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. brain as computer Modern Technology is Making You Stupid. Sorry What? 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. socialnetwork 300x225 Modern Technology is Making You Stupid. Sorry What? 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 enhancements
    in 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…

Return to Neurobonkers.com Modern Technology is Making You Stupid. Sorry What?
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  • http://pessioptimist99.blogspot.com/ Yvonne

    I heard Susan Greenfield talk on this subject back in the summer. I had the opportunity to speak to her afterwards. She admitted that there were, thus far, no studies proving that the use of modern technology by children was adversely affecting the development of their brains. She insisted that all she was doing was raising the question that there might be a link and calling for further investigation into this. She also likened herself to the isolated voices calling for investigations between smoking and lung disease in the last century.
    However, Baroness Greenfield is a media scientist and is aware that her pronouncements will be quoted and misquoted as though she were citing hard evidence in support of her assertions. As such I feel she ought to acknowledge up front that no such conclusive evidence yet exists rather than for this to emerge through later private questioning.

  • Michael Kenward

    Let’s overlook the typographical (to be kind) errors all over this piece, but let’s not ignore one glaring factual error.

    “I had very high expectations considering that Susan is a professor of psychology at Oxford University…”

    Nope. She is Senior Research Fellow in the Department of Pharmacology:

    http://www.pharm.ox.ac.uk/research

    You don’t need me to tell you that psychology and pharmacology are very different disciplines. It is the baroness’s propensity to ignore those differences that lands her in trouble.

  • http://howlandbolton.com richard howland-bolton

    “Brisitsh Psychology Society.I listened with baited breath”

    Nice post, but I’d like it more with some proofing. :-)
    (Unless I missed some subtle joke, or you are the cat that ate the cheese and waited by the mouse hole, I’d be happier with ‘bated breath’.)

  • skeptic

    Susan Greenfield is not a professor of psychology, but of physiology. And she is absolutely not a very highly regarded neuroscientist. She is famous in the house of lord and on TV. Not in scientific cycles. And she has NO credentials to talk about the effect of videogame or social networks.

  • Kapitano

    Is someone paying her to say this rubbish? I mean, is she like David Bellamy, a once respected science professional, now funded to promote an ideological cause?

    Or is she more like Johnny Ball – someone who used to be a good populariser, but has stopped keeping up with published papers and slipped into flights of personal fancy?

    Bellamy – climate change denial. Ball – catholic church as champion of science. Greenfield – the internet makes you stupid?

  • Neurobonkers

    Thanks for the feedback, typos have now been fixed. I must confess I made the error of not proof reading this piece, it was a rather hurried entry that I wrote up upon request. Serves me right for grumbling about editors fiddling with my words in the past I guess.

    Kapitano – I think she’s merely got carried away with her own ideas. Not a crime by any means but when someone is in such a prestigious position few will answer back. I doubt there’s a hidden agenda to be honest (considering her most recent business exploit is selling brain training games).

  • http://www.b4thenx.net Aron Rehor

    Great new website!

  • http://www.dickpountain.co.uk Dick Pountain

    Susan Greenfield is also a ferocious campaigner against cannabis use, and her credibility among members of the last Labour government may have influenced their U-turn over its classification. Her hostility appears to stem from tragic experience in her own family.

    • Neurobonkers

      @Dick You are quite correct. Her totally factually devoid case for the ban in the daily mail really annoyed me. There’s a growing mountain of evidence that CBD, an element within cannabis, is a highly effective antipsychotic. CBD is really on the decline because the illegality of cannabis forces growers to grow intensively indoors which results in low CBD, high THC (skunk). THC as you probably know is the element of cannabis causing the psychotic like effects.

      From all the evidence I’ve seen it seems patently obvious that schizophrenia patients seek out drugs in an attempt to self medicate and stick with cannabis because it seems to them to work. (Though this may no longer be the case now that skunk has monopolised the market.) David Nutt’s argument that cannabis use has gone up 20 fold in which time there has been no rise in schizophrenia seems to shatter the causal link argument.

  • http://neuroskeptic.blogspot.com Neuroskeptic

    As Prof of Pharmacology with an interest in the molecular mechanisms of the synapse, Greenfield has no more expertise when talking about these matters than, say, Wayne Rooney.

    Actually Wayne has been on TV a lot, more often even than Greenfield, so he has more relevant experience with the corrupting experience of modern technology…

  • http://twitter.com/garnicle Bunny

    If she knew anything about neuroplasticity then she could appreciate that making your neurons fire is better than Not having them fire at all. Besides, the neural process is similar to reading, I say we ban reading and writing, it’ll make us crazy!

  • yay

    hi,

    i am 27 years old now.

    i’ve used a computer to watch porn, play computer games, read books, talk to other people, etc since I was 6 years old (only started using the internet when i was 11 though).

    i can thank computers and later on the internet to help improve my person in many aspects, of which i’ll enumerate a few and eventually go out of scope and still use numbers to talk about random things (i grew up on the internet sorry).

    1. i’ve learned about politics, foreign nations and economics and technology at an early stage due to playing alot of Civilization 2, much before i even address such topics in school and in much more depth

    2. watching porn in a computer or even naked women is better than a dirty magazine stashed somewhere…i learned to appreciate the diferent women and not look at the same naked ladies forever. also, porn was always free on the computer and porn magazines are not.

    3. 70% of the books i read in my life i did so on the computer and without spending a penny (except electricity costs). i’ve had access to books that i would not be able to on my local library or even book stores…

    4. when i started using the internet, it was mostly to go unto newsgroups to download porn and dragonball pictures. eventually i found IRC and met diferent people from diferent cultures… at a point my use of the internet was mostly downloading warez (books, games, media, etc) and talking to other people in other countries that i would hardly ever meet in real life (except later on i emigrated, but still…)

    5. my life was enriched in so many ways very early on mostly because the computer and the internet provided me with a cheap means of benefiting from the information and culture that humans produce…

    6. free access to information is also very key, “pirating” and copy right is retarded and selfish.

    7. i have 2 under-2 kids now, i “met” my wife online and i started giving access to technology to both kids since they were past the 12month mark

    8. i will continue to teach my kids about technology, how to break it and repurpose it and learn from it and with it. you can learn limited things from a book but you can learn unlimited things from a computer with internet…and now the computer is in your hand, in your glasses, wherever…

    9. saying using screens will make you fat is retarded.

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