near-sighted technologically deterministic arguments.

    Technology is not the sole force by which people are influenced. For example, many of the studies which assess the impact of media on levels of violent behaviour in children, assume a causative relationship rather than correlation. Perhaps it’s not that violent media breeds violent behaviour. The interpretation of the statistics in this manner speaks to the ideological anti-tech bias of the researchers. Perhaps children who spend more time in front of the television and thus spend less time with peers have poor social skills, and are more likely to lash out when challenged? In this case, the argument is more about the efforts of parents and social entities such as schools more than just the media alone.

    To the comment that technology is causing a, “growing inability to retain lessons for longer than a week”, perhaps it’s worth looking at the work of Hermann Ebbinghaus. Beginning in the late 1800’s, his research showed that information which is not rehearsed tends to be forgotten in about a week. I’m pretty certain he didn’t have access to a computer or a television.

    I don’t doubt however, that technology is having an influence on how we think. There is evidence that the development of the technology of literacy (going back to the Phaedrus comment), has furthered the human ability for abstract thought. The near-sightedness of technological determinism is when you automatically jump to the conclusion that the change is somehow for the worst. The change is different to the way that you look at the world, but like the people who derided the automobile and upheld the benefits of the horse, if you don’t adapt, future generations will look back at you as a fool.

    1. Anon #34

      I’ve got to ask this, do you realize just how much technology has become modern society? Maybe to you the counter-arguments seem a touch deterministic, have you thought about why that might be?

      I am assuming that the other influences that you are referring would be the child’s parents and children’s local social groups. Am I missing any other influences that do not inherently involve technology? Really, either which way you turn there are different forms of tech influence. Now I would agree that the technology by itself should be considered neutral; however, you cannot ignore how that technology is used in context.

      I think the above videos speaks to some sort of changes.You shouldn’t be so quick to dismiss the tech skeptics. After all, your analogy about the Automobile doesn’t account for all the massive problems that vehicle has brought to our world: Global Warming and Pollution. We as tech skeptics just contemplate and try to weigh the unintended consequences, just like the automobile, of the conscious choice to use technology in the way it is used.

  19. My nephew is 14, just entered high school, already failed once. He’s sweet and sociable, but with no interest in academics.

    Ask him basic timestables, he’s lost. Ask him the formula for HP-damage in his favourite RPG or strategy games, he knows it and can calculate it in a flash.

    Interest fuels achievement. Video games have *already* increased math literacy.

  20. Efficient multi-tasking with no cos is a myth: False! Digital Natives are fantastic in multi-tasking because of the reason they are “digital natives” – they have practice, they have it natural. Wait a couple of generations and you will see that people cannot feel natural unless they are involved in digital communication and multitasking.

    The future is oriented in team work and social boundaries falling. Thus three people multi-tasking simultaneously working on three different things will do each task better than three people working on three tasks – each working on a single task separately.

  21. So, video gamers have better eye sight?
    Which way does the causation go?
    If you can’t see properly what’s happening, you’re not going to have much fun playing the game, now, are you?

  22. Speaking as someone just out of post-graduate education in the UK, I’m a little perplexed that educators in the US appear to be mourning the fact that today’s students there aren’t good at rote learning, but do understand things. For all of my 20 years of education so far, I was taught to strive to understand things rather than learn them by rote, because it’s a higher form of knowledge. Know something and you’ll pass the exam, understand it and you’ll ace the exam. The only things I *had* to memorise, off the top of my head, were my times-tables, citations of important studies for my BSc and important cases in law school. There was a good reason to know each of those, and yet again understanding them was more important than memorising them.

  23. Incidentally, Baroness Greenfield conducts herself more as a conservatively-oriented politician than as a scientist. She was removed from her position as Director of the Royal Institution for wasting all of its money on refurbishment and a fairly awful restaurant, and has equated Stephen Hawking to the Taliban for being an atheist. When Ben Goldacre challenged her to present data on her claims about social networking websites, she equated him to someone who denied that smoking caused cancer.

  24. AFAIK all learning and memory involves rewiring neurons in your brain. Excercise a muscle and it gets bigger. The same thing happens in our brains, more neurons form connections over pathways that are used often.

    This is no different from a person feeling impatient when he or she uses a rotary telephone for the first time when his or her brain is used to a push button phone

  25. I’m 37 years old and I’m like those kids. When watching dvd’s on my PC i usually watch in a window set to always on top. From time to time i pause and surf the net or chat on YM or use my cellphone. Except if the movie is really good and its a nailbiting suspenseful sequence.

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