My friend Miles O’Brien produced a really 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).
I blame typewriters. Up until the late 1800s, people who wrote used one hand and initiated pathways through one hemisphere. The language skills and muscular movements needed to write only really had to come from one side of our brain.
But, with the introduction of keyboards and touch typing, people wrote and composed using two hands, requiring very precise control and communication between both hemispheres. If the language was not being transmitted to both hemispheres properly, then the correct muscular movements to hit the right keys, with each hand in the right order, could not occur.
It takes a very different type of cognitive effort to compose with a keyboard than with a pen. But, until recently, not everyone had to learn how to use a typewriter keyboard and when they did, they were usually already adults with brains already wired.
My son has never taken typing lessons but has lived with a keyboard his whole life. His ability to type is simply incredible. I watch him compose a Facebook comment and it looks like he is just randomly pounding keys. The coordination between two hands and two hemispheres has to require a very different set of neural connections than living a life with a pen.
His generation’s early introduction to the keyboard, which forces them to have enhanced communication between both hemispheres, may well have caused their brains to be different. We know that if an animal does not get visual stimulation during key parts of its early life, it will be ‘blind’ even though all the right parts are there. The old use it or lose it.
What if we all lost it because we never had the chance to use it but this new generation was able to use parts of their brains during critical times that opened up new pathways for cognition?
Now add in visual cues on top of this dual hemisphere wiring and look out. Now they can make decisions faster but just as accurately than we can. Because they have been raised dealing with games involving probabilities, they are able to understand stochastic events better than older generations.
They also appear to be able to multitask better than the rest of us.
My mother always thought I was some mutant leap forward – yes she read a lot of science fiction when she was younger . I’m beginning to wonder if we are not seeing something here, where new tools are creating a generation that actually thinks differently and perhaps better.