Immersive Learning and Empathy

Below is an extract, a fairly lengthy one, from “Reclaiming Reality: Doctoring and Discipleship in a Hyperconnected Age” by Tyler Johnson in BYU Studies, 57:3.  I would not typically post such a long extract, both out of respect for the author’s copyright, but also because the Internet is not the place for such “long-form” content as the author calls it.  But I do so because I believe the very nature of this content is important, and by posting it here, I will challenge those who engage in it to see if they can do so without being distracted.  See if you can really engage in it as deeply as you could in printed form. If not, think about what abilities we might be losing by not being able to do so.   


Sometimes I wonder if I am capable of such immersive learning anymore.

The dark side of immediately accessible information is that its very convenience robs me of the ability to have experiences like the one I describe above. One of a cell phone’s principal functions is to make everyone constantly, universally, and immediately accessible to everyone and everything else. This sounds wonderful until we remember that perhaps we are not designed to be so pervasively and ceaselessly accessible. I am sitting in my room typing, but within moments my eyes stray to the score of the NBA game I’ve been tracking, then my email pings and I’m distracted by an incoming message, after which a text arrives to which I am expected to reply promptly, and then I see my Facebook queue has filled up in the last ten minutes and demands to be checked, and by the time I circle back to my writing, I can’t even remember the subject of my paragraph, let alone the flow of the sentence. What masquerades as impressive efficiency is just as surely creeping distractedness. Yes, of course, our minds have always wandered, and daydreams predate the advent of the internet by millennia, but never before has a technology so comprehensively and effectively distracted us.

Research bears out these suspicions. Carr lays out many of these findings. One researcher whose work he discusses attached tiny cameras to the glasses of study participants so he could track the movement of their eyes as they read. When participants read pages from a book, their eyes moved as you would expect, from left to right, in descending lines. When asked to read pages online, however, the movements changed dramatically and instead of continuous descending lines he found their eyes roughly traced large “Fs” over the surface of a page, skipping large chunks of content and skimming only a few lines to try to gather highlights, but without time for depth, analysis, or understanding. Unsurprisingly, then, he also cites multiple studies showing that participants consistently learn and understand less when reading online than when reading on paper.

Beyond even changing the way we read, however, consuming digital media also rewires our brains. In one of the most striking studies Carr cites, volunteers were sorted by their experience with online media into novices and experts. Both groups were asked to read online content while being monitored with fMRI (functional MRI is a way of imaging the brain that uses glucose consumption to demonstrate the areas of the brain that are being used across time, rather like seeing wires glow as electricity passes across them). When the experts consumed the online content, certain brain circuits lit up quite brightly that did not light up in the novices’ brains. In other words, those users had trained themselves through practice to use those circuits more nimbly, just as a bodybuilder has larger biceps than a couch potato. Even more striking, however, when the novices were given just a couple of weeks to practice consuming content on the web and were then invited back for the same experiment, those same circuits had already begun lighting up quite brightly. That is to say: just a few weeks of online media consumption had already begun rewiring their brains.

We do not know, of course, the exact long-term implications of this phenomenon, but such fundamental changes in such a short time should call our attention and make us at least stop to wonder what they mean. By the same token, while the study is small, a recent investigation demonstrating that internet addiction seems to atrophy certain critical brain areas should raise alarms.18 The take-home point is not that this research definitively proves that digital media consumption rots our neural circuits, but rather that it raises serious and profound questions about a technology that was virtually unknown ten years ago but without which we can now hardly imagine our lives.

All of this is to say that the attention we pay to the internet is not just a question of distraction. If it were, the answer would be simple: put away my phone. What all of the above indicates, however, is that cell phones and the digital revolution they represent don’t just distract us; they also warp our brains. Even when the phone is absent, long-term and consistent use of pervasive digital media make us long-lastingly less capable of sustained concentration. They don’t just rob us of time but actually change our brains and dull our ability to think deeply.19

This matters, not because it is bad to be able to skim large amounts of information quickly; indeed, in the new information economy this may become a vital skill. Rather, it is a problem because those raised on this kind of learning may not fully develop the intellectual resources necessary for deeper dives. In a chapter outlining the advent of the written word and the widespread coming of literacy in the world, Neil Postman described the requirements of deep reading like this: “The reader must come armed, in a serious state of intellectual readiness. This is not easy because he comes to the text alone. In reading, one’s responses are isolated, one’s intellect thrown back on its own resources. To be confronted by the cold abstractions of printed sentences is to look upon language bare, without the assistance of either beauty or community. Thus, reading is by its nature a serious business. It is also, of course, an essentially rational activity.”20 This serious intellectual engagement cannot come from tracing large Fs across the surface of online screens filled with text.

Something is slipping away—and that something matters profoundly to us. We proclaim, after all, that “the glory of God is intelligence,” and we believe that the things we learn—and, one would assume, the way we learn—is one of the few precious things we will carry with us into the eternities.

What worries me even more than how the internet is changing our brains is the way it is hardening our hearts. Just as Carr’s book left me unnerved, Sherry Turkle’s Reclaiming Conversation left me deeply saddened.21 In addition to describing other ways the internet impairs our ability to think, Turkle tackles the ways in which it handicaps our ability to feel. The book arose out of hundreds of hours of interviews with students who came of age during the millennial era and years spent researching the intersection between humans and our technology. The picture that emerges startles me. I might have thought that the compulsion to text, for instance, arose from (or perhaps caused) a sort of face-to-face social forgetfulness; texting is so easy, after all, that not placing a call or visiting a friend may simply be a matter of convenience. What Turkle found, however, was more than simply a drive for efficiency. Instead, apparently because of the rise of interpersonal technology, college students over the last ten years are both less willing and less able to have face-to-face conversations (especially difficult ones). One student, for instance, looks at Dr. Turkle incredulously when the author suggests discussing a thorny relationship question face-to-face with a friend. Doing so would require being party to the other person’s broken heart and wounded feelings, after all, and who would want to be present for that?22

But of course, that’s just the point. A parallel finding Turkle outlines in detail is that current college students are not simply communicating differently. Instead, those generational communication changes are profoundly warping the way college students relate to others in general. Most noticeably, students now are statistically (and clinically) less able to empathize with their peers. Who can be surprised at this? If you shy away from another’s suffering by hiding behind a text—how can it be any wonder you’re less able to relate to other people’s pain?

These effects are not peripheral or incidental to our Christian discipleship.


Tyler Johnson is a clinical assistant professor in the oncology division of the Stanford University School of Medicine. He received an MD from the University of Pennsylvania in 2009 and a BA in American Studies from Brigham Young University in 2005. He teaches institute in Palo Alto, California, and has focused most of his teaching on the prophets of the Book of Mormon.

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