Use it or lose it?

Ever wonder what the effect of technology is on our developing brains? This is something that I’ve been thinking about for some time now. I recently put some of these thoughts into words in my blog entitled: “PhD survival: is a jack of all trades a master of none?” in which I discuss how the advent of technology in the form of scientific kits impacts the average PhD student.

I would like to expand upon this idea a little bit and move beyond the laboratory. But first, going back to my recent blog it seems that there was a consensus (with which I agree) that we cannot and should not hold back technology, but rather we need to know where to draw the line so that we scientists don’t become numbed zombies. Pretty much everyone who responded noted that researchers need to maintain some basic level of knowledge of how the various magical kits work, and certainly to have the skills to go to the literature to figure it out when necessary.

Up until the last decade or so, I think this was a consensus in day-to-day life as well. For example, in most elementary school educational systems, teachers still felt it necessary for their students to master the multiplication tables, to do long division, etc., even though calculators can readily do that for us. However, calculators (for the most part) cannot solve polynomials or quadratic equations, and children don’t learn how to factor in their heads will be at a serious disadvantage in algebra and higher math.

With the advent of so many new technological advances in our day-to-day life, I think that the distinctions of which skills need to be upheld are becoming more difficult to make. One might easily make the argument that in the pre-cell phone age, people had to be far more organized and to schedule and plan things much more carefully. Obviously, I am not maintaining that we go back to the old and less spontaneous days, but there are some skills that really may become a thing of the past–for better or for worse.

One of these skills, is the art of navigation. Having spent many long hours–particularly nights–navigating with topographical maps, I felt a little bit uncomfortable when we finally caved in and bought a GPS–global positioning–system for our travels. For me, an integral part of every journey was successfully finding the way. I taught my kids how to use a compass, how to read topographical maps and how to do basic triangulation to elucidate our position on a map. In the car, I taught them to look carefully at the topography–at the little gullies and streams and low points, and to listen as the engine straining as it gradually moves up an incline that might not be so easy to spot.

It’s been well documented that navigation skills are linked with reasoning in the brain. Most of you on the other side of the pond are probably more familiar with the studies done on London cabbies than I am, but it’s pretty clear that the hippocampus and other areas of the brain become highly developed in those with excellent navigation skills.

So aside from pilots–who obviously need to know the basics of manual navigation–is this a skill that will soon disappear from the face of the earth? I, for one, find that I no longer prepare well in advance for journeys having seen the map and memorized my route–I too have become dependent on the new technology. But not to this extent.

About Steve Caplan

I am a Professor of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology at the University of Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha, Nebraska where I mentor a group of about 10 students, postdoctoral fellows and researchers working on endocytic protein trafficking. My first lablit novel, "Matter Over Mind," is about a biomedical researcher seeking tenure and struggling to overcome the consequences of growing up with a parent suffering from bipolar disorder. Lablit novel #2, "Welcome Home, Sir," published by Anaphora Literary Press, deals with a hypochondriac principal investigator whose service in the army and post-traumatic stress disorder actually prepare him well for academic, but not personal success. Novel #3, "A Degree of Betrayal," is an academic murder mystery that is now in press! All views expressed are my own, of course--after all, I hate advertising. http://www.stevecaplan.net
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2 Responses to Use it or lose it?

  1. MGG says:

    We have ‘Garmin’, but my husband likes to see the route that Garmin recommends and then use a route that he thinks is better than Garmin’s. This makes Garmin very irritated and she keeps telling us ‘recalculating…’ ‘make a U turn when possible’. We try to imagine increasing irritation in her voice, she speaks British English (sorry) and her annoyance is more pronounced when she speaks Queen’s English than when she speaks American English…Sometimes we can almost hear her say ‘make a U turn NOW! (or else@#$!). So she adds some amusement to the 14 or 15h long drives that we sometimes take (esp with an overactive young boy on board).. (Once we had borrowed a friend’s Tom Tom. Tom is very cheerful and cordial and has a very friendly voice, not like Garmin).
    We always carry a map as it gives us names of cities and towns that we pass through. Even with Garmin, we like to use the map view. So as long as we don’t follow the GPS blindly, I guess it is OK to own one and be entertained by it.

    • Steve Caplan says:

      Israeli friends of mine nicknamed their Garmin “Barbara”, because in Hebrew “Barbear” means excessive chatter. On the other hand, “Tim-Toom” (tomtom) means stupidity.

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