For almost three decades, the Arrowsmith School, a small Toronto private school housed in a converted mansion on the edge of Forest Hill, has been treating kids with learning disabilities. When its founder, Barbara Arrowsmith Young, developed the school’s patented program in the late ’70s, it was with a first-hand knowledge of the frustration and stigma of living with cognitive deficits. Growing up, Young struggled with dyslexia. She had difficulties with problem-solving and visual and auditory memory. Finding connections between things and ideas was a challenge, and telling time was impossible—she couldn’t grasp the relationship between the big hand and the little hand. Traditional learning programs taught her tricks to compensate for her deficits, but they never improved her ability to think. “I walked around in a fog,” she says. But as a young psychology graduate, Young came across the brain maps created by the Russian neuropsychologist Alexander Luria, who studied soldiers who had suffered head wounds. Using these maps, she identified 19 unique learning dysfunctions and the brain regions that control them. Her theory was that a person can transform weak areas of the brain through repetitive and targeted cognitive exercises, and she was right. Today, this notion of brain plasticity—which she intuited three decades ago—is established wisdom in neuroscience.
Over the past decade, the Arrowsmith program has been proven so effective that schools throughout Canada and the U.S. have adopted it. In 2003, a report commissioned by the Toronto Catholic District School Board found that students’ rate of learning on specific tasks like math and reading comprehension increased by 1½ to three times.
These days, though, Young has noticed a new development: increasingly, she’s seeing a great many young people having difficulties with executive function, which involves thinking, problem-solving and task completion. “It looks like an attention deficit disorder,” she says. “The person has a job or a task and they start doing it but they can’t stay oriented to it. They get distracted and they can’t get reoriented. When I started using the programs, I really didn’t see a lot of this. I would say now, 50 per cent of students walking through the door have difficulty in that area.” The second thing she’s noticing is more frequent trouble with non-verbal thinking skills. These kids struggle to read facial expressions and body language—which can make dating and friendships, and indeed, most social situations, tricky.
Both of these skill sets relate to areas of the prefrontal cortex, or what Young calls “mental initiative.” It’s the area of the brain that drives us to go out and investigate the world, she says. When a person has deficits there, it’s hard to participate in the world. When they try, a wall comes up.
Young’s students face more extreme problems than the average teen, but her observations mirror what neurologists and educators are seeing in the general youth population—those in their 20s and younger, often called Digital Natives. The first to be born into and come of age in the digital age, they use their brains differently than any generation in history. At any given moment—or so the cliché goes—they’re wielding an iPod and a cellphone; they’re IMing a friend, downloading a Rihanna video from iTunes, and playing Resident Evil 4 with their thoughts. And that cartoonish caricature isn’t that far off: a study from the California-based Kaiser Family Foundation found that young people absorb an average of 8½ hours of digital and video sensory stimulation a day. By the age of 20, the average teen has probably spent more than 20,000 hours on the Web, and over 10,000 playing video games, according to Toronto-based business strategist Don Tapscott’s new book Grown Up Digital: How the Net Generation is Changing Your World.
The average youth brain is accustomed to a continuous bombardment of information bites. And in the process of navigating so much frenetic brain activity, kids are rewiring their brains, customizing them for speed and multi-tasking. But in reinforcing the neural pathways for these skills, some neuroscientists suspect they’ve been suppressing others—creating the very kinds of problems, albeit in a subtler form, teachers are seeing at the Arrowsmith School.
Every new technology—from books to television—has brought with it fears of a resulting mind-melt. The difference, in the case of digital technologies, says Dr. Gary Small, a renowned neuroscientist at the University of California, Los Angeles, is the unprecedented pace and rate of change. It is creating what he calls a “brain gap” between young and old, forged in a single generation. “Perhaps not since early man first discovered how to use a tool,” Small writes in his new book, iBrain: Surviving the Technological Alteration of the Modern Mind, “has the human brain been affected so quickly and so dramatically.”
Earlier this year, Small and his colleagues devised an experiment to determine what the adult brain looks like on Google. Using fMRI imaging, they studied the brains of two types of computer users —“savvy” ones who’ve spent lots of time online, and “naive” ones who’ve spent virtually none—as they conducted simple Web searches. Among the savvy users, they observed plenty of activity in the dorsolateral area of the prefrontal cortex, a region associated with decision-making, integrating complex information and short-term memory. In the naive users this area of the brain was quiet. For five days, one hour a day, both groups repeated the simple exercise. On day five, the savvy group’s brain looked more or less the same. But in the naive group, something amazing had happened: as they searched, their circuitry sprang to life, flashing and thundering in exactly the same way it did in their tech-trained counterparts.