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Neurons that fire together, wire together: why transformation is so important

Every day we are exposed to a rapidly changing, moment-by-moment digital media environment that demands strategic filtering and immediate response to a multitude of visual and auditory stimuli and their underlying messages. Constant digital distractions, multitasking and task switching plague our ability to concentrate, our aptitude for sustained intellectual focus and they interfere with our capacity for deep, persistent engagement.No wonder students find it difficult to focus!

Neurons that fire together, wire together”  (Hebb’s Law)

Why is transformation in education and training so critical, so urgent and so necessary? In one word…neuroplasticity!

It’s because our brains are being continuously rewired, reprogrammed and altered by our constant exposure to the digital universe.  This is happening in ways that change our fundamental experience of the world, how we access and process information, how we understand the world around us, how we create and how we evaluate: in short – how we work and learn.

Every day we are exposed to a rapidly changing, moment-by-moment digital media environment that demands strategic filtering and immediate response to a multitude of visual and auditory stimuli and their underlying messages. Constant digital distractions, multitasking and task switching plague our ability to concentrate, challenge our aptitude for sustained intellectual focus and interfere with our capacity for deep, persistent engagement. No wonder students find it difficult to focus!

It’s not just cognitive overload and the pressure of multitasking that’s the problem but the continuous partial attention and incessant interruption that comes with the territory.  (By the way, I strongly recommend you read through Joseph Gilland’s excellent AWN post “ Digital Distractions... searching for peace, quiet, and a way to stay creatively focused in the digital workplace” about this problem in the workplace.)

Like Joseph, like you, I also experience constant digital distractions as I try to work in a highly immersive technical and media environment. Mine includes a dual monitor workstation connected to local cable television and HD playback, notebooks, mobile technologies (iPod, iPad, iPhone) and I’m surrounded by books, and hundreds of DVD’s of animation, visual effects, live action films, television series, training and instruction, documentary and music resources.   So my working environment is a model of potential digital distraction at its worst and I have to overcome enormous temptation every day in order to concentrate.

On the other hand, I am not saying that all digital distraction is entirely negative. The enormous benefit that comes from spaces that are rich in divergent resources is key to making creative associations.  Writing this blog is in fact a digital distraction from the task I should be doing right now – preparing a major presentation for a conference next week.  But this subject is very interesting to me at this moment and directly related to ideas for the presentation and future posts on how to best reform animation training. So it seems like a very worthwhile diversion and I’ve convinced myself it is.

Unfortunately, it’s simply too easy to become disengaged from the intensity required for sustained attention.  It becomes increasingly difficult to filter out the constant distractions of the Internet, the cell phone, social networking (in fact all aspects of our hyper-mobile environment) in order to work, to read and to concentrate.  To think clearly and to be creative, we have to tune out all of those distractions and the best way to focus is often to be physically disconnected from them. We must reflect on when, where and under what conditions we make the creative associations that bring new insights to mind.

Most, dare I say all, of us are plagued by continuous partial attention. In fact, all too often, we actually welcome the distraction and the reinforcement that comes from clicking on yet another web page, yet another e-mail, or yet another blog.   As Gary Small writes in his recent book iBrain, “ One principle that propels the digital revolution is our brain’s craving for new, exciting, and different experiences.”

These constant digital distractions are being wired into our brains and more importantly, are ALREADY wired into the minds of young learners who have never known a world without the immediacy associated with cyber culture and digital media.  Their neurons grow stronger in ways that reinforce these different modes of experience and that are significantly different from those of us primarily educated in our formative years during the industrial and information ages (pre-1990 let’s say).

This is why their ability to concentrate has been dramatically altered and downgraded and why it’s so difficult to teach them in traditional ways and in traditional settings.  They expect and their minds demand immediacy – it’s wired into their brains as they make frenzied searches for the new, the novel and the quick surface experience, seldom stopping to dig deeply for profound reflection but instead continuously scanning on a surface level.

The learner’s sense of urgency and immediacy, as well as a desire for ubiquitous learning and instant feedback, is in direct contrast to the Industrial Age, assembly-line, top-down methods that characterize much of higher education’s offerings in the 20st Century; information doled out at a controlled pace over long periods of time  – and I am not just talking about animation education of course.

Anyone who has taught a large class (even a small one) in recent years is aware that young people in particular have very short attention spans and more often than not they are at the same time enveloped in a constant flow of social networking, Internet access or any one of a wide range of divergent and peripheral digital activities.

As these behaviors are repeated, they become strengthened, habitual, and rigid. The more often they are duplicated, the harder it is to reverse the process. Increasingly our brains, and those of our students, are transformed and our aptitude for sustaining rapt attention is gradually worn away.  Our minds become molded by exposure to the technology. No wonder that Internet addiction is so common.

I am not claiming that great instructors cannot attract, retain and sustain the attention of younger learners.  For example, I attended Ed Hooks’ workshop on Acting for Animators at fmx in Stuttgart in May.  The room was packed for three hours and participants appeared to have little difficulty focusing their minds during the experience.

We cannot and should not turn the clock back but how do we focus when we are so overloaded?  How do we teach and mentor others who are overwhelmed by extensive choices and apparent urgency? How do we train ourselves, and those we help, to reach and maintain optimum mental awareness and productive attention?

How do we provide an optimal learning environment and the excellent teaching methods that support it?

Above all, we must balance the benefits and obstacles of the digital universe with the need to train graduates in the skill of sustained focus on complex production tasks that demand intense concentration, reflective thought and generative expertise.

For those who are still prepared to get their information in the form of a book (paper or digital) I recommend Gary Small and Gigi Vorgan’s iBrain: surviving the technological alteration of the modern mind, and Nicholar Carr’s The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains.

Next time: Animation Core Competencies: Pt. 1