Will Apple’s iPad Make Us Dumb? (Or Smarter?)

blogSpanLike many of you, I spent part of yesterday staring curiously at Steve Jobs’s latest creation, and wondering how it might affect my life and my brain.

Certain truths are already clear: this device will make a lot of people more connected, more efficient, and it’ll certainly make them cooler in certain circles. But the real question is this: will it make people smarter?  What’s the best way to use new technology to grow our talents?

  • Theory 1: It’ll Make Us Dumber

The iPad, is built for three basic purposes: 1) absorbing media (video, books, web); 2) curating our stuff (music, photos); 3) connecting to other people. While these activities might make us more connected, or more deft organizers, the basic truth is that we don’t learn best by passively browsing media. To grow high-speed neural circuitry we need action — we need to fire the circuit, make mistakes, fix those mistakes, and repeat.

This is why studies have found that immersing our brains in the Internet diminishes certain aspects of intelligence (see Why Google is Making us Stoopid). It’s also why some schools that had previously introduced laptops in the classroom have now decided to get rid of them, because they diminish test scores.

Here’s why: the Internet is a warm bath of information and entertainment — and warm baths, while they feel fantastic, are an absolutely terrible way to built high-speed neural circuits. (How do you think Apple’s famously obsessive design team got to be skilled enough to produce the iPad? Hint: it wasn’t a warm bath.)

By this way of thinking, the real danger of the iPad is that it will be a time-thief. It is so incredibly delightful, personal, and obedient that it’s the ultimate warm neural bath; the comfort zone we never want to leave.

  • Theory 2: It’ll Make Us Smarter

Sure, whiz-bang new technology always gives us new ways to waste spectacular amounts of time and energy. But it also gives us new and immersive ways to grow our skill circuits. Meet Exhibit A:  Magnus Carlsen.

Carlsen is a youngest chess player ever to achieve a number-one ranking. (He was just profiled in Time magazine.) He is the first of a generation who’ve trained almost exclusively through computer chess (when asked if he owned a chessboard, Carlsen said he wasn’t sure). Carlsen has played and analyzed millions of games, and used that deep practice to develop an uncanny intuition that leaves older grandmasters speechless. As Jonah Lehrer puts it in his insightful blog entry:

“And this is why we shouldn’t be surprised that a chess prodigy raised on chess computer programs would be even more intuitive than traditional grandmasters. The software allows [Carlsen] to play more chess, which allows him to make more mistakes, which allows him to accumulate experience at a prodigious pace.”

Exhibit B would be Mark Sanchez, Joe Flacco, Matt Ryan, and other successful young NFL quarterbacks who’ve developed their skills by playing Madden NFL videogames. As Chris Suellentrop’s great story in Wired magazine shows, this generation is the first to have come up playing thousands of simulated games–recognizing defenses, selecting plays, spotting blitzes. As Suellentrop writes,

“[Playing Madden] isn’t just an exercise in self-obsession. Whether they know it or not, these athletes may actually be strengthening their brains. Cognitive scientists have published a series of studies demonstrating that playing fast-paced action videogames — mostly first-person shooters like Call of Duty and Halo — can alter “some of the fundamental aspects of visual attention,” as a paper published in the July 2009 issue of Neuropsychologia put it. By training on these games, researchers found, nongamers can achieve faster reaction time, improved hand-eye coordination, and greatly increased ability to process multiple stimuli.”

He goes on to cite studies that shows video gaming has been linked to improvements in the skills of surgeons and military pilots; the same dynamic accounts for the success of certain language software programs that combine vivid simulations with real-time feedback.

The overarching lesson here seems to be that growing skills depends on what you do with the device, not what the device does for you. Immersive simulations — which provide space to do things, fire circuits, make mistakes, and which provide vivid, immediate feedback — are by far the best way to learn certain kinds of skills.

All this leaves me imagining the next level in talent-building technology — to provide interactive access to the true magical software, the mind of a master coach. I’d love to see a quick, seamless way to video-link to a master coach anywhere in the world for a lesson. You would throw a ball, or swing a club, or play a song, and they would give you real-time feedback. Can you imagine?