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The Informed Brain in a Digital World
Interdisciplinary Research Team Challenges

The Informed Brain in a Digital World Interdisciplinary Research Team Challenge 5:
Develop a new approach to assess the differences in cognitive and brain function between the brains of digital natives and digital immigrants.

Challenge Summary

The world in which most humans live today is radically different from the one in which the human brain evolved.  Technology has enabled an informational environment that exposes individuals to an amount of novel information each day that is orders of magnitude greater than the amount of novel information experienced by the ancestral human.  In this challenge, participants will attempt to understand how the mind and brain adapt to the modern informational environment. 

The information processing limitations of the human brain are well known; in particular, there appears to be a bottleneck in the decision making process that limits the ability to truly perform multiple cognitive tasks at once.  Further, it is now clear that there are serious public health consequences (such as increased automotive accident rates) associated with attempts to multitask.  Research has begun to address the consequences of widespread use of electronic devices (known as “media multitasking”), but we do not currently understand its implications (either positive or negative) for important brain functions such as learning, decision making, motivation, and emotion.  There is also particular concern regarding the effects of informationally-driven cognition on reflection, contemplativeness, and conceptual thinking.

Of particular interest is the question of whether children who develop within an informationally-rich environment (so-called “digital natives”) differ in fundamental ways from individuals who only experience these environments later in life (“digital immigrants”).  However, this question is extremely difficult to address using controlled experiments, and comparisons between cultures or subgroups that differ in media exposure will necessarily be highly confounded.  Despite this difficulty, understanding the effects of informational overload on brain development is critical if we wish to know how the human mind and brain are adapting to the world as it currently exists and whether there are particular approaches that would allow individuals to better adapt to this world.

Key Questions
How does the brain process the constant barrage of information individuals are exposed to every day? Are the brains of “digital natives” and “digital immigrants” different in the way they process information/expectations, or are these differences cultural?

What impact does media multitasking have on the ability to synthesize, evaluate and recall information, especially in stressful situations (e.g. medical emergencies)?

What kinds of processes/tools can facilitate building of knowledge, conceptual thinking, comptemplativeness, and reflection in a digital age?

What types of neuroplastic change are occurring in today’s “wired” brains that can be capitalized upon to benefit individuals and society?

Can one improve or retain cognitive and perceptual abilities by mental or physical exercise, and what are the mechanisms by which such improvements are achieved?  How can one take advantage of the capacity of the adult brain to undergo experience dependent plastic change?

How can we create an environment which will pre-dispose the brain to react in ways we consider ideal?

Suggested Reading
Junco R and Cotten SR. Perceived academic effects of instant messaging use. Computers & Education 2011;56:370-378.Accessed online March 28, 2012: http://lhup.academia.edu/ReynolJunco/Papers/1280592/

Ophira E, Nass C, and Wagner AD. Cognitive control in media multitaskers. Proc Nat Acad Sci 24 August 2009; early edition. Accessed online March 28, 2012:  http://www.pnas.org/content/early/2009/08/21/0903620106.abstract

Strayer DL, Watson JM, and Drews FA. Cognitive distraction while multitasking in the automobile. In: The psychology of learning and motivation volume 54. Elsevier, Inc. Academic Press: Waltham, MA, 2011.  (Complimentary copy of chapter available, accessed online March 28, 2012: http://www.psych.utah.edu/lab/appliedcognition/publications/distractionmultitasking.pdf