by Cathy N. Davidson (Viking 2011)
Usually I finish a book before writing about it, but in this case, I will have to put off finishing it until I get my own copy (I was sneaking a peek into a copy I bought as a gift). Still, I figured that given my propensity to forget what I’ve read as soon as I’ve read it, I decided to write my first impressions here.
I have read the Introduction and Part One (which deals with the science of how we pay attention and what we pay attention to) and begun Part Two (which focuses on education: what it is, and what it could become if we could loosen up a bit and apply what brain scientists have learned about attention and learning). In the debate over multi-tasking (can the digital natives really do those things at the same time?), Davidson comes down squarely on the side of Yes, they can. She explains that neuroscience has shown that neural pathways are constantly changing as the environment causes the brain to re-invent itself. Educating kids in the 20th (and 19th) century style (one size fits all and everyone has to achieve the same result at the expected time or they are considered to have failed) results in a lot of bored students, frustrated teachers, and schools that cannot meet their quota of satisfactory test scores under No Child Left Behind.
This book has resonated with me on a number of levels. It connects to what I’ve read and seen before (the gorilla experiment, which I first read about in Temple Grandin’s Animals in Translation; mirror neurons, which I learned about from Blakeslee and Blakeslee’s The Body has a Mind of Its Own; even those TV ads for Cymbalta, which my daughter’s doctor has suggested for her but which terrifies me. (I actually do focus on the droning list of unpleasant and dangerous side effects when I see that ad. What does that say about my brain?). Sometimes I wished Davidson would focus a bit more on what happens when the brain does not develop in the normal way, but that is due to my own interest in learning disabilities and the autism spectrum. And she does mention these–just not as often as I might like.
Davidson writes about complicated stuff in a way that is engaging and easy to follow (reminiscent of her wonderful memoir of falling in love with Japan, Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji, which is one of my favorite books). But I wish the publisher had chosen a slightly larger font–I find myself straining to read.
I’m looking forward to continuing the book soon.
Okay, it’s now a few weeks later and I have finished the book. After making what to me was quite a convincing case for reforming education, Davidson turns in Part 3 to the world of work, where she describes how the 21st century workplace has changed (at least for those working in offices, it has; but I kept wondering about all those people who work in retail, allied health fields, sanitation, restaurants…. you get the picture. Those people aren’t telecommuting, surely.) She suspects that we were never all that good at focusing on only one thing at a time, even before multi-tasking became fashionable, and claims that left to its own devices, our brain ceaselessly changes focus (Just ask anyone who has attempted to meditate!). She reminds us that prior to the industrial age, which created the boundaries between work and leisure, there were no such boundaries. If we end up bringing more work home while also taking unscheduled breaks at our desks to check out Facebook, listen to the latest TED talk or watch a funny video shared by a friend, it is not very different from how work and rest co-existed peacefully before we all started going “out” to work in offices, stores, schools, and the like.
Part 4 urges us to jump into the brave new world of the Internet to forge new connections with people near and far. She concludes by saying, “With the right practice and the right tools, we can begin to see what we’ve been missing. With the right tools and the right people to share them with, we have new options. … The changes of the digital age are not going to go away, and they are not going to slow down in the future. … It’s time to reconsider the traditional standards and expectations handed down to us from the linear, assembly-line arrangements of the industrial age and to think about better ways to structure and to measure our interactive digital lives. … Right now, our classrooms and workplaces are structured for success in the last century, not this one. We can change that.” (p. 291)