i-Life: Developing Senses

We are all guilty of enjoying being a part of the 21st Century just a little bit if not a lot. We take many things for granted and often do not look ahead to see what might become of us if we stay solely on the track of high tech. It would appear that there is a relative correlation between the size of the television that can be produced for home consumption and the amount of power and capability we can pack into as small a package as possible. Do we ever stop to think how this affects how we will develop as human beings in the next generation or more? Two year olds can confidently navigate the internet, a feat not often mastered by some above a certain age bracket. Youth are definitely early adopters and will drive the next generation of technology both as creators and consumers. These electronic gadgets are getting ‘smarter’, more capable and definitely more useful for our increasingly mobile lives, but what will happen to our brains in the meantime? Will we adapt our developmental systems to accommodate this new way of learning, ie one-dimensional. Will this be good for us or will our children suffer because our brains (currently) thrive and grow and develop best with multi-modal inputs?

We know that a child learns most readily when offered the opportunity to see, hear, do, feel and perhaps even smell or taste. This sort of learning creates multiple and very strong connections between neurons in our brains. For example, we need short, middle and long distance vision coming into our eyes before certain critical cut-off periods in childhood, otherwise our visual system may not develop optimally. Will the proximity of 1-D screens to our faces or even larger than life screens change this? Our sense of touch and vestibular sense develop to a more full extent when they have inputs from a variety of textures, weights and levels of resistance. This may be limited if the only thing our child gets to hold is a smooth, flat, light-weight and always illuminated object. Our hearing is designed to work best with input from a range of positions so we develop directionailty and can distinquish distance as well as real from synthetic sounds. Surround sound in our home entertainment centre is a good effect when watching an exciting film but the only reason it works is because we perceive the world that way and so our brain develops that way. If we live with only cinema quality sound systems, real-world noise cancelling headphones or with earbuds, how will this change our hearing? Yes, it is nice to be able to cancel out some of the noise pollution we experience in our lives, but where is that line in the sand between enough and too much. We know that our noses are made with chemical lock and key mechanisms. If smells are all produced artifically, will we become less able to distinguish ‘natural’ smells or more sensitive to them? We know our taste buds have already lost the battle in some instances to fast food and manufactured chemicals. While not an electronic expereience in most cases it does serve as an example of how we are willing to let one of our senses slide, for the sake of convenience.
We know that when children experience sensory integration issues, their senses are not all developing at the same speed and are not connecting as well as they could. We also know that these children suffer a great deal when they cannot effectively interpret their world. How much is due to our changing lifestyles? While much research needs to be done into more than just the issue of watching violence, there is much we could probably take heed of until we know better the result of this rapid shift in childhood experiences. Will our experiences of the world become less rich, less fulfilling and more limited because of all of the changing experiences or just different? Making sure we get our children outside, throwing a ball, eating some real dirt, rolling in the grass, holding grasshoppers and catching fireflies may sound like a fairy-tale or even just too much work, but you would be surprised by how much they will benefit from it, even just a little bit.
Let’s enjoy all that our brave new world brings us but remember to keep an eye on our development as well. If we can improve it, lovely. If it hinders us or changes us in ways that are less than ideal for the systems we have, maybe we need to reconsider how technology does and does not help us to develop and weigh up the balance for the normally developing population.
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