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Susan Greenfield (2014), Mind Change: How digital technologies are leaving their mark on our brains, London: Random House

Susan Greenfield (2014), Mind Change: How digital technologies are leaving their mark on our brains, London: Random House, 356pp
ISBN: 9781846044304 (hardback), 9781846044328 (paperback)

Review by Nicholas Price, Department of Physiology, Monash University

As someone who often checks my email while waiting for traffic lights and elevators, it was with trepidation that I began to read a book with the premise that modern technology and the internet are having (mostly) negative effects on the brain and mind. Could I avoid Twitter, messaging friends and watching cat videos for long enough to read twenty short chapters about the mental impact of all things technological? Would I learn what incessant FOMO email-checking has been doing to my mind, and how to overcome any brain-damage that I have already caused?

Greenfield motivates the book with three seemingly simple statements: (1) the brain adapts to its environment; (2) the environment is changing in unprecedented ways (as a result of new technology and the internet); therefore, (3) our brains may be undergoing extraordinary changes. The logical concern explored throughout the book is that modern technology is wreaking havoc on the way people, especially children, think and act. Unfortunately, while the first statement is widely accepted, the latter statements are not easily studied. It is challenging to disentangle technological from social and cultural changes, and linking specific technologies to qualitative or quantitative changes in brain and behaviour is exceedingly difficult.

After a wide-ranging introduction to brain plasticity, the role of neurotransmitters in the brain, the link between brain and mind, and the effects of some neurological conditions, what follows is best described as fear-mongering. Greenfield paints a picture of an imminent dystopia arising from social networking affecting the ability to empathise, read body-language and create a unique identity (Chapters 9–12); video games increasing aggression and reducing the ability to concentrate (Chapters 13–15); and web-surfing impairing critical thinking skills and creativity (Chapters 16–17).

The effects of technology on individuals and society are undoubtedly worthy of deep consideration and will influence how we conduct ourselves, raise our children and relate to other people. However, the book often gives equal weight to anecdotal reports, single peer-reviewed publications and meta-analyses. This makes it difficult to determine what, exactly, we should be afraid of, and how widely accepted certain results might be. A notable example concerns a discussion of autistic spectrum disorder diagnoses and their link with technology use. We learn that 'the possibility that [autism] triggers […] such as prolonged and early exposure to a world of the screen where no one looks you in the eye cannot be dismissed out of hand.' However, autism is typically diagnosed early in childhood, with symptoms often evident prior to children interacting with technology. Thus, this disingenuous assertion is unhelpful; no research has or could be done to support the statement, and it is undeserving of inclusion given the emotionally fraught domain of autism diagnoses.

If we accept that technology is having significant, negative effects on the brain, the book fails to explore two important questions. First, other than by pulling out the power plug completely, how can we overcome these negative effects? And second, are the negative effects of technology acceptably balanced by its myriad of benefits? While the book bemoans an internet-fuelled reduction in deep and critical thinking (to be replaced by broad, shallow 'surfing'), it presents mostly a superficial analysis of a broad range of topics, with some unexpected conclusions. For example, while possibly true for one part of the brain in a very narrow behavioural context, I am not convinced that 'as far as the brain was concerned, taking Ecstasy and video gaming were the same experience'. Further, the book considers no meaningful solutions and compiles no practical rules for how the reader might modify their own behaviour. One simple rule that I can offer, based on research presented in the book, is that multi-tasking should be avoided (Chapter 17). Don't fool yourself into thinking that you can check email and Facebook during a lecture or conversation and still follow everything that is said. Similarly, when extended concentration is required for tasks like reading and writing, create environments that limit technological distractions such as text messages.

Finally, for individuals, technology and the internet have provided countless positive improvements in communication, lifestyle and friendships. At a larger scale, they have created entirely new industries and enhanced productivity. Given that the integration of technology into modern life is only likely to increase, how should we balance these improvements against the mostly negative effects described in the book? In the final pages, we're pithily told that, we need to canvas the opinions (!) of many people about how technology is affecting our brains, and we need to do more research. Having spent 20 chapters examining data underlining how our brains and minds are being changed by technology, it is disappointing that we are not given cogent ideas for what that future research might entail, and how it will help us. Now, please excuse me while I reply to this message about a video of a cat.

 

Review by Hasan Suida, Faculty of Social Sciences, University of Warwick

Neuroscientist Susan Greenfield's premise is simple: 'Firstly, the human brain adapts to the environment; secondly, the environment is changing in an unprecedented way; so thirdly, the brain may also be changing in an unprecedented way'. This sounds reasonable, except that the second statement is unprovable – does she mean unprecedented relative to the discovery of agriculture, or the industrial revolution? Greenfield compares the 'enormity and impact' of technological changes to 'climate change' (the provable, testable scientific theory that has undergone years of scientific scrutiny) and coins the phrase 'Mind Change' to describe this phenomenon. She positions her work as scientific literature for the general public. I would argue that it is not, but is instead a biased commentary and extrapolation, backed up by dubious references.

Greenfield describes herself as a digital 'immigrant' as opposed to a 'digital native'. This quickly gives the reader the impression that she prefers the age before technology, stating that time spent 'using technology' is time spent both 'away from the real world and real people' and from the 'warm drawing room where the nuclear family sat together'. I am unsure if she has heard of Skype. Throughout the book you hear the faint yet familiar diatribe: the current generation are sedentary, shallow and lazy, locked indoors with attention deficits, thanks to technology. Silicon Valley, Arab Spring, Occupy and Ferguson beg to differ. It suggests a close-minded and, ironically, two-dimensional view of the world, where Grand Theft Auto is a dopamine-inducing 'driving game' rather than a complex open world RPG with delayed gratification, moral decisions and complicated story and character arcs.

Throughout the book alternative viewpoints and variables such as sample size, date or control groups are rarely shown, making it hard to have an opinion regarding validity. Greenfield is content for us to trust her choice in citations, which is difficult when you are aware of her obvious bias. Surveys created by companies are given the same weight as peer-reviewed scientific studies, in a similar way that anecdotes from strangers she has met are treated like quotes from scientists.

Greenfield's description of Google Glass – the shelved augmented reality device – exemplifies this approach. She creates a simplistic dystopian world of the possible outcomes of Glass (similar to her recent work of fiction, 2121: A Tale From the Next Century), calls it 'terrible' and then quotes a self-appointed pundit 'Andrew Keen' who labels the device as 'specifically designed to record everything we see' which is factually incorrect. This is similar to the idea (again posited as fact) that 'literacy rates' are 'decreasing' due to the use of technology. In the UK literacy rates are increasing, as they are in the majority of other countries. Hyperventilating in a Daily Mail-esque fashion does little to address the legitimate privacy concerns Glass could pose. Going further, to suggest that the eyewear could make face-to-face interaction uncomfortable, and trying to prove this by causally linking 'technologically advanced' societies like Japan to 'declining birth rates' without a shred of evidence is a bizarre conjecture, yet one typical of this book.

It is clear Greenfield enjoys armchair observation rather than experimenting with current technology. She argues that the internet destroys creativity by forming fewer synaptic connections as a result of superficial engagement with constant, instant novel stimuli and facts. Perhaps there is truth here; however, I would point to the ignored proliferation of cheap DSLRs, audio recording devices, free editing and coding software and online sharing platforms, and show the near exponential increase in young artists creating and sharing music, short films, apps and blogs, pushing the boundaries of what is achievable on a small budget.

In fairness, I agree with some of the premises and opinions put forward. They resonate with my experiences – like seeing my four-year-old nephew's attention span decrease after he played a stimulating iPad game. However, these are observations. It is dangerous to present them as repeatable facts and link them to areas of the brain without sufficient evidence. My nephew can also play alone with a few toys for hours on end. It is even more dangerous to have an opinion, quote a longitudinal study of a similar subject matter, pair it with persuasive surveys or an emotional anecdote and create a causal link with scientific rhetoric that is far removed from the initial study.

The topic discussed needs to be addressed from a balanced, neutral perspective in a systematic, scientific way. To me, the fact that Greenfield is in such a position of power to influence general consensus as a crossbench Member of Parliament and a Fellow at the University of Oxford is concerning after showing such callous disrespect for the distinction between opinion and fact (e.g. the 'link' between 'early screen exposure and autism'). The famous phrase – 'more research is needed' – applies and it is telling that Greenfield continues to shy away from presenting her case in a scientific paper with suggestions for controlled experimental intervention that can be conducted in attempt to prove her hypothesis without ignoring the complexity of the 'real' world.


 

To cite either of these reviews please use the following details: Price, N OR Suida, H. (2015), Susan Greenfield (2014), 'Mind Change: How digital technologies are leaving their mark on our brains', Reinvention: an International Journal of Undergraduate Research, Volume 8, Issue 1, http://www.warwick.ac.uk/reinventionjournal/issues/volume8issue1/priceandsuida Date accessed [insert date]. If you cite these reviews or use them in any teaching or other related activities please let us know by e-mailing us at Reinventionjournal at warwick dot ac dot uk.