Ralph Waldo Emerson once said, “For everything you have missed, you have gained something else, and for everything you gain, you lose something else.”
My relationship with technology feels that way. As an author, I lament the fact that people don’t read books like they used to, even as technology has made books more accessible and affordable than ever before.
There is a double-edged sword to the way we think in the modern world. The research is in and it’s telling us this: as technology plays a bigger role in our lives, our skills in critical thinking and analysis have declined.
In a 2009 study, Patricia Greenfield, a professor at the University of Los Angeles and director of the Children’s Digital Media Center, analyzed 50 different studies related to the impact of technology on the way we think. The data suggests using technology promotes multi-tasking and allows us to divide our attention across different activities.
Conversely, the studies also show that multi-tasking can prevent us from getting a deeper understanding of information. After all, reading for pleasure “enhances thinking and engages the imagination in a way that visual media such as video games and television do not,” Greenfield noted.
She added that divided attention is important for some tasks. “If you’re a pilot, you need to be able to monitor multiple instruments at the same time. If you’re a cab driver, you need to pay attention to multiple events at the same time. If you’re in the military, you need to multi-task too.
“On the other hand, if you’re trying to solve a complex problem, you need sustained concentration,” Greenfield said. “If you are doing a task that requires deep and sustained thought, multi-tasking is detrimental.”
So, where do we go from here? It’s clear that technology isn’t going away. In fact, we will continue to use it more and more. The scarier thought is that our critical thinking skills will continue to diminish if we don’t do something about it now.
Perhaps, the answer lies somewhere between an iPhone and a leather-bound novel. As human beings, we have the power to create our own environments. We shape and form the constructs of the world around us every day. So maybe we need to be aware that critical thinking requires time, thought, and concentration. Once we admit that, we can begin to create a framework that allows us the time and opportunity to exercise the more complex processes within our own brains.
I bet there’s an app for that already.
Joseph F. Bastian, president of the Human Performance Development, is a regular contributor to dbusiness.com.