Imagine a college course that requires students to give up computer and cell-phone technology for a month — and, in fact, to cease speaking entirely for that period.
Then imagine that the class is super-popular, with students clamoring to get in.
This scenario fascinates me because, if successful, it would be the polar-opposite situation to the one I wrote about last month, in which psychology professor Larry Rosen urged his colleagues to give students "tech breaks" to check their cellphones during college classes. On this view, traditional-age college students' brains are not yet fully developed and, thus, highly distractible.
Rosen's work, as he describes it in a Psychology Today post, has showed that when observed studying, university students (as well as students in younger grades) "were only able to focus and stay on task for an average of three minutes at a time and nearly all of their distractions came from technology."
Rosen goes on to write, based on interviews with thousands of students:
"When alerted by a beep, a vibration or a flashing image they feel compelled or drawn to attend to that distraction. However, they also tell us that even without the sensory reminder they are constantly thinking internally, 'I wonder if anyone commented on my Facebook post; or 'I wonder if anyone responded to my text message I sent 5 minutes ago' or even 'I wonder what interesting new YouTube videos my friends have liked.'"
What a dismal picture!
Scathing responses to Rosen's "tech break" recommendation weren't hard to come by. Though I'd written in my post about a group of seminar students I taught last month who didn't have a problem with distractibility (at least visibly), numerous comments at NPR's Facebook page focused only on the stereotypical, pulled-toward-their-phones students. One prominent theme was that college attendees who can't concentrate for 50- or 75-minute class periods shouldn't be in college at all.
Given all this, wouldn't a course where students give up electronics for a month contest this stereotype, along with the attendant notion that the biology of students' developing brains is the primary factor at work?
The no-technology, no-talking-for-a-month thought experiment I proposed is, in fact, I am delighted to report, a real-life scenario found in the "Living Deliberately" course taught by University of Pennsylvania religious studies professor Justin McDaniel.
McDaniel, who specializes in Buddhism and who spent several months living as a Buddhist monk in Thailand, was chosen as one of 10 "innovators" profiled by The Chronicle of Higher Education last month. The CHE piece, by Beckie Supiano, was fascinating for its explanation of McDaniel's focus: The course is subtitled "Monks, Saints, and the Contemplative Life," and the idea is to give the students some sense of what a monastic life, including its deprivations, might feel like — and what benefits might result.
But how did all this work in practice? How strict are these requirements? I emailed McDaniel to find out. He offered some details:
"[The students] do not talk or use the Internet, phone, text, radio, or TV at all. They do not talk to their family (unless it is emergency), but they can handwrite letters. They do not speak in other classes or to other professors. They do not use Internet or computer for other classes at all. They have to get permission from their other professors and they can sit in class and discussion sections, but cannot speak or participate in any online materials. It doesn't matter what their other class assignments are, they have to prepare to do it all offline before they go dark for a month.
[Students] get very good at preparing for the month, getting hard copies of readings, having a notepad to leave notes for their professors and other students, but absolutely no speaking and no electronics at all for a month (24/7). They have permission in emergencies to speak to health care or police and can speak to their designated partner in class or me in emergencies. Most never use that option. They have to write in their journal once every 30 minutes while they are awake, no matter what, and their writing and reflections get extremely interesting and moving.
Effort outside the classroom is required, too, in kindness projects designed by the students, who "do things like painting hallways in public schools, recording books for the blind (before the silent month), working to help community gardens, doing laundry for their classmates, making their own cheese and yogurt for classmates, volunteering in many different places, putting coins in parking meters, and tutoring disadvantaged children in Philadelphia."
Sometimes McDaniel takes the students' cellphones or computers for safe-keeping. Based on their journal entries and on years of experience, McDaniel can tell, he says, if his students are "using" — technology, he means.
Sometimes they slip up, but rarely. It's what McDaniel told me next that's the most intriguing part:
"Electronics are easy to give up for them, surprisingly. They are actually less addicted, I think, than people my age. What is hard is a feeling they are missing out on activities, chances to meet other people (in person), and loneliness. They actually love not having the electronics. They also have assignments starting at 5:30 a.m. and get to explore museums and go to live theatre and music."
Not so dismal after all! And not age-related, at least not in the sense of developing brains being at the center of the story.
The brains of McDaniel's students weren't scanned and compared with those of the students Rosen observed, so I can't say for certain that there's no underlying biological difference at work in the two groups — but I think it's highly unlikely.
McDaniel's students may succeed at this collegiate version of ascetism because they have the right kind of personality to do so: a self-selection bias at work, in addition to McDaniel's insight in choosing the students most likely to succeed from the applicant pool.
Still, the Living Deliberately course surely offers evidence for an anthropological rather than a neuroscientific perspective on college kids and technology. Patterns of "using" are heavily shaped by the social community and the expectations of normative behavior in those communities.
We don't need to be monks for a month to absorb the lesson here. We create our communities and those communities help shape our brains — even our brains on technology.
Barbara J. King is an anthropology professor emerita at the College of William and Mary. She often writes about the cognition, emotion and welfare of animals and about biological anthropology, human evolution and gender issues. Barbara's new book is Personalities on the Plate: The Lives and Minds of Animals We Eat. You can keep up with what she is thinking on Twitter: @bjkingape