March 05

“Mind Change”: Does Technology Really Harm Our Brains? A NeuWrite Reads Special Report

When I was growing up, there was this idea that the things we did on the Internet were part of a life separate from the one in the “real world” (most literally seen in the online game “Second Life”).  The people you met and the things you did weren’t really part of you and the life you lived- they were something other, something lesser.  But these days, the Internet is no longer perceived as a separate place that we log onto; it is inextricably entwined with our daily life.  We tweet about the weird dude on the bus, Instagram a picture of our lunch, upload pictures from the weekend to Facebook, download a podcast and liveblog it, and we do it all while we work and play and live in the real world.  The way we live has been fundamentally changed by technology.  Did technology change the brain too?

 

This question of how the brain is changing with the advent of technology is the focus of Mind Change, a new book by Susan Greenfield, a British neuroscientist and member of the House of Lords.  While Greenfield’s own research is focused on neurodegenerative illnesses, she has made a bit of a name for herself in the UK by warning of the dangerous consequences that too much technology might have on the brain.  I knew none of this when I began reading the book, but it became very clear very quickly that Mind Change is Greenfield’s extended argument for the world the way it used to be, before technology and the Internet changed it all.

 

Greenfield focuses her criticism on three of the most popular aspects of modern technology: social media (and Facebook in particular), video games and search engines.  Her conclusions are essentially:

  • social media is diluting relationships and making people both more lonely and more callous and self absorbed (Chapters 10-12)
  • video games are dulling our sense of the real world and making us more aggressive and brutal towards those around us (Chapters 13-15)
  • search engines and Wikipedia eliminate any  need to remember facts and figures and are therefore leading the world on a slow march towards illiteracy (Chapters 16-18)

This may sound dramatic and over-simplified, and it is to a certain degree. But the bias in this book is so heavily weighted towards the negative consequences of technology and the Internet that it’s impossible to put the book down without feeling like everything we do online is making us dumber and less capable of functioning. And that is simply untrue.

 

The funny thing is, I actually agree with Greenfield on some of her points. There is an inherent danger in the supposed anonymity of the Internet, allowing users to become more brutal than they would be in real-life where they would have to face the consequences of their words and actions (see: GamerGate and its violent harassment of women).  Violent video games are likely not the healthiest pastime for young children, and there is certainly a correlation between increased aggression and violent video game playing (1-4). Increased persistent access to the Internet makes it more difficult for to study and concentrate on less entertaining things (5). I do not necessarily dispute these claims.

 

What I do dispute is the conclusion that because something happens online, it is necessarily bad and lesser than something that happens in the real world.  Greenfield claims that friendships made exclusively through Facebook are not nearly as rich and fulfilling as those made through the real world.  While this may be the case for Facebook, it completely ignores the huge variety of other sites and methods of establishing friendships through the Internet. I will admit to having “Internet friends” who have become some of my closest and dearest friends in the real world, people who I speak to on a daily basis through technology, despite the fact that they live across the country and across the globe. I may not see them in person, but the joy and emotional closeness that I get from their friendships is not lesser because of that fact.

 

It may seem like I’m using personal anecdotes to counter scientific data, and that may be true.  But Greenfield herself uses conversations with friends about their concern for their children to bolster her argument.  What’s missing is a perspective from these children, who she refers to as “Digital Natives”, about their relationship to technology. Greenfield only briefly presents the positive side of these technologies; in a chapter on social technology and society that is 20+ pages long, she devotes only a paragraph to the benefits of social networking, such as the Arab Spring and its ability to bring important issues to the forefront when they “go viral” (such as we have seen recently in discussions of race and police brutality). Talking to Digital Natives about how they really use technology, rather than describing how a survey study says they do, might have provided a more nuanced picture. And by ignoring them, Greenfield joins a long tradition of the older generation turning up their noses at way their children and grandchildren are growing up and experiencing the world (even Plato felt this way about the increasing popularity of the written word).

 

I also take issue with many of the conclusions that Greenfield has drawn from the studies she uses to shore up her arguments in the book. At one point she claims that a study at Dundee University of British children’s reading preferences found that “…Eric Carle’s classic picture book The Very Hungry Caterpillar…emerged as the most popular book among girls ages fourteen to sixteen.”  Having read the study, which can be found here, I am baffled as to where this fact came from, as the report says that the most popular books for girls of that age (Years 9-11) are The Hunger Games and Of Mice and Men.  Eric Carle’s book shows up in the lists for children aged 6-8, and lowly ranked on the list of popular books for 12 year olds who struggle with reading. While this is only one misinterpretation of a cited study, it’s a truly astonishing one.

 

Even more disturbing is her claim that the Internet may be causing autism. This comes about via a very complex set of logic involving the prefrontal cortex, a study linking TV watching with autism rates, and the fact that those on the spectrum are generally more comfortable communicating online than face to face.  Greenfield notes that since some populations that exhibit high levels of dopamine (such as schizophrenics and gambling addicts) also have an “underactive” prefrontal cortex.  She then later states that Facebook may be causing excessive dopamine release in users (despite a glaring lack of research to back up this claim).  Greenfield follows this by citing a study that linked increased TV watching to autism rates (6), despite the fact that this study was not peer reviewed and used some very strange criteria to produce the correlation.  Finally, by mentioning that a group has found that an underactive prefrontal cortex is a symptom of autism (7), she links all these conclusions together to conclude that the Internet may be precipitating autism.  However, that supposed study that she cites makes no mention of a link between autism and the prefrontal cortex, and is in fact merely a review of the divisions of the medial frontal cortex and what roles they may play in social cognition.

 

These are only two of the more outrageous claims that Greenfield has made, and neither of them are supported by the studies that she cites.  I’m unsure whether this is a mistake on her part or the editor’s, or if Greenfield genuinely believes that these studies support her bizarre claims.  The fact is, Greenfield has done no original research on anything to do with the effect of technology on the brain, let alone on any link between autism and technology.  And since she repeatedly claims that the hippocampus is important for working memory, something we have known is not true since the 1950’s (8), I am extremely skeptical of many of her conclusions.

 

In the end, I think my dislike of this book boils down to a fundamental disagreement with Greenfield about the nature of my generation’s relationship with the Internet. She claims that stories and creativity are a fundamental need in our lives, and that that need is fulfilled only by engaging with printed fiction. That might be how she engaged with stories as she grew up, but I and others of my generation not only engage via the printed word, but by creating our own worlds using technology. We create stories through art, through video, through fanfiction and roleplaying games.  We harness technology to create new ways of sharing our words and ideas and worlds. We make podcasts and audio adventures and punny Tweets that make people laugh and think.  Creativity does not die with technology; it grows and thrives.

 

But what do I know? I’m just a Digital Native.

 

 

References

 

  1. C.A. Anderson and B.J. Bushman, “Effects of Violent Video Games on Aggressive Behavior, Aggressive Cognition, Aggressive Affect, Physiological Arousal, and Prosocial Behavior: A Meta-Analytic Review of the Scientific Literature.” Psychological Science, September 2001, 12(5):353-359
  2. C.R. Englehardt et. al., “This is your brain on violent video games: Neural desensitization to violence predicts increased aggression following violent video game exposure.” Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, September 2011, 47(5):1033-1036
  3. S.A. Gitter et. al., “Virtually justifiable homicide: The effects of prosocial contexts on the link between violent video games, aggression, and prosocial and hostile cognition.” Aggressive Behavior, September-October 2013, 39(5):346-354
  4. Y. Hasan et. al., “The more you play, the more aggressive you become: A long-term experimental study of cumulative violent video game effects on hostile expectations and aggressive behavior.” Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, March 2013, 49(2):224-227
  5. A. Bucciol et. al. “Temptation at work.” PLOS One, January 2013, 8(1): e53713
  6. M. Waldman et. al., “Does television cause autism?” National Bureau of Economic Research, Working Paper No. 12632
  7. D.M. Amodio and C.D. Frith, “Meeting of the minds: The medial frontal cortex and social cognition.” Nature Reviews Neuroscience, April 2006, 7:268-277
  8. B. Milner et. al., “Further analysis of the hippocampal amnesic syndrome: 14-year follow-up study of H.M.” Neuropsychologia, September 1968, 6(3):215-234
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