The New Technologies—a Brain-Changer?


April 2, 2012

Barbara Rich, Vice President of Communications at the Dana Foundation, interviews Baroness Susan Greenfield, an Oxford University Professor of Pharmacology and a member of the European Dana Alliance for the Brain, who reflects on the potential of how new digital technologies affect who we are.

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Q:
 You have been raising your concerns about the influence of digital media on the brains and behaviors of children, including your remarks before the House of Lords.  What do you see as the three most critical issues in this arena?

A: There are many positives already documented for cognitive skills, such as higher IQ and improved short term memory, as well as improved sensory-motor coordination. However, these findings are not surprising as we know the brain becomes good at what it rehearses. My concern is more that the large amount of time spent by many in front of a screen inevitably will mean that there is less time spent in the three-dimensional worlds of five senses. Even today in the British news there was a report that children are rapidly losing touch with nature.  The three broad areas where I have concern would be (1) the impact of gaming on issues, such as risk taking addiction and attentional problems; (2) the impact of social networking sites on interpersonal relationships and notions of identity; and (3) the impact of search engines on information processing vs. understanding and real knowledge.

Q: Can we truly fully understand the influence of digital media on these critical areas (above) and on society as a whole without long-range epidemiological studies?

A: This question raises clear parallels with the situation in the 1950’s with possible links with smoking and lung cancer. It was only after long-term epidemiological studies by the likes of Sir Richard Dull that the causal relationship was established. We may be in a similar situation in linking the impact of screen technologies with increases in problems, such as attentional disorders and decline in empathy as published recently by Michigan State University in a study of 1,400 students. The problem is even more complex when it comes to the brain since it is always hard to establish a cause or a link in a correlation.

For example, this was illustrated in a recent study by Kuhn et al. (2011), where there was an enhanced ventral striatum in the brains of children playing computer games excessively. It was a point of discussion whether they were born with such brains which predispose them to playing games or whether the playing of the games had induced enlarging of this brain area. Obviously, the more epidemiological studies that could be set in train the better. On the other hand, as we all know, it is very rare that any one scientific study is viewed universally as conclusive. It is far more likely any finding will inevitably raise further questions and debate. We cannot really wait for a whole generation to serve as guinea pigs whilst we await some definitive conclusion.

Q: In what ways do you think these new technologies differ in their impact from society’s adaptation of technologies we now all take for granted—such as television?

A: I remember when television was first introduced into the home. It became a part of the culture in our family life just as the Victorians used the piano 100 years earlier. The issue is not so much the technology itself but the degree to which it is used, and the extent to which it displaces other activities. All other technologies have been a means to an end, for example keeping food cold or travelling further or faster. My concern now is that the cyber culture has become an end in itself. Only recently the co-founder of Twitter, Biz Stone, expressed his concern that the technology he himself had developed was being misused obsessively, beyond the benefits for normal life that he had intended.

Q: You have been very active in fostering the recruitment of women in the sciences. Have you seen much improvement in that area since you authored a 2002 report for the Department of Trade and Industry, “SET Fair: On the Recruitment and Retention of Women in Science”?

A: Sadly, no, the main problem as always comes down to money. I fear that the biggest problem, among those that we identified in the report, was how to level the playing field for women scientists in their late 20’s who did not have tenure but wished to start a family. This situation inevitably means that just at the time when they’re establishing recognition as a post-doctoral scientist, they have the invidious choice of putting their career on hold for several years and then returning in a junior capacity because they will not have a competitive publication record. Alternatively, they may decide not to have children at all or need to delay the prospect until they are more secure professionally, yet beyond the biological optimum. Men do not face these choices. Only by developing ring-fenced fellowship schemes for those who have had time off for child care (and this of course may occasionally include men,) will we be able to deal with this inequality.

Q: You have been a strong supporter of the importance of increasing the public understanding of science. Yet, often your comments have been considered controversial. How do you handle that? And what advice can you give to young scientists who might hesitate to speak with the media?

A: It would be very rare for any new idea not to attract controversy! So long as the criticisms are based objectively on the science, then it is very appropriate that any proposition is refined against the checks and balances of debate and discussion. The difficulty lies when the criticisms become personal, not least since such an approach is intellectually impoverished. In such cases, it could be seen as a last resort by those, again taking things personally themselves, and feeling their culture/lifestyle is threatened. Regarding advice to young scientists, I would urge them to engage with the media as much as possible. It may seem difficult at first that compared to the agenda of peer reviewed science that of the media seems overly simplistic and aimed sometimes at sensationalism. However only by explaining the real issues involved will scientists ever be able to influence the bulk of society, including policy makers. Rather than shy away from the clashes between the different cultures of science and media, we should be trying to build bridges.