Wednesday, March 02, 2005

Brain of the Blogger

During the past five years, blogging has exploded from virtual non-existence into an important and influential sociocultural force. Recent survey data indicate that there are now nearly 10 million bloggers, 90% of whom are between the ages of 13 and 29 years old. This incredible upsurge in activity has caused us to wonder: What effect is all this blogging having on the brains of bloggers?

Why ask this question? The primary reason can be found in one of the central tenets of modern neuroscience: "The neurons that fire together, wire together." What this basically means is that our mental activities actually cause changes in the structures of our brains--not only what we think, but how we think as well. Given such activity-directed change, it always makes sense to ask whenever large numbers of people start using their brains in new and different ways, what effects these new activities are likely to have on brain structure and function. Blogging, which only seems to be accelerating in popularity, is a prime candidate for such investigation. After surveying the general range of materials that the blogosphere has to offer, we believe the following basic largely supportive conclusions are warranted:

1. Blogs can promote critical and analytical thinking.

First, there are blogs and there are...well, blogs. The best of blogs are rich in ideas and promote active exchange and critique. Rather than creating closed communities of like-minded troglodytes, these best blogs foster conversation, interactions with other blogs and other information sources, and invite feedback from their readers. Posts can form "threads" or links to other Web materials where readers can examine primary source material or articles that offer competing ideas and views. Blogs that follow this format are far from simple substitutes for television or video games. In fact, they are an ideal format for promoting critical and analytical thinking.

Because blogs are text-based, bloggers must write and visitors must read (rather than passively view) the postings. In research comparing newspaper and television news, public policy experts have previously found that consumers are far more likely to question what they read than what they see in pictures or on TV. There are several likely reasons for this: First, text can be assimilated in a self-paced fashion, allowing time for analysis and reflection. Second, words must--by their very nature--be analyzed, organized, and interpreted before they can be understood, providing more time for critical reflection. In contrast, pictures and music have more direct access to brain areas dealing with emotion and motivation, thereby potentially avoiding or even subverting reason and reflection. Third, pictures and music not only have the potential to alter our interpretations of the words we hear, but can actually alter our perceptions of the words we believe we have heard. Because our perceptions are formed by combining our sensory input with contextual cues from other inputs or stored memories, strongly arousing visual or sound images have a profound ability to alter the words we hear. This is the reason behind Reagan aide Michael Deaver's famous statement to CBS's Lesley Stahl that he didn't mind what CBS said about Reagan on TV, so long as any voiceovers were accompanied by pictures of the President standing in front of a flag. Blogs, with their text-based format, tend to avoid the more manipulative aspects of visually-embedded media.

2. Blogging can be a powerful promoter of creative, intuitive, and associational thinking.

To remain popular with readers, blogs must be updated frequently. This constant demand for output promotes a kind of spontaneity and 'raw thinking'--the fleeting associations and the occasional outlandish ideas--seldom found in more formal media. (Fortunately, the permanence and easily searchable nature of archived posts helps maintain some sense of decorum.) Blogging technology itself fosters this kind of spontaneity, since blogging updates can be posted with just a few clicks whenever a new thought or interesting Internet tidbit is found. Blogging is ideally suited to follow the plan for promoting creativity advocated by pioneering molecular biologist Max Delbruck. Delbruck's "Principle of Limited Sloppiness" states we should be sloppy enough so that unexpected things can happen, but not so sloppy that we can't find out that it did. Raw, spontaneous, associational thinking has also been advocated by many creativity experts, including the brilliant mathematician Henri Poincare who recommended writing without much thought at times "to awaken some association of ideas."

3. Blogs promote analogical thinking.

Recent international surveys have shown that students in the United States have fallen far behind most of their first world peers in problem solving and critical thinking. This fall has coincided with a shameful decline in school-based instruction in critical analysis, rhetoric, and persuasive writing. However because professionals like attorneys, philosophers, and academicians run many excellent blogs, we all can benefit from their intellectual rigor, and their use of analogical thinking when communicating to the common world of the blogosphere. Back-and-forth blog-based exchanges between experts also provide a unique opportunity for young thinkers to witness and evaluate arguments from analogy on an ongoing basis, and to develop their own abilities to think analogically.

4. Blogging is a powerful medium for increasing access and exposure to quality information.

Because blogs link many facts and arguments in branching "threads" and webs, and append primary source materials and reference works, they foster deeper understanding and exposure to quality information. In turn these sources can seed other creative projects.

5. Blogging combines the best of solitary reflection and social interaction.

Research using the Lemelson-MIT Invention index found that invention is best fostered in solitude (66%); yet other research has shown the beneficial effects of brainstorming with a community of intellectual peers. So blogging may combine the best of "working by yourself" and "working with other people." Bloggers have solitary time to plan their posts, but they can also receive rapid feedback on their ideas. The responses may open up entirely new avenues of thought as posts circulate and garner comments.

In conclusion, it looks as if blogging will be very good for our brains. It holds enormous potential in education, and it could take societal communication and creative exchange onto a whole new level.

32 comments:

  1. Wow, what a great post!! I'm so glad Hugh Hewitt linked to it. I am a retired teacher & was very aware of the various learning styles of the children in my classes. I am a parent & experienced a diagnosis for my son of "auditory attention deficit", back in 1984 & dealt with the problems he had in school. I am a grandparent with a 5 year old grandson with delayed speech & behavioral problems. My daughter-in-law & I have both read the two books by Thomas Sowell dealing with delayed speech in mostly boys, as she, my son & I try to figure out what is best for their son. It creates a lot of angst!! I look forward to spending much time on your sites & learning much I am sure.
    Lynne Gale, blogger at 64.

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  2. Wow, thanks for your post Lynne! We're thrilled Hugh mentioned it too. You know, it's really true these blogs are an amazing medium. It sure beats TV. Fernette and Brock

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  3. I agree, great post. Gives me an excellent excuse for all the time I spend writing my blog, and reading others. I'm going to post a link, too.

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  4. Anonymous12:29 AM

    Cool. Wish my blog actually had something worth reading. For a while it got stale, so I quit writing and just read a lot. I think I may be up for it again.
    Thanks for the input

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  5. Brilliant and very affirming. Makes me feel a little better knowing my time is well spent, lol.

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  6. Anonymous8:10 PM

    I was wondering if you have published this article somewhere which the university might consider as slightly more scholarly than the blogging website...i really wanna use it but they wont let me unless i can find it published somewhere else other than multiple blog sites.

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  7. Sorry, we just posted this for the blogosphere.

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  8. blogsnobs out there...not allowing blogs to be cited. i tell ya.

    thanks eides. now i can sleep at night, knowing that somewhere out there is someone who understands.

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  9. william5:14 PM

    Hi

    The kinds of thing you are talking about are just some of the thing I would like to mention in my thesis.

    Is there any way you could provide a little more information. Specifically;

    a) In paragraph 1 "Recent survey data"

    Which survey data?

    b) In paragraph 4 "In research comparing newspaper and television news,"

    What research?

    c) In section 3. "Recent international surveys have shown...

    Which surveys?

    d) In section 5. 'Research using the lemelson - MIT Invention index.."

    What research?

    Any more info would be greatly appreciated.

    Thanks

    William (UK)

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  10. Hi William-

    The blog numbers vary depending on who you talk to. We saw various numbers from Pew Internet and American Life Project and threadwatch.org that seemed to suggest about 10 million. Here's another ink with worldwide numbers.
    http://www.blogherald.com/2005/01/10/blog-numbers-are-closer-to-345-million-wordwide/

    The TV and newspaper references were from a talk by Kathleen Hall Jamieson about her own research. Sorry don't have a paper reference hand. She's at Annenberg School of Communication at U of Pennsylvania.

    The US's poor showing in problem solving is the PISA or Program for International Student Assessment. They released the numbers not so long ago & it hit the newspapers: http://www.csmonitor.com/2004/1207/p01s04-ussc.html

    Also: http://www.nctm.org/news/articles/2005_01nb_pisa.htm

    For the Lemelson-MIT index check out
    http://web.mit.edu/invent/pdf/LemNewsWinter2005.pdf

    Good luck on your thesis!

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  11. Anonymous2:52 AM

    Thanks a lot!

    William

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  12. I've been yammering for months all about how blogging increases brilliance.

    FINALLY someone agrees. ;-)

    http://TexasJournal.com

    Thanks!
    Dave Zenker

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  13. BotB writes: "Because blogs are text-based, bloggers must write and visitors must read (rather than passively view) the postings. [...] pictures ... have more direct access to brain areas dealing with emotion and motivation, thereby potentially avoiding or even subverting reason and reflection."

    I guess that means all those diagrams I've produced over the years to clarify complex situationsare unsuitable "for analysis and reflection", and are actually "subverting reason".

    Please.

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  14. The research we were referring to related to film rather than visual diagrams - but it's certainly true that some people who think deeply everything (visual and verbal material), and some who don't think deeply about anything. Also many people have strong preferences in the ways they best 'take in' information.

    Don't misunderstand our post about the blogging process. We certainly don't mean to suggest that text is the only way to provoke deep analysis or reflection.

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  15. great post, i jsut started about 2 days ago and now anything i think of something or if something ammusing occurs during my day i jsut post it up on my blog...heh heh i guess im not doing anything serious but at least i get to put down my thoughts and such

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  16. This is one of the most meaningful posts I have encountered in weeks. I am a blogger and it seems to me that changes are starting to build up in my system. More importantly, I tend to develop a sense of awareness and willingness to share whatever I have in life. Blogs are indeed enhancing minds and creating a better human perspective.

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  17. Interesting article. Didn't realize blogging is so popular.

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  18. I 34th that! Blogging has given me 30 smart points since I started "bioethics & law..." back in January of this year.

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  19. Jo Ann11:04 PM

    As a recent newcomer to the blogosphere, entering my seventh decade, working part time, professionally familiar with some of the issues of which you speak, I believe the basic largely supportive conclusions you reached warranted, too.

    Good to see the comments asking for supportive documentation. You have people thinking. Maybe they will be the ones to produce the needed investigation for the scientific/academic community. That surely is something I would undertake if I was conducting research, or a graduate student in Speech-Language Pathology or, possibly Psychology.

    This information has significance in the area of remediation for a variety of acquired deficits in adults of all ages.

    Have enjoyed following the information on this blog, but hadn't visited for a while. Fortunately, Ronni Bennett at Time Goes By mentioned this post and provided a link. Surely am glad I didn't miss it.

    Please keep up your work and tell us more in the future.

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  20. Just do it...blog that is.

    You can learn and polish your thoughts as you go.

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  21. Stephanie7:46 AM

    Thanks for this post. I wrote about it and linked to it in my blog yesterday.

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  22. JennyT8:58 AM

    Thank you for this blog and all the links. I live here now.

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  23. These comments have been invaluable to me as is this whole site. I thank you for your comment.

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  24. Your writing has spurred some great thoughts. Perhaps the integration of writing along with use feeling that it's not just academics will get students more involved in writing, sharing of thoughts, and promoting of higher order thinking skills. The one concern I have is the developing of a good prompt that will give students a beginning platform.

    Excellent ideas that are pedegorically sound.

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  25. Ashley Magee12:15 PM

    I agree that blogging can be the things you stated, but from my personal experiences, blogs written by people in the 13 - 22 year old range are not promoting critical or analytical thinking at all. They simply serve as an online diary or journal of sorts. Most of the people that fall into this range are also not blogging about facts or well-researched "quality" information. They are simply blogging for their own personal satisfaction and enjoyment. For younger people, this is a great way to become more comfortable and structured with their writing.

    If educators would use blogging as a tool more often in their classrooms, then I think more of those 12 - 22 year olds would produce more well-written entries that would require critical and analytical thinking by themselves as well as their readers.

    From your post I gather that you are mostly referring to those blogs and bloggers who are well educated and professional individuals, not your average person surfing the internet.

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  26. I am inclined to agree with Ashlee. While you state that blogging CAN be ..., so often it devolves into "I agree (or disagree)" comments without critical thinking expressing why.

    Further, I often see students using text message short cuts that immediately make me question the intelligence of the writer because he or she can't express a clearly written thought.

    Am I the one wrong here because I am being dragged into the culture of the Internet student? I think not.

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  27. I really enjoyed your thoughts in this blog. It demonstrated what I like most about many blogs: being able to read good information in a concise, less formal medium.

    As a teacher, I simply thought blogging could be a fun way to promote class discussion outside of class. Thank you for giving such solid info on why it is also good for our brains. I will use this info when I tell my classes they will be blogging this year.

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  28. One of the first groups to get into blogging were people in early stage Alzheimer's. Blogging permits connectedness without complex social demands. To be a friend in the real world requires a lot of reciprocal activities. To be a friend in the blogging world, one only has to post something of interest and what is more fascinating than neurological differences.

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  29. You are giving the proper information about the blog. It gives some new experience to the blogger. It will really makes something different. It is a great post. Thanks for providing the information in this post.

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