Dr. Greenfield is a Neuroscientist and, apparently a (life) member of the UK House of Lords. She has attracted controversy for raising questions about the potential effects of “screen life” on the human brain. Why this should be controversial speaks volumes about the deterioration of education, especially, science education. Of course on-line activities affect your brain—how could it not do so?—the question is how, in what ways and what are the potential implications.
Greenfield thinks that the ubiquity and attention-sucking of computer technologies are a new environment for the human brain, and expects that we will adapt rapidly to it. Human brains adapt, that’s one thing we are really good at. The adaptations may or may not be intended or expected, and may have negative implications for other aspects of life, but they are happening.
The point is, Greenfield believes that digital life, especially the confluence of a number of recent technologies, present an unprecedented and powerful environment to which our brains are adapting. These changes are profound and have dramatic implications. She uses the term “mind change” as a conscious analogy to the term “climate change”: a large, complex, world-wide change with long-term implications.
The implications are profound. Despite a century of dystopian fantasy, this is not turning to humans into mindless robots. On the contrary, they are being ‘entertained to death’, acting out for an audience, and encouraged to living the life of perpetual childhood: This is not inhuman, this is far too human!
Greenfield isn’t worried about any single technology as much as the simultaneous spread of a number of new experience, enabled by ubiquitous digital tech. These include social media, gaming, searching, and surfing. All of these present evolutionarily new perceptual and behavioral environments, which many people inhabit for quite significant portions of their life.
If you accept that the human brain is superbly able to adapt to new environments, then we must expect that our brains will adapt to these digital environments. The question is, what kind of adaptations are happening, and what implications might they have.
Greenfield lays out recent research on the psychological and social effects of digital experiences, and looks at the evidence of changes in our brains. While there is much we don’t understand, there is certainly evidence that something is going on, and reason to wonder if these somethings are problematic.
These are controversial issues, rife with difficult chicken-and-egg problems, limited understanding of brains, and conflicting social, economic, and political interests. Greenfield works hard to be very careful, laying out the evidence we have and acknowledging the limits of what we know. She definitely draws conclusions, but she does not abuse either evidence or logic. She might end up being wrong, but she is not unreasonable.
For example, a summary of the effects of video games:
“Consider the following possible cycle of events involving someone who plays action video games. The experience of a fast-paced, vivid, interactive screen experience is arousing, hence dopamine is released. The dopamine inhibits the prefrontal cortex, thereby putting the brain into a mindset where the here and now trumps consideration of future consequences, making the fast-paced sensations of the screen even more appealing in comparison with the slow, unexciting real world. As the game continues, more dopamine is released, desensitizing its receptors. Now more dopamine is needed to create the same level of arousal as initially experienced, so the behavior that produced the dopamine surge is perpetuated to greater or lesser extent. In some 10 percent or so or individuals this cycle will be extreme enough to be regarded as addictive or obsessive behavior.” p. 199
Of particular interest to me, Chapter 19 considers Augmented Reality, specifically in the form of Google Glass. She has some serious criticisms of what she perceives to be the GG experience, “constantly ongoing literal world will permanently trap users in an endless hyperconnected present” (p. 254). I think she is overstating the experience of GG per se, but you can see where she is coming from, as these technologies enable “the current obsessions with monitoring the lives of others and broadcasting every moment of your own existence” to be “liberated completely from keyboard and touch screen” (p. 255)
This, she worries, is a troubling loss “to us as the independent individual entities we’ve been until now” (p. 255). Privacy, she says, is the other side of the coin of personal identity. And she worries that “we always have an inner narrative, an ongoing thought process that is ours alone”, and “if you’re now trapped in the present, constantly catering to the demands of the outside world that inner narrative might be harder to sustain” (p 256)
This is certainly an interesting take on “privacy”, which takes it out of the adolescent power games about who controls personal information. Government spying might not be the worst thing to fear.
“The three age-old distinctions that formed the basic constructs of our lives—private inner self versus external others, fact versus fantasy, and child versus parent versus grandparent—may for the first time start to erode.” p. 259
She sums up with a “worst case” description in which,
“social networking sites could worsen communications skills and reduce interpersonal empathy; personal identities might be constructed externally and refined to perfection with the approbation of an audience as a priority; an approach more suggestive of performance art than of robust personal growth; obsessive gaming could lead to greater recklessness, a shorter attention span, and an increasingly aggressive disposition; heavy reliance on search engines and a preference for surfing rather than researching could result in agile mental processing at the expense of deep knowledge and understanding.” (p. 265)
We can see why she is worried!
This is an important book for many reasons. As I said, Greenfield may turn out to be wrong, but it won’t be because she is careless of the facts or unreasonably alarmist. For example, here analysis of Google Glass is off target, both because GG itself is pretty much a dead end, and because she focuses on details of the specific device which will not be universal. However, AR in some form will definitely be happening, and at least some of her concerns will certainly apply.
Indeed, she did not have space to consider the implications of other digital technologies, for example, the hidden algorithms behind search machines (which skew the “objective” results in various obvious and obscure ways), and the pervasive effects of online “dating” services, not to mention the rise of distracted driving and the “Uber economy”.
My biggest dissatisfaction with the book is that she has little in the way of a positive program to move forward. Assuming that abstinence will not be a widespread practice, what should be done?
This, indeed, is one of my own central concerns.
How can we use these technologies not only without harm, but to make human life better?
I also hope to see Augmented Reality used to create more social spaces, where the magic only happens when we are there, together, at the same time, in person.
Forget the hand wringing, we have work to do.
- Greenfield, Susan, Mind Change: How Digital Technologies Are Leaving Their Mark On Our Brains, New York, Random House, 2015.
Sunday Book Reviews