Posts Tagged ‘Sherry Turkle’

Is Deep Reading Endangered by Technology?

October 21, 2018

This post is based on “READER COME HOME: The Reading Brain in the Digital World” by Maryanne Wolf. MIT scholar Sherry Turkle described a study by Sara Konrath and her research group at Stanford University that showed a 40% decline in empathy in young people over the last two decades. The most precipitous decline occurred in the last ten years. Turkle attributes the loss of empathy largely to their inability to navigate the online world without losing track of their real-time, face-to-face relationships. Turkle thinks that our technologies place us at a remove, which changes not only who we are as individuals but also who we are with one another. Wolf writes, “The act of taking on the perspective and feelings of others is one of the most profound, insufficiently heralded contributions of the deep-reading process.”

Barack Obama described novelist Marilynne Robinson as a “specialist in empathy.” Obama visited Robinson during his presidency. During their wide-ranging discussion, Robinson lamented what she saw as a political drift among many people in the United States toward seeing those different from themselves as the “sinister other.” She characterized this as “dangerous a development as there could be in terms of whether we continue to be a democracy.” Whether writing about humanism’s decline or fear’s capacity to diminish the very values its proponents purport to defend, Ms Robinson conceptualized the power of books to help us understand the perspective of others as an antidote to the fears and prejudices many people harbor, often unknowingly. Within this context Obama told Robinson that the most important things he had learned about being a citizen came from novels. “It has to do with empathy. It has to do with being comfortable with the notion that the world is complicated and full of grays but there’s still truth there to be found, and that you have to strive for that and work for that. And that it’s possible to connect with someone else even thought they’re very different from you.”

It is most insightful that the polarization that is being experienced, is due in large part to missing empathy, which to some degree, perhaps large is due to digital screen technology. Although technology has been blamed for much, part of the problem here is not just the display mode of information, but also the type of content of the information. Quality fiction builds empathy. Even technical reading can build empathy provided the content can be related to the feelings and thinking of others. And some social research does summarize the feelings and thinking of others.

Wolf writes, “There are many things that would be lost if we slowly lose the cognitive patience to immerse ourselves in the worlds created by books and the lives and feelings of the “friends” who inhabit them. And although it is a wonderful thing that movies and film can do some of this, too, there is a difference in the quality of immersion that is made possible by entering the articulated thoughts of others. What will happen to young readers who never meet and begin to understand the thought and feelings of someone totally different? What will happen to older readers who begin to lose touch with that feeling of empathy for people outside their ken or kin? It is a formula for unwitting ignorance, fear and misunderstanding, that can lead to the belligerent forms of intolerance that are the opposite of America’s original goals for its citizens of many cultures.”

Deep reading involves more than empathy. Wolf writes, “The consistent strengthening of the connections among our analogical, inferential, empathic, and background knowledge processes generalize well beyond reading. When we learn to connect these processes over and over in our reading, it becomes easier to apply them to our own lives, teasing apart our motives and intentions and understanding with ever perspicacity and, perhaps, wisdom, why others think and feel the way they do. Not only is it the basis for the compassionate side of empathy, but it also contributes to strategic thinking.

Just as Obama noted, however, these strengthened processes do not come without work and practice, nor do they remain static if unused. From start to finish, the basic neurological principle—“Use it or lost it”— is true for each deep-reading process. More important still, this principle holds for the whole plastic reading-brain circuit. Only if we continuously work to develop and use our complex analogical and inferential skills will the neural networks underlying them sustain our capacity to be thoughtful, critical analysts of knowledge, rather than passive consumers of information.”

Mark Edmunson asks in his book “Why Read,” “What exactly is critical thinking?” He explains that it includes the power to examine and potentially debunk personal beliefs and convictions. Then he asks, “What good is this power of critical thought if you do not yourself believe something and are not open to having this belief modified? What’s called critical thought generally takes place from no set position at all.”

Edmonson articulates two connected, insufficiently discussed threats to critical thinking. The first threat comes when any powerful framework for understanding our world (such as a political or religious view) becomes so impenetrable to change and so rigidly adhered to that it obfuscates any divergent type of thought, even when the latter is evidence-based or morally based.

The second effect that Edmunson observes is the total absence of any developed personal belief system in many of our young people, who either do not know enough about past systems of thought (for example, Freud, Darwin, or Chomsky) or who are too impatient to examine and learn from them. As a result, their ability to learn the kind of critical thinking necessary for deeper understanding can become stunted, Intellectual rudderlessness and adherence to a way of thought that allows no question are threats to critical thinking in us all.

It is also important to be aware that Deep Reading has a generative process. Here is a quote from Jonah Lehrer—“An insight is a fleeting glimpse of the brain’s huge store of unknown knowledge. The cortex is sharing one of its secrets.”

Wolf writes, “Insight is the culmination of the multiple modes of exploration we have brought to bear on what we have read thus far: the information harvested from the text; the connections to our best thoughts and feelings; the critical conclusions gained; and then the uncharted leap into a cognitive space where we may upon occasion glimpse whole new thoughts. The formation of the reading-brain circuit is a unique epigenetic achievement in the intellectual history of our species. Within this circuit, deep reading significantly changes what we perceive, what we feel, and what we know and in so doing alters, informs, and elaborates the circuit itself.”

Neuroscience informs us that creativity is everywhere based on brain imaging and recording. There is no neat map of what occurs when we have our most creative bursts of thinking. Instead, it appears that we activate multiple regions of the brain, particularly the prefrontal cortex and the anterior cingulate gyrus.


September 20, 2017

This is the eleventh post based on “The Distracted Mind: Ancient Brains in a High Tech World” by Drs. Adam Gazzaley and Larry Rosen. There have been several posts on the deleterious effects of technology on relationships. To find some of these enter (Turkle) in the search block of the healthy memory blog. Turkle sums up her view on the negative impact that technology has on our attention and our important relationships by saying, “As we distribute ourselves we may abandon ourselves.” Regarding parenting she says, “Young people must contend with distracted parents who with their Blackberries and cell phones may be physical present but ‘mentally elsewhere.’” See the healthy memory blog posts “Cyber Babies” and “Frankenstein and the Little Girl” for more on this topic.

HM marvels that when he attends professional conventions, for which the ostensible purpose is to have scholars travel to a spot and gather together, but finds them sitting alone or in groups working their smartphones. During a lecture a considerable number in the audience will be playing with their smartphones.

Parents take their children to the park only to spend the entire time reacting to alerts and notifications on their phones instead of engaging with their children in all-important free-play activities. Spouses who once watched television together and discussed what they saw and learned, now use a second screen while they attempt to divide their attention among their tablet, phone, or laptop, the content on the televisions, and their loved one. Evidence is starting to indicate that our relationships with each may be one peril of our distracted minds. A 2014 Pew Internet & American Life project report found that one in four cell phone owners in marriage felt that “their spouse or partner was distracted by their cell phone when they were together.

Most have experienced dinner where the table is littered with smartphones. A game has been created called “cellphone stack” where everyone at the table places their phone in the center of the table, one on top of the other, and whoever looks at their device before the check arrives must pay the entire bill.

A research team studying the ‘IPhone Effect” compared partners who did not place their own mobile device on the table or hold one in their hands with those who did and found that conversations between these strangers in the presence of a device were rated as less satisfying and were reported as generating less empathic concern. Another similar study found that “simply the presence of a cell phone and what it might represent (i.e., social connections broader social network, etc.,)” can be similarly distracting and have negative consequences in a social interaction. The authors ask, “If our distracted mind can negatively affect social connections and feelings of closeness just by being in the presence of modern technology during a short conversation with a stranger, what does that imply about how it can impair our real relationships?”

© Douglas Griffith and, 2017. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.


The Effects of the Digital Age on Cognition

February 20, 2016

Readers of the healthy memory blog should know that the concept of transactive memory includes the use of technology to foster the development of healthy memories and efficiently functioning human cognition.  Some day, I hope to write that book.  It is easy to find references that tout how technology can foster cognition, but reviews of the effects of technology tend to be negative.  The motivation for this post stems from my reading of a book by Mark Bauerlin, “The Dumbest Generation:  How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future [Or, Don’t Trust Anyone Under 30].  I don’t recommend this book as reading it would be a waste of time.  I question the purpose of diatribes that inform us that the world is going to hell in a hand basket.  What are we to do with such a message?  Outlaw technology? It seems like it is incumbent upon the author to offer some solutions.

An earlier blog post, “Notes on Reclaiming Conversation:  The Power of Talk in a Digital Age” reviewed a book by Sherry Turkle of the preceding title.    Ms Turkle sounded similar alarms, but also offered some solutions.

The same basic theme pervades both books, namely that digital technology leads to a high level of connection to many sources and individuals, but to a superficial level of cognition.    I am convinced that this a real problem.  Moreover, it is covered by the veneer of technology which leads many to the conclusion that something valuable and substantive is being accomplished.

Mobile technology has prospered because of a perception that we need to keep connected 24/7.  Is there really such a need?  What is so imperative that it will not wait until we have the time and resources to devote adequate attention to it?  One of the most flagrant examples of this are mobile apps that allow trading on your smart phone.  Although this might be a need for sophisticated day traders, for most people all this provides is a tool to lose money more quickly.

There have been a number of posts on Dunbar’s Number (to see them enter “Dunbar’s Number”  into the healthy memory search block).  Dunbar’s Number refers to the number of friends we can effectively have.  Good friends require an investment of time that needs to be carefully considered.

Similarly the capability to gain access to a large amount of information in seconds is limited by our cognitive capacity to process this information.  The problem is that we fail to process information critically.  There is a lack of critical thinking.  Our proneness to be cognitive misers leads us to search for information that is in accordance with our own needs and beliefs.

So what is the solution, or rather what are some solutions?  First of all, let me suggests previous posts on the Elements of Effective Thinking and using digital technology of facilitate the use of these elements.  I  would also suggest entering “Critical Thinking” into the search block of he healthy memory blog, and consider how technology csn foster critical thinking..

Shooter games likely sharpen perceptual motor skills.  Why not games that sharpest the development of cognitive skills”?  Why not the development of multi-player games that foster decision making, problems solving, risk assessment, collaboration, and so forth?

© Douglas Griffith and, 2016. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Notes on “Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age”

December 26, 2015

“Reclaiming Conversation” is a book by Sherry Turkle.  She focuses on smartphones in particular.  As a matter of personal edification, and as the user of a dumb cell phone I  found this book valuable in understanding the popularity of smartphone and texting.  There are several reasons I do not use a smartphone.  I find the screen size much to small.  I require much more context in what I view.  I also need a conventional keyboard, those on smartphones are much too small.  Similarly I refuse to text and do not read texts.  I also find that smartphones add to an already existing information overload.  Consequently, I do not like interruptions and live in a world where timeliness will not suffer if I wait until a time when I am free to devote full attention to messages and material which is important to process.  Having read Turkle’s book, I have no desire for a smartphone, and should I ever purchase a smartphone, I’ll use it sparingly.

I’ve long been baffled trying to understand why people text when it is so much easier to talk.  Most teenagers send around 100 texts per day, so there must be some reason this is so popular.  Apparently, there is a sense of control when one texts.  One can read what one has written before it is sent, and once it is sent, one can wait to see if and who, if anyone responds.  So many feel that texting provides a sense of control that they feel is important.

In addition to needing to feel in control, there also seems to be a compulsion to be connected.  According to Turkle, 44% of users never turn off their phones.  Although I understand the data indicating that people feel a need to be connected most of the time, I still fail to see why they feel this necessity.  The healthy memory blog has written posts about FACEBOOK and Dunbar’s number.  See the healthy memory blog post “How Many Friends is Too Many.”  Dunbar is an evolutionary biologist who calculated the maximum number of relationships our brain can keep track of at one time to be 150.  Before smartphones Dunbar estimated that there are about five people who are close and who we speak with frequently, and  about 100 acquaintances we speak with about once a year.  With the exception of the 150 number, which is a biological constraint, the other numbers have apparently gone up drastically since the advent of the cell phone.  Friendship requires an investment of time.  We can only afford a limited number of good friends.  A large number of friends implies a large number of superficial relationships.  It appears that in the smartphone era, quantity is valued over quality.

There also appears to be an aversion to solitude.  An experiment was run in which participants were asked to sit by themselves for fifteen minutes.  They were provided a device which they could use to shock themselves, although all the participants indicated that they would not use the device.  Nevertheless, many of the participants shocked themselves after only six minutes.  I find this result extremely depressing, to think that people would find solitude that they chose to give themselves an aversive shock to cope with loneliness.  Solitude is important for both personal and intellectual development.  We need to spend time with ourselves.

One researcher reports a 40% loss of empathy in the past 20 years.  The healthy memory blog post “A Single Shifting Mega-Organism noted that throughout our lives our brain circuitry decodes the emotions of others based on extremely subtle facial cues.  Geoff Colvin and many others regard empathy as a uniquely human skill that will prevent computers from pushing humans out of the job market.  Well, empathy apps are being developed.  But empathy is developed best during conversations with our fellow humans.  This excessive use of smartphones are inhibiting, if not precluding this development.

Smartphone use implies multitasking, and whenever we multitask the performance on component tasks declines.  If you do not believe this, then read the 18 healthy memory blog posts on the topic.  The use of smartphones during classes detracts from the lecture or the topic being discussed.  Were I still teaching I would not allow the use of smartphones during classes.

There is a chapter on smartphones and romance that I found extremely depressing.  Most of the time I am envious of the young in this digital age, but not in the case of romance.  In short, smartphones take the romance out of romance.

I disagree with what Turkle writes about Massively Online Open Courses.  She puts conversations against  these courses and ignores the genuine benefits of these courses.  First of all, a Massively Online Open Course does not preclude conversations.  Secondly, conversations, as important as they are, need not be a necessary component of all courses.

At the end of the book Turtle writes about humanoid robots and robotic pets.  I did not see the relevance of these topics to the central thesis regarding conversations.

So having stated the problem, what can be done about it.

First of all, having recognized the costs of multi-tasking and do a cost benefit analysis of where smartphone use is appropriate.  Then establish rules or guidelines.

It is noted that many employees of social media companies make it a point to send their children to technology free schools.  And there is the following quotation from Steve Jobs biographer.  “Every evening Steve made a point of having dinner at the big long table in their kitchen, discussing books and history and variety of things.  No one ever pulled out an iPAD or computer.  He did not encourage his own children’s use of iPADS or iPHONES.

“Restoring Conversations” is extensively documented.  Touching them takes you to the notes.  Unfortunately, there is no DONE enabling an easy return to the text.

© Douglas Griffith and, 2015. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Why is Facebook So Popular?

July 10, 2011

I am definitely confused. No only is there an enormous number of individual users, but companies, societies, organizations, television programs, and many other entities also feel a necessity to establish a presence on Facebook. Although most of these entities have good websites, they still feel compelled to maintain a Facebook presence.

Personally, I find regard Facebook to be an annoyance. It can be difficult to use, and I see little value in it. I have loads of requests from people I don’t know who indicate that they want to friend me. Early on, I consented because I did not want to be rude. Even now I worry that I might refuse the request of someone I did know long ago. I still accept requests from people who have been recommended by someone I know. But I do this only not to offend a true friend. I know of nothing that ever develops from this “friending.” With the exception of birthday greetings I receive from old acquaintances, I have seen nothing of value on Facebook. Just one inanity after another. I worry about people who do engage extensively in these activities.

I asked a friend of mine, who is extensively knowledgeable about cyberspace and who apparently spends significant time there, what he thinks about Facebook. His response was, “Never have touched it.  Who wants to be “connected” to everybody out there?!  Not me!”

I think he raises a good question. An earlier Healthymemory Blog post entitled “How Many Friends are Too Many?” addressed that very question. An evolutionary biologist, Robin Dunbar, came up with a number he modestly named, “Dunbar’s number.” He bases this number on the size of the human brain and its complexity. He calculates that the maximum number of relationships our brain can keep track of at one time to be about 150 . This number includes all degrees of relationships. This is the maximum number of relationships. The number of close, meaningful relationships is much smaller. He estimates that we have a core group of about five people with whom we speak frequently. I find this absolute number a tad small, but to be in the general ballpark. At the other extreme there are about 100 people with whom we speak about once a year. The 150 number is an absolutely maximum of people we can even generously consider as friends. So Facebook users who have friended several hundred friends have essentially rendered the term “friend” meaningless.

MIT social psychologist Sherry Turkle contends that social networking is eroding our ability to live comfortably offline.1 Although she makes a compelling argument, it is not the technology that is to be blamed, but rather how we use the technology. After all, the technology is not going to go away. There might be underlying psychological, genetic, or epigenetic substrates that contribute to the problem. Facebook, itself, can be regarded as providing affordances that contribute to this abuse.

1Price, M. (2011). Questionnaire; Alone in the Crowd. Monitor on Psychology, June, 26-28.

© Douglas Griffith and, 2011. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.