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May 10, 2012

Top scientist Susan Greenfield says mobile technology is literally changing the way we think

LONDON, United Kingdom – Susan Greenfield doesn’t mean to sound like a curmudgeon when she compares mobile technology to a Victorian family gathered around a piano in the parlour. What she means is that mobile technology should be considered in a wider context than how big the screen is, which processor it uses, and the number of available apps.



As an eminent neurologist at Oxford University, and the former Director of The Royal Institution of Great Britain, Greenfield is engaged with a debate about the  consequences of technology – for our families and societies, and even for the functioning of our brain.


Her argument is that mobile technology, and what we do with it, is now at the center of our family and social life, like the piano was for the Victorians and the TV was for baby boomers. But it’s even bigger than that, because it’s mobile, of course; so we not only do it at home, we do it at work – we do it everywhere.       


“I don’t want to turn the clock back,” says Greenfield, “My concern is not that we have too much technology – but that we are not making the most of it.”


With huge increases in life expectancy, and demands for a better quality of life, we should be acutely aware of how we are harnessing technology for our own development.


“Look,” she says, “the human brain has been described as ‘exquisitely plastic’. It’s very sensitive to the environment. Your brain will change in reaction to your environment every moment of your life.  The question we should be really interested in is how technology is making the brain change?”


In the past, she believes, technology was always a means to an end; a way to travel faster, or a way to cook food better – but now technology is often the end in itself. 


“In a few years we may well have embedded technology, in our clothes, even under our skin. The idea of embedded technology doesn’t bother me, but as we move forward we should be asking – what kind of society do we want? Why do we want this technology, and what do we want people to use it for?”


There are three areas she’s particularly interested in: social networking, gaming and the use of search engines.


In thinking about social networking Greenfield mentions Sherry Turkle’s book, Alone Together, and a study of 14,000 college students published in 2011 by Sara Konrath at the University of Michigan which showed a fall in self-reported empathy since the 1980s, with a steep drop in the last ten years. Konrath attributed that drop to social isolation – a problem which Greenfield believes is compounded by the use of social networks.



People may believe they have more ‘friends’ and communication with the world, but communicating through social networks on a screen does not enable young people to develop the real social skills that they need to make the most of their lives, she argues:


“Ninety percent of the impression that you make on someone is how you talk, whether you make eye contact, what physical signals you convey, how you are able to respond to other people,”


These are not skills that you develop through text and Twitter, she believes, adding that people with autism feel particularly comfortable working with in a screen environment, specifically because it enables them to avoid social skills and human interaction.


Greenfield has also written about technology and identity, and worries about the effect of social networks on young people as they form a crucial sense of themselves. Instead of someone forming a sense of self through thoughts and actions and life stories, Greenfield worries that people are forming an artificial sense of their lives through Facebook status updates, and the number of ‘friends they have.


People are living constantly, compulsively, in the moment without ever being fully present in the activities and conversations that make up their “real lives”.


Greenfield is hardly the first person to notice this, but she’d like to see more attention paid to studies like the one conducted by the University of Michigan.



This sense of dislocation from the ‘real world’ can also be exacerbated, she believes, by long hours spent gaming. While it’s hard to isolate one reason, Greenfield believes there may be a link between time spent gaming and children who have attention problems, calling excessive gaming literally “mind blowing”.


She refers to research by Cynthia Kuhn and colleagues at Duke University into the neural processes underlying addiction, and the effects of dopamine, which showed that the area of the brain associated with addictive behavior, and illnesses like schizophrenia, was enhanced in children who played computer games excessively.


What scientists couldn’t tell from the research, she adds, is whether these children already had brains which predisposed them to gaming, or whether gaming had brought about the changes in the brain – a crucial question.


Scientists, like Professor Mark Griffiths who leads the Gaming Research Unit at Nottingham Trent University, have responded that there is no scientific evidence to support such a link, and that gaming can encourage children to engage in a positive way with education.


Greenfield says that her comments have frequently been misinterpreted  controversially, but believes that the debate over the effect of technology on the brain is an essential one to have.


As an adult she has a mature framework to support and interpret technology. For example, she can use search engines to acquire information and then interpret it using checks and balances within the context of the knowledge that she has already learned.


It’s this framework that believes young people are lacking.  


Reading books has been proven to help the brain develop cognition, but “if you are using a search engine, how do you know that the answer is the right answer?” she asks.  


How do you know that a virtual ‘friend’ is really a friend, or that “life is not a game” but a series of actions, with consequences?


If some of this sounds like old-fashioned scaremongering Greenfield clearly doesn’t mean it that way. Presumably people will develop new frameworks for working out when virtual friends are real friends, and the difference between what we see on screen and real life – after all we’ve already made that accommodation with television.  


As a scientist, Greenfield prefers to see the results of long term scientific studies, but claims that we can’t wait decades for those ultimate conclusions while a whole generation acts as “guinea pigs”.


For Susan Greenfield its clear that technology has catapulted us into a new world of tremendous opportunity that also brings changes to our brains, our personalities and our society – and she intends to explore exactly where that journey is leading us.