Our earliest ancestors hunted animals and gathered food in order to survive. Today, most food is produced on farms, transported and purchased in stores. We remain hunter gatherers; although now, we hunt for and gather information. In schools and in workplaces, individuals are busy every day, hunting for material that is relevant to a specific task, to fulfill personal curiosity or needs; gathering information to use in a variety of ways. As time has evolved, the ways in which information and ideas are sought and the places from which we gather this material has changed.
Initially, information was transmitted from person to person orally, in the form of narratives, poems and songs. This required individuals to develop attention, listening patterns, focus on detail and effective memories if information was to be gathered, used and shared with others. The use of rhythm, rhyme and music was used to aid memory function. With the development of writing and later, the invention of the printing press, the emphasis changed to visual acuity rather than auditory skills and the duration of focus and concentration was lengthened as required in order to gather information via reading.
Neuroscientists have identified that the brain develops and changes according to how it is used, especially through daily practice. It is suggested that over time, the cognitive processes of the brain have changed in line with practices common at that time. With the advent of a range of technology now in common use for the hunting and gathering of information, neuroscientists indicate that the brain is once again changing to adapt to the use of technology. Some neuroscientists, including Baroness Susan Greenfield from the University of Oxford, have sounded alarm bells about how these changes may be affecting the ways in which we hunt for and gather information. Because of the brain’s capacity for change (known as ‘neuroplasticity’) there have been concerns expressed about how this will ultimately affect brain function and our ways of learning.
Nicholas Carr, in his book The Shallows, writes about the way technology and in particular, use of the internet is influencing the ways in which we read, think and remember material; in other words, how we hunt for and gather material. He contrasts the greater depth and intensity of focus required when reading a book with “tripping lightly from link to link” on the internet and how this way of gathering material is affecting our focus, memory and thinking. Eric Schmidt, the ex-CEO of the search engine Google, has said “I worry that the level of interrupt, the sort of overwhelming rapidity of information … is in fact affecting cognition. It is affecting deeper thinking.”
Technology is here to stay and the brain has an incredible capacity to adapt. We may still be hunter gatherers, but humans have an extraordinary range of cognitive processes that can be used to learn. In order to retain this range of cognitive abilities, it is important to continue gathering information from a range of sources and use a variety of skills, especially those that require the use of auditory and visual capacities and to regularly practise the use of sustained focus.
© Michele Juratowitch