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The Knowledge

Optimize Blog - October 13, 2010 - 0 comments

The Knowledge is a formidable test that London black cab drivers (Cabbies) have to take and pass before they are allowed to make a living driving the iconic black cab around the streets of London. The Knowledge requires months of studying, gaining familiarity with local landmarks and understanding short cuts and knowing the most efficient routes to progress around one of the most congested pieces of real estate anywhere in the world.
Research shows that these Cabbies actually have enlarged areas of the brain that are concerned with storing mental images of space and indeed the longer one has been a cab driver, the larger this part of the brain is.
But this intellectual capacity is under threat from technology – with the continued expansion of GPS this unique requirement for ‘The Knowledge’ will diminish. You might be asking “so what – the cab drivers won’t be quite as bright but as long as I get to my destination then why would I care?”
Well there are parallels for the rest of us. Search engines such as Google and Bing ensures that our requirement for mass data storage in our brains is becoming diminished. We don’t need to bother remembering facts, figures and dates; we can simply enter our question in a search engine and get all the answers we need.
We see our children doing their homework and often their starting point is an Internet search. Other research shows that this change in behaviour is having a lasting effect on our brains. The most interesting study had people who hadn’t had experience with the web begin to use Google, for just an hour a day, and begin searching and surfing. The results showed how even just a small amount of use triggered varying patterns of brain activity.
“On the one hand, a lot of the decision-making parts of their brain were activated which means it can help keep a mind sharp, for instance, as we get older. But it also seemed to indicate the kind of patterns of activity that would make it hard for you to concentrate” explains Nicholas Carr, author of The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains.
The key to making us concentrate, Mr. Carr suggests, is perhaps to make tasks difficult – a theory which flies in the face of software designers the world over who constantly strive to make their programs easier to use than the competition.
Another simple experiment conducted recently involved a puzzle that needed to be solved using a computer program. One half of the participants were given a software program which gave hints, was intuitive and generally helped the user to their goal. The other half took on the same puzzle, but with software which offered little to make the task easier. The research demonstrated that people who had the weakest software, learned much more than the people with the most helpful software and further, months later – the people who had the unhelpful software actually could remember how to do the puzzle, and the people with the helpful software couldn’t.
This simple experiment could suggest that as computer software becomes easier to use, making complicated tasks easier, we risk losing the ability to properly learn something – in effect “short-circuiting” the brain.
In business this might not be good news as leaders cannot rely on computer applications to make the decisions that they are faced with on a daily basis. The ability to assess data, determine a course of action and see it through are critical leadership skills. Doing this when under pressure separates the average from the great.
Here at Zeitgeist we struggle to envision a time when a manager faced with a challenge puts the team on hold while they type their query into their favourite search engine – that same manager might wish to type in ‘definition of respect’ once the team has left the room. The concern though is that as the next generation of leaders emerge how well equipped will they be to stand back and really understand the true situation facing them? Too often it is too easy to try and short circuit our approach when what the situation really requires is a calmness of concentration and the learning that comes with figuring out the puzzle…

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