This weekend I went to a talk by Professor Susan Greenfield, titled “Brain of the future: The impact of new technology on how we think and feel”. I had very high expectations considering that Susan is a professor of
psychology Physiology at Oxford University and was being delivered to the British Psychological Association. I went with the intention of hearing some hard evidence to support Susan’s shock-horror theory that technology is destroying our ability to maintain attention and worse, to interact with other people normally and is even “anaesthetising” us against sadness. All of this written in such reputable outlets as ahem, the Daily Mail. I’ve also been following her (rather one sided) feud with Dr. Ben Goldacre who has been calling for her to provide evidence for her ideas or publish them in a scientific journal for a very long time with no response. I highly recommend you read his article on the topic before reading on so you are aware of the long back story to this debate. So I arrived at the lecture hall with bated breath ready to hear the evidence for her shocking suggestions of the powerful effects of modern technology. Unfortunately I left none the wiser. Prof. Greenfield presented a compelling recitation of the basic theoretical framework of how we understand neuronal connections to be flexible, a concept known as neural plasticity. This is something I would have greatly appreciated in my first year of Psych 101 but leads me no closer to understanding why technology per se’ can cause permanent negative changes in the brain. It seems only logical that the evidence presented by Prof. Greenfield for the theory of neural plasticity, though fascinating in it’s own right, suggests the total and utter opposite. Our brains are highly flexible to adapt to new and varied environments, and back again. There was also much talk of new “2D” ways of communicating and an apparent belief that social networks used by young people are an end in their own right rather than a means to an end. This seemed to be based on an assumption that communicating online means not communicating in real life… Once again I find the total opposite is in fact true in the lives of most people I know, young and old. From my experience, being more connected means seeing more of people in real life. Worst of all, there was however not a single reference to any experiment having been done to directly support her ideas about negative effects of technology on the brain. So much for science. Professor Greenfield did however mention in passing, a review of research on the effect of use of computers on the young mind, published in Neuron in September. This article is very well researched and I highly recommend it. It is still open access, PDF here. I was however, (not so) shocked to discover that the review is overwhelmingly positive, here are just a few of the many findings from studies cited in the review, none of which Professor Greenfield addressed:
- Owners of computers are seven percent more likely to graduate school (after controlling for confounding factors such as home environment)
- Interactive programming on television can improve language (whilst programmes like the “tellytubbies” damage language skills)
Playing action video games is associated with a number of enhancementsin vision, attention, cognition, and motor control
The lecture warned of the possible devastating effects of games and computers and the new “sensory environment” on the mind while blissfully ignoring the evidence which in more cases than not appears quite the opposite. Of key importance in the neuron review that Professor Greenfield cited is the suggestion that technology is going to be vital in preparing us to survive in the 21st century economy. To follow the advice that Prof. Greenfield alludes to and deprive the young of access to computers may deal them a profound blow in their ability to compete in the brave new world. Footnote: I’m pretty sure I don’t need to add that there was of course no mention of Baroness Greenfield’s own “Mindfit” brain training computer game priced at £88 that was slammed for false advertising claims and very dodgy supporting research (no control group being just one of the flaws). Nor did she mention the oh so relevant recent findings that Brain Training Games are, at the moment no more beneficial than random web browsing. A finding that probably has more implications for random web browsing than anything else. So rest assured, if anything is making you stupid, it’s not the internet. Now that’s out of the way, here’s a far more rational and balanced look at the issue…
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