Debating Greenfield

Neuroskeptic iconNeuroskeptic
By Neuroskeptic
Aug 12, 2011 5:00 PMNov 5, 2019 12:15 AM


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British neuroscientist Susan Greenfield regrets the recent controversy over certain of her remarks, and calls for a serious debate over "mind change" -

"Mind change" is an appropriately neutral, umbrella concept encompassing the diverse issues of whether and how modern technologies may be changing the functional state of the human brain, both for good and bad.

Very well, here goes. I wonder if Greenfield will reply.

As Greenfield points out, the human brain is plastic and interacts with the environment. Indeed, this is how we are able to learn and adapt to anything. Were our brains entirely unresponsive to what happens to them we would have no memory and probably no behaviour at all.

The modern world is changing your brain, in other words.

However, the same is true of every other era. The Victorian era, the Roman Empire, the invention of agriculture - human brains were never the same after those came along.

Because the brain is where behaviour happens, any change in behaviour must be accompanied by a change in the brain. By talking about how behaviour changes, we will, implicitly, also be discussing the brain.

However it doesn't work in reverse. Changes in the brain can't be assumed to mean changes in behaviour. Greenfield cites, for example, this paper which purports to show reductions in the grey matter volume of certain areas of the brain cortex in Chinese students with internet addiction compared to those without.

The obvious comment here is that it doesn't prove causality, as it is only a correlation. Maybe the reason they got addicted was because they already had these brain changes.

However, there is a more subtle point. Even if these were a direct consequence of excessive internet use, it wouldn't mean that the internet use was changing behaviour.

We have no idea what a slight decrease in grey matter volume in the cerebellum, dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, and supplementary motor area would do to cognition and behaviour. It might not do anything.

My point here is that rather than worrying about the brain, we ought to focus on behaviour. Because that is also focussing on the brain, but it's focussing on the aspects of brain function that actually matter.

Greenfield then poses three questions.

1. Could sustained and often obsessive game-playing, in which actions have no consequences, enhance recklessness in real life?

It's possible that it could, although I don't think we do live in an especially reckless society, given that crime rates are lower now than they have been for 20 years.

However, the question assumes that game playing has no consequences. Yet in-game actions do have in-game consequences. To a non-gamer, these may seem like no consequences, because they're not real.

Yet in the game, they're perfectly real, and if you spend 12 hours a day playing that game, and all your friends do as well - you are going to care about that. Those consequences will matter, to you, and with luck, you'll learn not to be so impulsive in the future.

In World of Warcraft, for example, actions have all too many consequences. If you impulsively decide to attack an enemy in the middle of a raid, you could cause a wipe, which would, quite possibly, ruin everyone's evening and get you a reputation as an oaf.

Exactly as your reputation would suffer if you and your friends went for an evening at the opera, and you stood up in the middle and shouted a profanity. Ah, but that's real life, the response goes. Is it? Is a performance in which hundreds of people sit solemnly, while grown adults dress up and pretend to be singing gods and fairies on the instructions of a deceased anti-semite, any more real than this?

3. How can young people develop empathy if they conduct relationships via a medium which does not allow them the opportunity to gain full experience of eye contact, interpret voice tone or body language, and learn how and when to give and receive hugs?

I do not think that this accurately represents the experience of most children today. However, assuming that it were true, what would be the problem?

If everyone's relationships were conducted online, surely it would be more important to learn how to navigate the online world, than it would be to learn how to interpret body language, which (webcams aside), you would never see, or need to see.

If the brain is plastic and adapts to the environment, as Greenfield argues, then surely the fact that it is adapting to the information age is neither surprising nor concerning. If anything, we ought to be trying to help the process along, to make ourselves better adapted. It would be more worrying if it didn't adapt.

Some might be concerned by this. Surely, there is value in the old way of doing things, value that would be lost in the new era. Unless one can point to definite reasons why the new state of affairs is inherently worse than the old - not just different from it - it is hard to distinguish these concerns from the simple feeling of nostalgia over the past.

The same point could have equally well been made at any time in history. When our ancestors first settled down to farm crops, an early conservative might have lamented - "Young people today are growing up with no idea of how to stab a mammoth in the eye with a spear. All they know is how to plant, water and raise this new-fangled 'wheat'."

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