Digital technology impacts how we interact with knowledge. A study by Kapersky in the US found that our brains now lean heavily on mobile phones: over half of respondents said they look to the internet to answer questions even before trying to seek the answer in their own minds. Even more concerning, 29 % forget the answers they find immediately after googling them! The authors of the Kapersky study concluded that we are under threat from a very real “digital amnesia”. Nevertheless, Ulrich Boser, a professor at the Center for American Progress, claims that we can regain control of our brains and cultivate our ability to acquire new knowledge… provided we follow a few clear-cut processes.
Why bother learning when Google has the answer to everything?
Why make the effort to learn when new technologies mean we can access the world’s entire knowledge base with a single click in a matter of seconds? Simply because learning develops cerebral plasticity: when we learn something, in other words, our brains undergo physical changes. The connections between neurons are altered, and new connections are formed, making it easier to retain and handle future information. Learning and memorization processes help us think more quickly — a key factor in effective decision-making — whereas the same outcome does not apply when we look for information intermittently on Wikipedia. Learning has another major advantage: putting in the effort to look for and remember information forces us to go beyond superficial knowledge. In fact, our brains require a global vision of the themes they process (meta-knowledge) to become expert in a new field. To become experts, we need to understand knowledge as part of an overall conceptual system and grasp its logic.
Choose your priorities…so you don’t forget
A 2017 survey of over 1,000 American employees (43% Gen X, 35% millennials and 19% baby boomers) produced some very interesting results regarding the propensity of employees to forget what they have learned in training. In a company with a workforce of 1,000, 6,000 hours are lost every year looking for information that has already been learned. There are two reasons for this: a failure to appropriate the learning and a lack of projection: human beings learn and recollect material that makes sense to them and that resonates with their centers of interest. Boser takes the example of psychology students who are obliged to absorb statistics; although dry, statistics is an extremely important subject — and undergraduates have to understand it properly if they are to publish supported research articles. To lighten the learning load, a psychology professor at the University of Virginia asked his students to write short essays on the usefulness of statistics for advancing research and enhancing the support
given to future patients. This extremely simple exercise improved their marks enormously in the final exam. In similar fashion, cramming in front of piles of books is not effective if you have not already taken the trouble to think about the practical side of the knowledge you are trying to acquire. Given the vast quantity of available knowledge, the aim is to visualize the outcomes, by noting down the advantage of a particular item of knowledge in black and white, for example, or imagining how it will be useful to your career.