Twitter Bad for the Brain? – Balderdash, Poppycock, Twaddle

John SenerBy John Sener

[Note: This article was first posted as a comment to Lynn Zimmerman‘s “Twitter Could Drive You Cuckoo” (1 Oct. 2009).]

Studies like this, and the related reportage and unsupported speculation, are what could drive me cuckoo. More accurately, taking such reportage (and the related study behind it?) seriously is likely to be far less healthy for one’s brain and working memory than Twitter.

Look closely at what’s going on here. The cited articles make no mention of how Twitter was used in the study. So I spent (wasted?) 30 minutes or so looking for the actual study. Still haven’t found it. That’s your first clue: the assertion that Twitter is bad is mostly, perhaps entirely, an echo chamber.

A Google search did not yield the study; none of the articles I found have a link to it. I did find Dr. Alloway’s web site; that should have been promising — except that I couldn’t find a link to the study there either. I found a couple of references buried on her web site and through Google searches, but none which appear to be the related study either. Much more easy to find on her web site are links to all the media coverage she’s received and the talks she’s giving. That’s your second clue.

It appears from her web site that she’s doing some good research to establish the importance of working memory, among other areas. Bravo for that. She claims that it’s more valuable than IQ as a measure of intelligence (although the study I found measures the efficacy of working memory in terms of increased performance on IQ, literacy, and numeracy tests — hmmm). But even this appears to be a double-edged sword: she is also promoting “JUNGLE MEMORY, a brain-training program based on my research and promoted by Pearson Education, improved from a grade C to a B, and a B to an A after just 12 weeks! It is the only training program scientifically proven to raise grades.” So her web site is long on self-promotion and short on links to actual research.

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Clearly working memory as defined is an important skill. But why is it THE most important skill?

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But here’s the thing: What does all this have to do with Twitter being unhealthy for working memory? Where’s the evidence, the data? I found someone who suggested that the study did not actually test Twitter (can’t find that reference now). Dr. Alloway herself noted in a comment on her web site that the conclusions are “based on findings from a pilot study, more to follow once the study is complete.” Hmmm. Someone else on her web site asked four weeks ago for a link to the complete study; no response was posted. The reportage also suggests that Twitter was not actually tested, and that its detrimental effects are pure speculation on Dr. Alloway’s part. As reported in the Scotsman, “Paul Allen, editor of ComputerActive magazine, questioned the study and said technology like Twitter was ‘too new’ to make conclusions about. He said: “‘It sounds very spurious. I don’t see a correlation between the length of a message you send someone and the effect on memory. It could be a really interesting Twitter message.’” Exactly.

But in the meantime, the blogosphere has already run wild, and sooner or later you’ll be hearing someone tell you how science has shown that Twitter is bad for your brain. Just like another British scientist ran amok earlier this year with unsubstantiated speculation about how social networking sites were harming children’s brains.

Fortunately, the British have also provided us with several fine words for dealing with such situations: Balderdash. Poppycock. Twaddle.

To me, the worst part about this is that it totally obscures a deeper, more important question. As Dr. Alloway says on her web site, “Cutting-edge research has shown that working memory—the ability to store and manipulate information—is the most important learning skill a child can have. Working memory is the foundation of good grades and a successful life beyond the classroom. Without it, students would fail at every task, and with it they can dramatically improve their classroom performance.”

Clearly working memory as defined is an important skill. But why is it THE most important skill? It makes sense to say that if you believe that classroom performance as currently defined (store and manipulate information as per the teacher’s requirements) is in fact most important. But if you believe that there are more important skills, and that getting good grades is at least as much about social conditioning as it is about learning, then you would be asking a different set of questions. Ones, sadly, which we are not going to hear in this media blitz of misinformation…

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