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Losing Essential Skills to Technology

The internet is rife with sites that bemoan technology-induced death of skills needed for tying knots, converting pounds and ounces, knitting, identifying trees, baking bread and ironing trousers.
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The age of technology has indeed accented the golden age syndrome ("the past is better than the present"), at least among digital immigrants who have been dragged kicking and screaming into the arena. While "in those days" talk is often fueled by memories, augmented by a liberal dose of imagination, there is one area where there has indeed been a noticeable change - in our skill set. There have been sizeable changes in the skill-set of human beings with the advent of technology.

The last statement could be the nucleation of mass hysteria against technology, especially when the word "changes" is read as "losses". It is not unnatural that the discovery of any tool modifies the human skill set, or even the wirings in the brain. There exists, in fact, a classic chicken-egg question of whether the use of tools changed the neuroplastic brain structure of early primates, or vice versa. Indeed there is now conclusive proof that even reading and writing reprograms the organization of the brain, much similar to the use of any tool. It is thus undeniable that the use (or overuse) of technology can potentially restructure the brain.

Multiple studies (here, here and here) have shown shrinkage in gray matter areas due to internet/gaming addiction. Reduced numbers of dopamine receptors, impaired cognitive functioning and compromised white matter integrity have also been noticed in cases of screen time overuse. However, these are extreme cases, applicable to abusive use of technology. Given that technology has not only become ubiquitous, but also essential for daily activities, does daily use affect the brain structure? Perhaps it does, like reading and writing does to the human brain, but such rewiring may not necessarily be bad, unless it leads to loss of skills essential for life. In fact, the learning of new skills to operate technology can indeed exercise the brain more, leading to less brain loss with age.

That said, there are some essential skill sets that we are losing to technology. Long term memory, is one of them. We have practically outsourced the brain to gadgets - wikis, search engines, GPS, e-addressbooks and phonebooks, and calculators. While memory is not "intelligence" in itself, learning is a memory based process and the act of remembering is critical for the science of learning. A study shows that college students remembered less information when they knew they could easily access it later, on the computer perhaps. Neuroimaging studies have shown that our brain seems to disregard information found online, perhaps due to a subconscious feeling of "this information is available at my finger tip, no need to waste brain space". While it seems logical to save neural bandwidth this way, the repercussions are serious - long term memory is essential for critical thinking, and losing out on it could affect our very existence - afterall, cogito ergo sum. While losing at chess may not be that serious an outcome, the inability to predict ("that bus is ten feet away from me and travelling at 50mph. If I attempt to cross the road now, I will be run over") and diagnose ("my nose is blocked, so I need to breathe with my mouth"), could be catastrophic.

We may be losing our sense of direction to technology as well. Spatial orientation involves the hippocampus region of the brain, and research has shown that excessive reliance on navigational tools such as GPS can potentially atrophy the hippocampus. Such atrophy could kick start neuro-degenerative diseases such as Alzheimer's. Researchers have also found more grey matter in those who used spatial navigation than those who relied on GPS, and this direction-savvy group scored higher on standardized cognition tests than the GPS dependent group.

Hand-writing is another skill that has taken a batting in the era of keystrokes, as the authors can personally attest, given that a recent check was dishonored because the signature appeared different from lack of practice Although it appears that in the age of online transactions and wire transfers, the handwriting (and the signature) is indeed optional, studies show the importance of hand writing in that it facilitates brain development associated with reading. Thus reading and (w)riting continue to remain the inseparable pair of the three 'R's.

Mental arithmetic is another skill that has lost out to the calculator. While it is very easy to whip out the smartphone to split the check in a restaurant in the rare event of a social meal that replaces the more common social networking, there is some merit to mental math, it seems. Apparently, mental calculations are crucial to mathematical competence. Considering that low mathematical competence has been associated with lower indices of life success, the importance of not using the calculator all the time cannot be understated.

The internet is rife with sites that bemoan technology-induced death of skills needed for tying knots, converting pounds and ounces, knitting, identifying trees, baking bread and ironing trousers. Many of these grouses are hyperboles, if not imaginary. Skills have always been lost in time - we no longer light a fire using flint stones. As long as old skills are replaced by equivalent new ones, we are safe. But when the loss of a skill set leaves a void that has not been filled, we must rethink the situation and take steps to regain the balance, don't you think?

Writing credit: Co-authored by Lakshmi, a Mobicip blogger who researches researchers researching the complex web of technology, education, and their impact on children.

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