We live and work in the wonderful age of digital technology. Some of us can remember the analog days of having to drive to a library to find certain information which can now be miraculously accessed on a pocket computer. Libraries are still important, but no one can deny that computer and media innovations have changed our lives dramatically. The discussion lies in to what degree and where the boundaries should be set. Teenagers and adults spend hundreds of hours looking at their phones, updating their statuses on social media, and following the trends of their online friends. People feel pressure to remain constantly connected. After speaking with a group of California high school students about their own technology habits, one mentioned that FOMO (or the “Fear of Missing Out”) is a common experience for young people. This is only one side effect of our constant connection to our devices.
For all of its benefits, there is evidence that our tech and media practices affect us in deep and abiding ways that may challenge the very mission of the church. Many studies in neuroscience report that extensive usage of social media and screen technology changes the human brain in ways that make it difficult for a person to maintain sustained levels of concentration. Nearly thirty years ago, Jane M. Healy argued in her book, Endangered Minds, “that we are rearing a generation of ‘different brains.’” How much more might this be the case today than it was then? Such changes raise important questions. How are all of these technologies shaping us? And, what ramifications does this have for worship, preaching, and religious education?
In the past, the conventional thinking was that the adult brain experiences very little change or development. It was believed that new connections could not be formed after a certain point. However, the current understanding is that the brain is actually quite adaptable throughout our lives. This adaptability is called neuroplasticity and refers to the ability of the brain to reconfigure itself by forming new neuronal connections according to how it is stimulated.
We change how we perceive, think, and behave by the tools we employ. For example, playing a violin produces physical changes in the brain of the violinist. This can be observed with scanning technologies. This neural re-wiring is true even for those who take up their instruments as adults. It is not only repeated physical actions like playing the violin that can rewire our brains. Purely mental activity can also alter our neural pathways. Studies suggest that people who had only imagined playing the notes exhibited the same changes in their brains as those who had actually done so. As Nicholas Carr points out, “Their brains had changed in response to actions that took place purely in their imagination—in response, that is, to their thoughts.” Repetitious thoughts can literally exert a physical influence on our neural tissues. You physically change the structure of the brain by what you do with it. Neurons that fire together wire together. Our thoughts change our brains. Altered brains then tend to think differently. It’s a progressive cycle.
It was nearly thirty years ago when Healy noted the “generation of ‘different brains.’” Today, we are raising the most connected and media-saturated generation ever. The internet is a powerful medium that affects us neurologically in ways we are only beginning to understand. Carr’s thesis is that the hyperlinks on most websites train our brains to zip from site to site to look for stimulating tidbits of information. “The ability to skim text is every bit as important as the ability to read deeply. What is different, and troubling,” according to Carr, “is that skimming is becoming our dominant mode of reading”—and perhaps even becoming our dominant mode of thinking.
In his classic, Understanding Media, Marshall McLuhan wrote that our tools end up numbing whatever part of our body they amplify. Once you begin to use a plow, you amplify your body’s ability to turn soil, but in the process, your arms and back are no longer as strong as they were when you did this work manually. We make gains in one area, and sustain potential losses in another. For instance, I have noticed that my ability to navigate new cities is improved by using GPS, but my own internal awareness of direction is weaker. I get lost less often, but cannot explain how I got where I am. By our tech habits we risk dulling primary abilities related to language (e.g., reading, writing, analytical reasoning, oral expression) as well as critical thinking and problem solving.
Some will respond that the technological pessimists are overreacting. So what if people today process information differently than prior generations? We simply need to adapt. Both technological optimists and technological pessimists characterize the brain changes as making our minds less word-oriented and more image-oriented. The disagreement is over how concerned we should be about this change. Most of us would like to believe that the tools of technology are neutral artifacts whose value is determined solely by how we use them. The hubris is that we are in control. We need to understand that the tools themselves have an impact. As McLuhan put it so succinctly, “The medium is the message.” The answer lies not in a neo-Luddite rejection of technology but in a conscious approach that recognizes that our very selves are affected by the tools we use.
If the critics are correct, an impaired ability to think in a complex and systematic manner may interfere with the church’s mission of making mature disciples of Jesus Christ. Many have surely erred in over-rationalizing Christian belief, but we also face the opposite error of relying too heavily on religious impressions, experiences, and feelings. The harmful effect of media technology on our ability to think clearly coupled with the postmodernist aversion to rationalism has disquieting implications. Are we a generation that can still make sense of a sermon or follow the arguments of St. Paul? We have galaxies of information at our fingertips, but our wisdom and understanding may not be keeping pace.
The benefits of digital technology are immense. Translating our sacred texts to digital formats, for example, helps us to find passages in a flash, but what are we trading for this ability with respect to our personal knowledge and contemplation of Scripture? Perhaps the church should lead the way toward calmer brains and clearer minds by teaching people to fast from their screens from time to time and pick up a book.
 Jane Healy, Endangered Minds: Why Children Don’t Think and What We Can Do About It (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1999), 45.
 Nicholas Carr, The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2011), 33.
 Carr, The Shallows, 138.
 Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, Critical edition (Berkeley, CA: Gingko Press, 2011).
 Healy, Endangered Minds, 46.