Wednesday, February 01, 2023

Rewiring Our Brains

It wasn't that long ago that I got my news, sports, and weather from the newspaper that was delivered to my front door. I would work my way through the paper each morning, starting with the front page stories, then slowly go through it, page-by-page, scanning the headlines. I would typically read the first sentence of each story, which would, in classic journalistic fashion, include answers to the basic questions of who, what, when, where, and why. My local paper was arranged in sections: national, international, editorials, local, sports, and lifestyle. I would save the "funnies" -- the page and half of comic strips -- for last. I only had time to attempt the crossword puzzles on weekends.

I can be nostalgic about the ritual of newspaper reading, but on a day-to-day basis I don't miss it. On the other hand, there are some things that disappeared from my life when newspapers did. For instance, I've lost the random accessibility that newspapers offered. Oh sure, the internet contains a lot more news, sports, and weather, in terms of sheer volume. And if there is something specific I want to know about I can find an endless stream of information on that specific topic. But what I've lost are those stories and tidbits that I didn't know I needed or wanted to know. For instance, I never seek out my horoscope any longer, but in my newspaper reading days, I checked it religiously. I rarely learn any longer about the neighbor who, say, has grown a record-setting rutabaga or the results of my local high school's most recent track meet. I no longer scan the obituaries for familiar names or, for that matter, read any funnies.

There was a time when I couldn't imagine life without the morning paper, but today I'm wired differently. There are now a handful of websites that I visit daily for news, sports, and weather, ones that I return to again and again. The internet, laptops, and smartphones have definitely rewired me.

We worry a lot about how our technological age is rewiring our children's brains, and it is, and we are right to worry, but as I look back over the scope of my life, I can see that my own brain has be wired and rewired over-and-over by not just by technology, but social, political, and artistic changes as well. I spent most of my professional career in opposition to screen-based technologies in the classroom, in part out of concern over its potential to rewire brains. I've now come to the understanding that it is in the nature of the human brain to become rewired. There is no magical "natural state." Our brains, our minds, are always responding to our environment, adapting to it, and adapting it to us.

Was my wiring better in the age of newspapers? Not necessarily, although I am today a different person than I was then which is appropriate given that the world is a different place than it was back then. And what is schooling, after all, than attempt to install a certain kind of wiring in our children? They may not phrase it this way, but those parents and politicians who are against the teaching of black history or books that normalize same-sex relationships or transgenderism are concerned about the potential for that information to "rewire" their children. I believe they're wrong to be fearful of their children learning about these specific things, but they are right that learning it will rewire them.

A beautiful thing about humans, however, is exactly this ability to rewire ourselves. It happens no matter what.

For the past year I have made a point of taking my morning coffee outside with me as the sun rises. This is the day part during which I once ritually read the newspaper. I intentionally leave my various screens indoors. At first, I didn't really know what to do with myself as I just sat there as the day began. Before long, however, the rewiring began. I noticed a black phoebe who would come and perch not far from me, tweeting and occasionally dive bombing the lawn. From there I began to take note of the other birds: mallards, mocking birds, hummers, Canada geese, doves, sparrows. I now know a great deal about their songs and habits. Last spring I watched, day-after-day, as a pair of crows built a nest. They were amazingly fierce when a hawk was anywhere nearby. I'm hoping they return this spring. I'm now an expert on the arc of the morning moon that seems, during parts of its cycle, to set in the west as the sun is rising to my back in the east. I've become so familiar with the various shadows of the mountains in the near distance that they seem almost like facial expressions as the earth smiles and frowns at me. I take note each morning of the direction the clouds are moving the way I once checked my horoscope. Every day as I do this, my brain is adapting, rewiring itself according to the environment in which I've placed myself.

I suppose we will always worry, one way or another, about how the world is rewiring our children. It's only natural because as Doris Lessing puts it, "We are what we've learned." At the same time, I also know that we've all been wired and rewired countless times throughout our lives. The wiring is not "hardwiring," but rather a temporary state that is forever changing and evolving based on the world in which we find ourselves. Rewiring our brains is not something of which to be afraid. Indeed, it is inevitable.

As adults we can, at least to a certain extent, choose our own environments, but our children, at least when they are young, have their environments chosen for them. Should their environments include screen-based technology? Black history? Black phoebes? Our answers to those questions determine how our children's brains will adapt. Perhaps they will carry some of that early wiring within themselves throughout their lives. I certainly hope that the lessons of love and play remain a part of the wiring of every child I've known. What is certain, however, is that the world, in its dance with their brains, will rewire them, again and again and again and only they will be able to know if it's for the better or worse.

In a few minutes, I'm going to post this to the blog, then head outside with my coffee. Yesterday, as I sat with the sunrise, it dawned on me that the greatest gift we can give our children beyond our unconditional love is not any specific education or upbringing, but rather the knowledge and confidence that they can be active agents in their own rewiring.


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