Distracted brain and deep thinking

Carr N, 2010 The Shallows: what the Internet is doing to my brain, W.W. Norton & Compnay, NY

Nicholas Carr’s recent book ‘The Shallows’ makes interesting reading – he asks is the Internet stopping him from thinking. In it he presents the case that our brains are able to respond to changing circumstances and are not fixed or grow more fixed as we age, more the rate of change is related to changes in out environment which is likely to impact the way the brain responds. In other words, if you tend to do the same thing each day your brain will remain fixed in the way it operates, but if it gets presented with a new environment it will change especially more towards processing distractions rather than direct focus on one activity e.g. book reading, which is truly a learned skill that has re-shaped the brain away from its favoured role of processing many inputs – like a neural-network warning system, obviously a useful thing to posses when you want to go to the toilet surrounded by hostiles, much better than being able to deeply understand the book you maybe reading whilst on the toilet.

 As educators we are all interested in and use the Internet, and many wonder if our book reading may be on the slide, and therefore is it possible to fully understand something using distracting media such as the web rather than a single focus on deep reading of books. Carr makes the point that in ancient times the facility of our brain to respond and process external stimuli i.e. multi-tasking small amounts of information in a small time frame was a powerful survival skill (see my toilet example above), but not necessarily one that allowed us to pull things to together via deep reflection to allow concept building and the like.

 He then talks about the impact of inserting spaces between words in sentences and the possible impact this had on how our brain functioned. At the start there were no spaces, the written word simply mirrored the spoken word as a flow of sound, silent reading was not done, all reading was aloud. This meant that the brain had to do a parsing translation first to recognise the start and end of a word, sound it out and then pass on without having a chance to grasp full meaning of the past sequence- at least it was a time consuming task that was, it is thought, a distraction from thinking & understanding. In some ways, I see him arguing that our reading was more like us acting as a tape player – the thinking would have been done by the listener not the reader. You did not have time as you were engaged in a two step process of mentally inserting spaces. Computer language compilers do there reverse when they compile, in lexical analysis all unwanted symbols are removed and the program is packed into a long set of symbols. This string is then checked to see that it obeys the syntax rules of the language and if so the program is executed. But at no stage does the computer understand what the symbols mean, AI has and is making huge steps but to say a computer might understand ‘the sky is blue’ as we might is still a little way of.

Consider reading a sentence like theskyisblue – when you read this you have to parse the line to pluck out the words, and then read them one at a time and consciously keep the past words in short term memory if we are to try and get meaning. When we read ‘the sky is blue’ I don’t think we do quite the same thing, the space is looked for and we tend to group the words and are not conscious of reading each individual word, we are looking for meaning, whereas in the other example we are looking for words and then attempting to derive meaning. It is an interesting idea. Possibly our brains have altered to do this, so Carr argues. Also, web addresses have a similar problem don’t they – can’t yet have spaces, this used to apply to Windows and there was a whole era of the use of _ or pseudo spaces, Unix still uses these to allow easy reading of names of things.

The invention of the space between words changed this process, and according to Carr would have lead to a change in the way the brain functions away from symbol processing to in depth understanding. The act of reading was hugely impacted by the space between words, it made silent reading possible and to be able to spend many hours focused on gaining full understanding without distraction – Carr’s argument is that the actual wiring or behaviour of the brain changed and we potentially became much worse at paying attention to distractions. The effectiveness of our survival mechanism was lessened at the expense of our ability to think deeply – again an interesting proposition.

With the advent of the web and other digital devices we are, he argues, returning to an early era where we are bombarded by distractions – much like we were in the forests of pre-man, and that we don’t have time to understand in a deep way the significance of what we encounter. The reason for this Carr argues is that we are constantly stopping to process things like what hypertext link to follow, a new text message, a new popup screen etc. the opportunity to read and fully comprehend is constantly interrupted, often in an imperceptible way.

Again an interesting idea I feel.

Possibly we need to look at the process of obtaining the information and then absorbing and understanding it as a distinctly two step thing. When I use the web I am very conscious of not attempting to understand what I find but to store it so that I can retrieve it latter in an attempt to understand it. I recognised early on that the web is a gathering medium rather than one that directly informs you without further analytic effort on your part. Lets consider some examples of questions we can ask using a web browser.

What is the temperature today – this we will get directly answered.

My partner is having a birthday what should I buy – of course some wag may have developed a website “www.whattobuyforbirthdays.com” (see the word space problem) and this might flash up and then present a lot of options with pop up screens etc. You need to navigate through to find suitable things, but you make the decision – unless of course you enter a range of characteristics and the database pops up the end choice so that you don’t have to make it. The latter is the old idea of an expert system mirroring a humans thought-skill process – this is handing over control to HAL.

 The significance of global warming and the reliability of the simulations used by scientists – Yes, I’d like to know about that. The key question to me is if the web just allows you to access the information and then it is your responsibility to understand it, or does the web help in the understanding process, in other words the retrieval is more than just a technical issue, the act of retrieval carries with it some level of judgment as to what might be or might not be important, but how does the computer know what is or is not important? Page hits and the like make the assumption that your question can be classified based on what has been asked in the past. However, this does not take into account a persons motivations for asking the question in the first place, so I would think the responsibility still lies with us.

 If we teach web surfing as research with a distinct consolidation phase before analysis and interpretation and then essay or argument development it would seem to me a simple strategy that would enable us to develop both aspects of the brain – I am not sure that it is a dichotomy, it would seem to me to present the challenge of teaching traditional research processes which at some point requires a single in deepth effort to bring things together.

 There is also a romantic, rightly so, view of libraries. In the past 20 years I may have borrowed 100 books, but when I was in the library I am constantly processing distractions or evaluating and making intervening decisions about which book, which index to use, saying hi to friend, asking for help, using the photocopier – it never once occurred to me that my library use was other than a distinctly two step process. The first step is about gathering and dealing with distractions, the second is about synthesis – librarians know this. Seems to me the web promotes my model rather well, unless you are simply wanting the web to tell you the direct answer that you can cut and paste!

If the argument holds that technology can change the way the brain fires up, then we need to be asking ourselves some questions:

1. Is it possible to develop facility with the distracting environment of the web and also develop the ability to deeply understand things?

2. If we are able to use and enjoy the multi-distracting potential for interpreting what actions to take on the web does such interaction interfere with our capacity to deeply understand?

3. Is it possible to use the web and learn at the same time, if so, does this apply to deep learning type situations or is there need to structure our research into an obviously two staged process – one the hunter gather stage using and handing all the distraction to compile resources we think will be handy and then a quiet ‘reading’ phase away from the distractions in order to sequenctially  read to gain understanding, to enable use to compare and contrast etc. Answer seems simple enough to me.

Carr seems to be mostly worried, correctly in my view, that students will become expert users and gain a certain competency at living with the distracted environment. Things will be understood in bits and be accessed when needed – begs the question of when you will know it is the right time to ask though. However, this may come at the expense of gaining deep understanding or in developing skills in dealing with changes to the environment you live in.

For example, take the issue of global warming. If we live in the distracted world of the Internet how will this help us gain an understanding without at some point going deeper, or do we just accept the authority of our leaders, who I reckon often have less scientific training than a 12th grader! It seems to me that handing over our lives to live in the Internet world brings with it a responsibility to recognise that we still need to develop indeepth understanding and that is probably best done in quite and over a long period of time.

Group work in schools and at Uni has exploded over the past ten years, and there are good reasons for group work, as is the case for increased project work. But it is difficult to undertake both without at some stage students having quiet time to reflect and build indeepth personal understanding. Discussion is great, often only the loudest is heard, but it is not a substitute for sitting down and thinking and writing down logically what you wish to say, this requires analysis, drawing together threats from different sources and ethical committement – it is your work, you thought about it. I would love to hear kids say that ‘this is my work and I have thought about……a lot, and I still don’t know if I fully understand it’……Join the club mate.

Chess & Kisses gone home – I got bored!

Well Cath has returned home on the big bird, should be landed shortly into Melbourne.

I got a bit bored this morning, Saturday and here is the result.

For those that don’t know I am a great admirer of Bob Dylan.

One of the first songs I ever learned was from his first album – Bob Dylan – it is called Song to Woody (this is recorded using a standard inbuilt labtop mic, so I hope it is OK, and sorry no harmonica)

For the slightly impatient when you click the link you will go to another page, click the link again and wait a little while for the player to load depending on your browser – you can probably also right click the link and save it to your computer and play it from there. I’ll see if this can be done more easily in WordPress, which is what the Blog is written in.

songToWoody 10-2-2010_5;18;22_PM

The other is Girl From the North Country – I changed the last line!

Gnoth 10-2-2010_5;29;38_PM

To record I used Hi-Q Recorder, which is freely available from www.roemersoftware.com and the words etc from memory just to prove I can remember songs! I lie, I looked them up from www.bobdylan.com

Maybe off to the football (Soccer) today to support my team – Al-Faisaly, I think that is what I agreed with my friend at school who is one of the bus drivers Danzier!

Off in a couple of weekends to tour up the North West, so there should be some more nice pics.

Bye to all.

Amman – Kakak – Dead Sea Tour

Given I got lost the day before, the enthusiasm for another days touring Jordan began to emerge slowly. The slide shows the vast beauty of this country.

http://picasaweb.google.com/s/c/bin/slideshow.swf

But, by about 10.30am we were ready, equipped with a replacement hire car – the other more modern beast falling foul of the wrong octane level petrol. The new car, a Nissan Sunny, proved a more than adequate replacement, zipping up and down the hills and nimbly negotiating the Amman traffic.

Karak is in the centre of the Western third of Jordan about an 1hours drive South from Amman. It is famous for its castle and it is impressive, this time round we were happy with pictures and did not venture inside.

On route Cathie found two reason to purchase some odd bits and pieces. At the top of one range the is a fantastic view of a dam from a look out, it is also occupied by two enterprising Jordanians, Cathie was most pleased with her purchases of some small rugs. A little further on we stopped at an enterprising establishment termed the ‘Grand Canyon Jordan’, it was run by an enterprising ex-Jordanian Airforce Officer who was very friendly and spoke with a US accent, gained from three visits for training. He had established an eyrie like place to have tea and coffee under tents, engage in some conversation, look at an amazing view, and if nature called use the newly installed WC – with a view that is unsurpassable! We were servered by his daughters – Sally and Sarah who were delightful. We enjoyed sitting and chatting and of course purchasing! As we progressed on up the mountain we past several more tented places and one established restaurant – seemingly popular with the tourists; they did not know what they had missed.

The country between Amman and Karak is typical of this area of Jordan, rolling country areas of exposed earth being readied in some parts for sowing, with the occasion tented living and herds of goats and sheep. In between there are several towns, Madaba probably being the largest. It is close to Amman and is somewhat caotic but fun to drive through.

Before Karak you descend through amazing mountains bare of most vegetation and after Karak you decend further through similar country to the Dead Sea. From there you simply tour back to Amman and enjor the scenary.

I managed to negoatiate the detour to the 7th Circle of the 35 and then find the loop back onto the Jerash road (35) and eventually made it home and returned the car without getting lost or with any damage to the car!

A wonderful day!

Happy Birthday to my ‘dear’ wife Cathie

We went off to Jerash just North of Amman for part of her birthday treat, what a great place – full of Roman ruins!

http://picasaweb.google.com/s/c/bin/slideshow.swf

There is some truth in the rumour that I might have got lost! But how else would I have got that great picture of goats.

Tomorrow I get another go at getting lost, we are off to Karak Castle – never been there, what potential for wrong turns.

As I have said on Facebook the person who put the Sun in the South in the Northern Hemisphere is as silly as the person who invented dead locks for doors. How do you know which way to turn.

Jordan Road Trip: Amman-Dead Sea-Petra-Amman

 

Macaba is just out of Amman, I passed through there by accident!
Dead Sea
I hired a car for my road trip, a new Cruze withauto from the local Euro car rental place, which is just a 5 minute walk from the flat. There were no problems with the car and the people were friendly. I returned the car safely and will be hiring again. Negotiating the traffic was no problem. Jordanian drivers are impatient, there is no other word for it, and pay little respect to line marks, if there are any as I mentioned in a previous post. Traffic accidents are just waiting to happen and they do! According to one statistic I read there are 2 deaths and 50 injuries per day happening on the roads of Jordan, there are only 5m people. That is 730 deaths per year for a population of 5m, compare this to UK with a rate of road deaths of about 2600 per year from a population of around 60m, Jordan has a problem.
 

 

There are advantages, drivers merge from side streets or join roads not by stopping and waiting for a break but by kinda nudging out and driving beside you until you give in or you both collide, but at least the traffic flows. At traffic lights cars do stop, but don’t queue in anything like an orderly fashion, a two lane road would normally have at least 3 to 5 different queues, and the left hand side is set to do a quick U-turn, because as is the case in the UAE there are few ways to across to a street on the other side. Tooting is so common it is meaningless. Another problem is that drivers seem to want to use the mobile phone, just like everywhere, even texting one suspects. The end result is a very slow moving car with a person looking towards and from observation this is often a young lady, sorry but this seems to be the case. The guys don’t slow down!

However, in general the road seems safe but you need to be on your guard. It is a mistake to drive in what we would call the safety lane, in Jordan a thick yellow line marks its boundary, but it is often home to kids selling fruit, or other merchants, the odd broken down car and metal waste disposal units which have obviously been banged around by unsuspecting drivers.

The trip started in Amman, went down via the Dead Sea, to Petra across the mountains and back up highway 15/35 from Petra to Amman. I had allocated Sunday to drive down to the Dead Sea, Monday to drive to Petra and Wednesday to drive back, in the end I came back on Tuesday afternoon.

The turn off to the Dead Sea, is in my opinion well consealled – ask Cathie, I am considered hopeless with road signs. But to me if you are on a fast moving highway, even if there are road works, and Jordan like the UK love a good road-work, it is helpful to put the metres or kilometres on the sign so you have some idea what part of the road it applies to, otherwise I am prone to head of up the goat track the sign actually points to. There is a nice little sign to the Dead Sea, but it takes you on a road through the back streets with no further signs. The real turn-off is from the airport road onto the M40, but it does not say Dead Sea if you are travelling towards the airport – but if you come back the other way, from the airport towards Amman there is a beautiful BROWN TOURIST sign directing you to turn onto the M40! Boy, I got lost and have since driven over the same part of the road and have just about worked it out. But there is one other part that has given me grief. My neck of the woods is easy to get to, so it seems by looking on the map. It is certainly easy to get onto the M35, but on return it somehow splits, there are road works to confound me, but what you need to see is the LITTLE sign to Jerash, which gets you back onto the M35 – which I never thought I had left in the first place. Ok, I have the start and end of the various possible journeys north or south worked, what about the middle parts.

I am pleased to say the rest of Jordan is extremely easy to navigate.

The decent down to the Dead Sea is impressive. You basically drop 1000m in about 15klms, maybe a bit more, but the Dead Sea is only about 30mins or so from Amman i.e. close, maybe about 20 to 30klms to the start of the Dead Sea.

I stayed at the Movenpick Resort for one night and what a night, it is Ramadan so the resort was much cheaper – it is fantastic and not something I could normally afford. The day temperature was about 40C and humid, but the evening and mornings were wonderful. I bobbed up and down in the Dead Sea at the private beach, sat in the open air restaurant on my own (I am going to write about this as it seems to interest people) with three waiters and discussed the merits of Jordanian wine and the Australian wine on the list. The waiters didn’t drink! But they seem pleased I liked the wine, and provided great service. The sunset was worth the stay and the black of the night reveled a star lit sky – the biblical sky, but with a large light in the sky which was not the famous star but an Israeli satellite – ‘It is a machine’ I was told by one of the waiters. Across the Sea you could see that there was a large town on the foreshore, ‘they are all Palestinian, up on the top part are the Israeli towns you can see’ said the waiter. A very interesting discussion ensured, and of course what you see across the water is the West Bank, this is considered to be occupied land.

In the morning I departed at about 10.30am to drive down the along the rest of the Dead Sea. The area is bordered on the left by high and heavily eroded cliffs of conglomerate rock and maybe sandstone. It was clear that when it rains vast torrents flood down and flow into the sea, causing erosion and also providing water for crops. At intervals there were large areas of plastic covered land with small black irrigation pipes snaking across the land. Housing is rudimentary, white cement square shaped blocks can seen everywhere and the odd tend or humpy  is home to the less well off – some with satellite dishes though!

I past by the Mujib Nature Reserve and it looked like there were a number of interesting but difficult walks up the gullies, I did not stop and was also pleased I had not booked the Chalets as they are described, as they appeared to be just wooden boxes on the edge of the water, I guess the view would be ok, but there did not seem much resemblance to the pictures on the brochure.

Dead Sea to At-Tafila

Onward past the left hand turn to Karakyou come to the vast salt pans which is home to the Arab Potash Company as well – I wonder if BHP have their eye on it if the Canadian venture fails.The Dead Sea is clearly important to Jordan and no doubt to Israel. But water is high demand in this parched place and one report I read claimed that there would be no water left in the Dead Sea by 2050 if the upstream usage continues at the current rate. Water is a problem here as it is in Australia – I am hopeful that this will prompt discussion at school with the year 9’s went I introduce databases.

For the next 20ks or so you travel with flat land on the right and mountains on the left – it is a somewhat desolate place, the lack of water obvious. On the flat areas there are treed areas – manb Gum trees (I am going to do some research on why they are here). Farming thrives on the flat, although it looks a tough life, and I am not sure what is grown. Interestingly, Bananas are widely grown – well it certainly hot and humid along the Dead Sea.

Quickly I am upon the turn-off to At-Taflia. This is only a short distance, maybe 20klms away (for those who want specific distances, I guess these are available and yes, I could have read the odometer, but I didn’t), and it must be one of the drives of the world. The grades are steep, but the turns well constructed, which makes driving fun and passing easy without the need to add additional lanes. Trucks literally look like they are not moving, it is so steep in parts. But, the views are fantastic and there are plenty of places to stop and take them in, there are even enterprising locals who have setup somewhat run down looking places to stop and get a drink – its Ramadan, so most are closed! This is a must do when in Jordan.

The remainder of the trip to Petra traverses across the high plateau, it is cool outside, maybe on 20C. there is some grass cover, although the predominant colour is a light burnt mustard. Some pine trees can be seen and what appear to be camps of shepperd’s looking after sheep and goats. One thing you do need to be careful of are the many humps in the road, used to slow traffic as nothing else would work, I assume. There are also plenty of police hiding along the way, but unlike the ones on the main highway don’t appear to be equipped with radar.

There are some worrying moments looking for a petrol station. I stopped and asked a group of locals who where stacking a truck – ‘straight ahead’, no worries, and the same message from a young guy sitting outside a shop in a small town. Sure enought one turned up and I had a nice chat with a local who fortunately for me he spoke good English. It snows up in the highlands area and the air is crisp and clean – it looked like a quiet place, if that was what you wanted.

Petra loomed and I had heard a lot about it – one of the man-made wonders of the world, in fact ranked 7th in a UNESCO competion for the title of ‘Best Man Made Wonder…:, I made that last bit up but you get the picture. Capitalism’s competition is finding its way into everything, possibly we are missing something – does it really matter whose man made ancient structure is ‘better’ than someone else’s, does it, of course not. In fact there is a bloody committee touring the world, what a bloody gravy train, to assess the winner – I ask you, is this money and time well spent.

I had booked a cheap hotel – will I ever learn, at least it had a bed and there was free wireless in the lobby, but really it was not great, but it was cheap. From my window I could see that the hotel next door was another Movenpick, I went inside, the difference was stark – so was the price.

The reason for booking the hotel was that it was only 200m from the entrance. The entry cost is 33JD and you can enter at 7am and buy your ticket anytime after 6.30, possibly 6am, but so it seemed not the day before. If you did that it cost 38JD ie today and tomorrow. In a few months it will cost me only 1JD when I get my card. The walk in via the cavernous Siq is easily graded and there are horse drawn buggies, donkeys, horses, the odd camel – take your pick for your conveyence. Personally, if you don’t want to walk the buggies looked the go and cheap, the added advantage is that they can bring you back. And, I reckon you could do a deal with the driver to take you on a little tour, pay him 10 to 15 JDs and he would be able to look after you. I am going to try that next time.

Like a lot of famous tourist attractions there are the peddlers, probably the odd scammer and sundry children begging you to buy something – most made in China (the products not the children)! Nothing against souvees but I am here to see those big thingees over there – bugger off mate! Alright, alright keep you beads on I am just trying to earn a living – ok, here is a tenner, leave me alone.

 Some pics are shown below. The Brown Universities excavation of the Temple area is worth spending some time in, and if you are able climb up the back to the path above – there is solitary column up there, no doubt with a story to tell, and great views. Like any large thing you need to get perspective and getting up as high as you can helps. Just standing in front and hurting your neck coming to the conclusion f…. that is big and pink, and taking a few pics is often not that instructive. The rock walls and temples are located on the Eastern mountain walls and really they are, there is only one word -HUGHE, one wonders if the early Nabataeans might just have had other things they could have spent there inventiveness on. The Southern end is about 800m away and it is flat in between and is predominantly a Roman build, much like the street in Ephesus in Turkey but not as grand. Despite pleadings to ‘take a donkey, it is 20mins to the top’ I did not take the plunge to try and make it up to the Monastery, but I encourage you to – take a donkey and keep the current locals happy.

 Really, these pesters make things difficult, I know be tolerant!

 Well Petra was good, the weather fine, the walk easy enough and the Siq was full of great rock formations.

Petra

But the hotel was depressing so I booked out and returned back to Amman up the dual highway from Aquba to Amman – the famous 35 then 15 then you get lost becasue there are road works or it is just not obvious when you reach Amman where the 35 actually goes – the trick, watch the signs to Jerash which is north of Amman, the road goes right past my turn-off. Next time, but this time I got lost!

But lets not dwell Andrew, this was a great trip – oh, and before I forget, the highway from Petra to Amman travels through some of the most desolate waterless terrain you are likely to ever see so close to civilization.

 I recommend it, get a car, a good car, and have a go.