Baroness Greenfield selfie

Baroness Greenfield - is the digital world damaging our brains?

Neuroscientist Baroness Greenfield thinks that search engines, social media and video games are having a negative effect on how we think and behave. "Am I just being old fashioned?" she says. "I don't think so."

Baroness Greenfield is quite concerned that I'm not up to speed on the news story about the 'monkey selfie' that's gone viral on the Internet. She Googles the image and there before us on the screen in her Oxfordshire office is what appears to be a perfect portrait of a primate. But, because a human didn't take the photograph, the image has been declared to be in the public domain. The result is that the photographer behind what is an iconic shot claims to have lost thousands of pounds in royalty fees.

It is a story that has clearly amused Susan Greenfield, a leading UK neuroscientist and certainly one of Britain's most high-profile public intellectuals. She's best known for 'unpacking' (one of her favourite words) complex scientific issues and presenting them to a public that is thirsty to know how their brains work. She sees the humour and absurdity in a story that could only exist in today's digital world. But she's also concerned about what effect certain aspects of that world - search engines, social media and video games - have on the way in which our minds relate to reality.

Greenfield is currently touring the media circuit with her new book 'Mind Change'. As the half-title informs us, it is a work that sets out to explore 'how digital technologies are leaving their mark on our brains'. Mind change is an expression that will resonate with her readers, as it bears more than a passing resemblance to the now current 'Climate Change'. So is Greenfield creating a neologism for the public understanding of current thinking in neuroscience?

"Yes. I'm deliberately echoing the concept of climate change. Mind change is an umbrella concept rather than a specific hypothesis, embracing what I see as a big force affecting 21st-century life." She explains that as with the more familiar idea, mind change is global, unprecedented, controversial and above all multi-faceted. "What I argue in the book is how it is new, and what I try to do is unpack the different aspects of it. So while in the world of climate change there are issues such as carbon sequestration, water shortages and so on, without there actually being a single problem to address, with mind change I look at the impact of different technologies on how people are thinking."

For Greenfield this impact can be broken down broadly into three areas relating to video games and their effect on addiction, aggression and attention span; social networking (empathy, identity and communication) and search engines (the effect that these have on our cognitive powers, leading to the distinction between information and knowledge.) "The most important thing that I want to get across is that there's no single problem or hypothesis. 'Mind Change' addresses a lot of questions."

These three areas are where it is easy to feel under attack from the world of technology. But surely, I ask Greenfield, this isn't anything new? Previous generations have grown up alongside the evolution of the printing press, the telephone, electricity and the motorcar. You don't need to be a neuroscientist (one of Greenfield's recurrent phrases) to understand that we have adapted to the changes these technologies have brought with us. Even if we understand technology in itself to be neutral, these developments have been predominantly agents for good. So why the note of caution? Why is she claiming that the digital world has the potential to have a negative impact on us?

"Those earlier technologies were a means to an end. They meshed with reality and were part of three-dimensional life." But now, says Greenfield, we see a world where technology is creating a parallel reality. "You could go to work, play games, go dating and shopping - all of which people do in the real world - but do it all in two dimensions in front of a screen. We can argue about whether this is better or worse than real life, but what we can be sure of is that never before has technology offered us an alternative to real living."

I'll think about it later

One of the ways in which we are changing, says Greenfield is in the so-called 'Google effect', a term coined to describe how our understanding of information has changed. As a result of the ubiquity of search engines, we have become adept at remembering where information is, but less good at remembering the data itself. "We have started to outsource our memory. But what worries me more is the way in which the generation of digital natives has its identity closely woven into social media. More and more identities are constructed externally."

Why this is important to Greenfield is that today's 'digital friends' - and we tend to have about 500 of them - aren't friends at all, but an audience. "It's not possible to have 500 friends in real life. What they are there for is to comment on what you do, usually in a disapproving way." This may sound like a relatively harmless activity, but if you are communicating solely through digital media with people you don't know, what you are missing is "the handbrake of body language that would normally constrain you from simply talking endlessly about yourself".

Greenfield says that humans are especially good at this, recalling an experiment where individuals routinely refused a financial reward in order to continue to talk about themselves. Greenfield adopts several defensive postures: she looks away, folds her arm, pushes her chair back: "This is nature's way of me telling you I've heard enough. I'm presenting you with a firewall." But on Facebook the handbrake is absent, leaving you vulnerable and open to the disapproval of your audience, "which lowers your self-esteem and increases levels of narcissism".

If Greenfield's talk of the death of general knowledge and the decline of human friendship sounds scary, then prepare to be very scared, because she's only just started. "If, in the future, everything is stored externally, communication will be impaired and impeded. That there is now more so-called information available than ever before and more opportunity for us to articulate our views may sound good. But, as came out of the World Economic Forum in 2013, this is one of the biggest threats to humanity - digital wildfire, the spread of misinformation."

Three-dimensional reality

"We are no longer driving the narrative," says Greenfield, who steps back to examine the way in which pre-digital people learned in early childhood. Greenfield, who is 64, remembers with affection how in her youth the tools of learning and play were passive. "The drawing pad didn't ask to be drawn on. The toy soldiers or dolls only worked if you wanted to play a game. The tree didn't ask to be climbed. What this meant was that we were using our imagination. We spent our holidays outside and we only went in when it was time for tea."

Add some lashings of ginger beer and a dog called Timmy and what Greenfield is describing is the rose-tinted world of Enid Blyton, where international diamond smugglers were effortlessly thwarted by the blissfully simple schemes of meddling kids. Has the nation's highest profile neuroscientist had an attack of nostalgia? Isn't she being a little, well, old-fashioned?

"Today, children are just parked in front of a screen with a second-hand imagination, responding to fixed menus. After the marginal initiative of turning the device on, the whole thing is about the narrative agenda being set externally." What living in three dimensions also gives us is access to senses such as touch, taste and smell: "It's incredibly important in terms of a child's development to smell a flower and to feel the wind in your hair. A factor related to childhood obesity today is that one of the few occasions children can use smell is when they're actually eating something."

Living in a digitally prioritised world creates a constant backdrop of what Greenfield calls "low-level angst". It could take many forms: what drives her crazy is when she's having lunch with her PhD students only to find that they are constantly checking their smartphones. At this point, Greenfield's computer beeps and we are distracted by an incoming email, which she refuses to open. But then the phone rings and she has to take the call, because she needs to fend off a newspaper journalist who wants to know who designs her clothes.

This sort of angst is caused by the combination of wanting to be left alone and fearing that you'll miss out. It's no surprise then that we have passed the tipping point - according to a new report from Ofcom - where we now spend more time online than we do asleep. For Greenfield this is "bonkers", and not for the first time she uses the expression 'you don't need to be a neuroscientist' to work that out for yourself.

World without consequences

Greenfield thinks that a parallel digital existence robs us of a meaningful life. She defines meaning as "actions with consequences that often cannot be reversed". You drop a wine glass on the floor and it breaks, and so the consequence of dropping it creates the meaning: it's broken. "By contrast, everything in a video game can be reversed and therefore, by my definition, it is meaningless. It follows that if you are spending most of your time doing something that is meaningless, you have to consider what impact this has on identity and self-expression.

"There is a profound difference between young people who spend all their time in front of a screen and those who play the violin or spend a day at the beach. These activities are more meaningful and give a more robust sense of who they are."

Video games represent the last word in a world without consequences. "I just don't get it. There is no relationship to the person or the real world. Why should an adult want to do this? It is as if there is a desire to step out of the real world. The plots, as I understand them, are very childlike: good and evil with no shade of meaning. You can't imagine 'Pride and Prejudice' as a video game, can you? Or 'King Lear'? Perhaps not."

The serious point Greenfield is making is that the video game universe is not as nuanced as classic fiction. At the time of writing 'Mind Change', Greenfield noted that the top ten video games all contained violence, coupled with a lack of ethical ballast that meant the violence was trivial. "The main tenet is, of course, that you can suspend consequences. The game can be reset. You can have another go." Greenfield observes that even in games marketed to the very young there is a distortion of the consequences of real life. In 'My Little Pony','should you fail to feed the animal it won't die, it merely looks miserable. When Greenfield pointed this out to the game designer, the response was that there was no need to upset children. "What's wrong," Greenfield muses "on having a real hamster, where you can learn quite quickly that if you don't feed it horrible things will happen?"

Actions and reactions

Greenfield cheerfully describes herself as a "basic neuroscientist" who, when it comes to the societal effects of digital technology, is dealing with issues that are "really just common sense". She explains how, when you enter a virtual gaming world where there are seemingly unlimited arsenals of weapons with catastrophic firepower, where the things you kill are imagined creatures such as goblins and orcs, you are entering a world where people are "truly nasty in a way that they are not in the real world".

"It is only in the virtual world," says Greenfield, "where you find that standards of behaviour can be reduced to a level where character assassination can be seen as the norm." She's referring to the much-publicised anonymous and misogynistic online abuse of the historian and classicist Mary Beard. "What were these people trying to achieve? Did they think they were being clever or cool? You see, in the Enid Blyton world, this would have been an incomprehensible way of behaving." As Greenfield muses on why anyone should wish to be as unpleasant, her train of thought returns again to the idea that online our actions can be separated from the consequences: a thread that is woven into the fabric of her book.

Greenfield doesn't think that she's simply being old fashioned, and she is resolutely unapologetic for her analysis of the digital world. "One of the easiest criticisms of me on this issue is to say that I am a technophobe who just wants to turn the clock back and refuses to keep up with technology; that I should wake up and smell the silicon. But my response is to say that not everything new is superior to what has gone in the past. We shouldn't just sleepwalk into the future and say that everything is ok just because it is new."

As a scientist Greenfield thinks that technology is "fantastic" and she is at great pains to point out that she has no desire to retreat into the past because it is somehow simpler and therefore better. "But I am concerned that we should start to think once again of technology as being a means to an end and not an end in itself. In the past, a fridge kept your food cold and the printing press gave you a book. Today, it is an end in itself, and I think that is a sinister thing." 

'Mind Change' by Susan Greenfield is published by Rider, £20

Recent articles

Info Message

Our sites use cookies to support some functionality, and to collect anonymous user data.

Learn more about IET cookies and how to control them