Given recent research about brain plasticity and the dangers of cognitive load, the most powerful tool in our cognitive arsenal may well be design.
Specifically, we can use design principles and discipline to shape our minds. This is different than learning and acquiring knowledge. It's about designing how each of us thinks, remembers and communicates — appropriately and effectively for the digital age.
Today's popular handwringing about its effects on cognition has some merit. But rather than predicting a dire future, perhaps we should be trying to achieve a new one.
New neuroscience discoveries give hope. We know that brains are malleable and can change depending on how they are used. The well-known study of London taxi drivers showed that a certain region in the brain involved in memory formation was physically larger than in non-taxi-driving individuals of a similar age. This effect did not extend to London bus drivers, supporting the conclusion that the requirement of London's taxi drivers to memorize the multitude of London streets drove structural brain changes in the hippocampus.
Results from studies like these support the notion that even among adults the persistent, concentrated use of one neighborhood of the brain real can increase its size, and presumably also its capacity. Not only does intense use change adult brain regional structure and function, but temporary training and perhaps even mere mental rehearsal seem to have an effect as well. A series of studies showed that one can improve tactile (Braille character) discrimination among seeing people who are temporarily blindfolded. Brain scans revealed that participants' visual cortex responsiveness was heightened to auditory and tactile sensory input after only five days of blindfolding for over an hour each time.
The existence of lifelong neuroplasticity is no longer in doubt. The brain runs on a "use it or lose it" motto. So could we "use it to build it right?" Why don't we use the demands of our information-rich, multi-stimuli, fast-paced, multi-tasking, digital existence to expand our cognitive capability? Psychiatrist Dr. Stan Kutcher, an expert on adolescent mental health who has studied the effect of digital technology on brain development, says we probably can: "There is emerging evidence suggesting that exposure to new technologies may push the Net Generation [teenagers and young adults] brain past conventional capacity limitations."
When the straight A student is doing her homework at the same time as five other things online, she is not actually multi-tasking. Instead, she has developed better active working memory and better switching abilities. I can't read my email and listen to iTunes at the same time, but she can. Her brain has been wired to handle the demands of the digital age.
How could we use design thinking to change the way we think? Good design typically begins with some principles and functional objectives. You might aspire to have a strong capacity to perceive and absorb information effectively, concentrate, remember, infer meaning, be creative, write, speak and communicate well, and to enjoy important collaborations and human relationships. How could you design your use (or abstinence) of media to achieve these goals?
Something as old-school as a speed-reading course could increase your input capacity without undermining comprehension. If it made sense in Evelyn Woods' day it is doubly important now and we've learned a lot since her day about how to read effectively.
Feeling distracted? The simple discipline of reading a few full articles per day rather than just the headlines and summaries could strengthen attention.
Want to be a surgeon? Become a gamer or rehearse while on the subway. Rehearsal can produce changes in the motor cortex as big as those induced by physical movement. One study a group of participants were asked to play a simple five-finger exercise on the piano while another group of participants were asked to think about playing the same "song" in their heads using the same finger movements, one note at a time. Both groups showed a change in their motor cortex, with differences among the group who mentally rehearsed the song as great as those who physically played the piano.
Losing retention? Decide how far you want to adopt Alfred Einstein's law of memory. When asked why he went to the phone book to get his number he replied that he only memorizes things he can't look up. There is a lot to remember these days. Between the dawn of civilization and 2003 there were 5 exabytes of data collected (an exabyte equals 1 quintillion bytes). Today 5 exabytes of data gets collected every two days! Soon there will be 5 exabytes every few minutes. Humans have a finite memory capacity. Can you develop criteria for which will be inboard and outboard?
Or want to strengthen your working memory and capability to multitask? Try reverse mentoring — learning with your teenager. This is the first time in history when children are authorities about something important, and the successful ones are pioneers of a new paradigm in thinking. Extensive research shows that people can improve cognitive function and brain efficiency through simple lifestyle changes, such as incorporating memory exercises into their daily routine.
Why don't schools and universities teach design thinking for thinking? We teach physical fitness. But rather than brain fitness we emphasize cramming young heads with information and testing their recall. Why not courses that emphasize designing a great brain?
Does this modest proposal raise the specter of "designer minds?" I don't think so. The design industry is something done to us. I'm proposing we each become designers. But I suppose "I love the way she thinks" could take on new meaning.