Neither digital technologies nor the worries they provoke will be disappearing any time soon. This makes Susan Greenfield’s goal in Mind Change – “to explore the different ways in which the digital technologies could be affecting not just thinking patterns and other cognitive skills, but lifestyle, culture and personal aspirations” – an important one.
The initial idea is sound: since the human brain develops and functions in dynamic interaction with the environment, the striking changes to daily experience brought about by increasingly pervasive digital technologies are plausibly affecting our brains and minds in substantive ways.
Greenfield, an Oxford university neuroscientist specialising in neurodegenerative disorders, begins with a lengthy tour of the brain and its experience-dependent plasticity. She then reviews three terrains: the implications of social networking for identity and relationships; the relationships between video-gaming and attention, addiction and aggression; and the impact of search engines on learning and memory.
Some important, if unsurprising, conclusions can be tentatively extracted from this research. While more nuanced than the simplistic “screens are bad” argument, they do line up with typical concerns. For example, while social networking can enhance authentic friendships, it is also a venue where bullying can flourish. Moreover, every hour we spend documenting or responding to trivial minutiae is time not spent doing homework, reading, exercising or enjoying the unique benefits of face-to-face interaction. Playing action video games may enhance some perceptual, attentional and spatial skills, but prolonged screen time reduces the capacity for sustained attention. How one views this trade-off presumably depends on whether you aspire more to success in, say, avoiding sniper bullets and controlling air traffic, or being able to read this entire review without checking your smartphone for emails.
The violent content of video games hasn’t been convincingly linked with criminally violent behaviour, but it does slightly reduce pro-social tendencies and increase the likelihood of “the types of aggression that happen every day in school hallways”, as one expert put it in the science periodical Nature. And, for those saddened by the retreat of the printed page, it is gratifying to discover that we find it harder to stay on-task and to develop deep understanding when we do our learning from internet searches. Greenfield observes that even Eric Schmidt, chairman of Google, considers reading a book “the best way to really learn something”.
Reader responses to parts of Mind Change are likely to be strongly shaped by pre-existing opinions. Those who are alarmed by the contribution of digital technologies to the demise of old-fashioned imaginative play may be sympathetic to the author’s concern about cyber experiences that limit choices “within the second-hand parameters of the game world designer’s thinking”. Others will sardonically ask whether board games therefore similarly pose a threat to children’s development. Similarly for Greenfield’s speculation that the “threat to memory” presented by the internet suggests the day may come when conversations have to be interrupted in order to Google things like “Barcelona” or “Napoleon”. Some will consider it absurdly alarmist; others will be waiting for someone to ask who Barcelona is.
The notion of multiple social identities long predates social networking
What should test the patience of even sympathetic readers, however, is Greenfield’s unsophisticated neuroscience of identity. Her approach draws tenuous links between a “mindless” state (in which the individual has a reduced sense of self, is driven by external stimulation, and is focused on the present moment), high dopamine and low prefrontal cortex activation. Yet the multi-faceted nature of the psychological phenomena that constitute “mind”, and the complexity of the dopaminergic system, the prefrontal cortex and their interaction, defy straightforward inferences from these neurological characteristics to psychological ones, and make this account far too simplistic to be useful.
This flight of neurofancy is especially problematic when used to argue a more profound threat from digital technology than the data allow. For example, Greenfield expresses concern that social networking will displace the “true self” with “an exaggerated, ideal self”. But the notion of multiple social identities, responsive to others, long predates social networking – and evidence that people’s Facebook pages reflect their actual personality rather than an idealised self should allay fears that the “social networking self” is especially self-enhancing. While Greenfield’s speculation that social networking triggers dopamine release doesn’t imply anything about identity, the neuroscientific account misleads her to the suggestion that social networking “displaces a robust inner sense of identity in favour of one that is externally constructed and driven”. Greenfield’s admirable goal to provide an empirical basis for discussion is also undermined by disregard of the basic scientific tenet that “correlation doesn’t imply causation”. For example, when Greenfield concludes, from purely correlational data, that “Social networking can demonstrably increase narcissism levels”, the premature verdict of guilt potentially deflects attention from other suspected causes for nationwide increases over time, such as the rise of neoliberal values.
Greenfield concludes that “Mind Change . . . is a phenomenon whose enormity and impact is comparable to climate change.” Unfortunately, such overblown statements can only leave her whistling into the wind of the storm this book is likely to create.
Mind Change: How Digital Technologies Are Leaving Their Mark On Our Brains, by Susan Greenfield, Rider, RRP£20, 384 pages
Cordelia Fine is an associate professor at the Melbourne Business School, University of Melbourne