Wednesday 17 February 2016
Neuro Fiddles, Brain Turns
by Susan Greenfield
I first became aware of Baroness Susan Greenfield’s 2014 book Mind Change by, ironically (given its primary focus), seeing it mentioned in a tweet on Twitter. The book's subtitle, or catch line, of “How digital technologies are leaving their mark on our brains” promised to be a compelling read and, indeed, it was. However, I had one of my own personal hang ups to get past first...
In the mini biography on the first page of the book, before I’d even got started on the actual tome itself, it mentions that she is a member of the House Of Lords. Now this, I have to say, nearly made me give up reading it there and then. Politicians and their ilk are generally a breed of parasite I usually have no time for. In this country alone they have completely managed to destroy everything and, just even in the last ten years, things are getting worse and worse on these shores to the point where I can see civil war possibly brewing in the background. Government, as far as I can see, is about a number of privileged few who are only intent on taking backhanders and feathering their own nest at the expense of their fellow man. The naivete and absolute lack of compassion combined with the constantly demonstrated expression that power corrupts absolutely has never been on better show as it is in the UK today. Regardless of this, one of my take aways from having to live under this Government is that they barely seem to have a brain between them... so who are they to write books on such things.
That being said I persevered because I, myself, have begun to see a diminishing return in my own cognitive functions on a daily basis for a few years now and am working in a job which proves to me, irrefutably, that people are becoming less thinking and functional than they were even just 15 years ago. Also, the quote on the front cover, coming from The Grauniad, called the author in question “Britain’s best known neuroscientist”. I hadn’t heard of her myself... or so I thought. It did, however, shortly come to light that she had ‘hit it big’ with me in my dim and distant past.
I was right to continue with the book in spite of it being written by someone who is in the House Of Lords because Mind Change, along with many others by the same author, I’m sure, proves to me that... not only does this lady know her stuff, she is also fully aware that the answers to a lot of the things she questions here are not able to be proven one way or another at this stage of the research. However, there is evidence to suggest the way things are going... I’ve already demonstrated my own need to read this book based on my perceptions of myself and the majority of the people I come into contact with every day. There are concerns to be wary of and we need to start asking the questions and doing more rigorous research into these things very soon otherwise we, as a nation and a planet, may find ourselves in a very sticky situation before we even realise it (or possibly before we are any longer capable of realisiing it).
As I was reading the book, something seemed very familiar and it struck me that I had somehow come across this writer before. I played a hunch and googled her image, something she would probably not have absolutely approved of given the subject at hand although, in my defence, I was coming to google to discover if I was right as to her identity based on my own inner reasoning... rather than just surfing their on a whim. I found myself looking, not at the person I was expecting to see but someone who might well have been that person if she’d aged... just a little. So I did more research to see if I was right. Back in 1994, at Christmas on the BBC, I’d actually taken note to watch their annual broadcast of the Royal Institution Christmas Lectures. That year’s edition was entitled, presumably in reference to Jules Verne, Journey To The Centre Of The Brain and the woman giving the lecture held me mesmerised and spellbound and made me begin to question the wisdom, or lack of in my case, stored in the human brain. One story about a man who survived having a railway spike unexpectedly and accidentally splitting his brain and the way in which his behaviour changed as a result, was one which particularly stayed with me. Even to this day I can remember the funny face the lady in question pulled as she related that story (assuming my mind hasn’t made that bit up for me). And that woman who delivered this wonderful lecture was, it turns out, Susan Greenfield, the writer of Mind Change. So, of course, I immediately then trusted her and threw my last seeds of caution to the wind.
Mind Change doesn’t set out to prove anything specific, I think. Or at least that’s my understanding of it. Like Freud and his ilk, Greenfield merely tries, and in my case certainly succeeds, in asking some tough questions about how digital technology and our reliance and interaction with it on many levels is changing the way our brain functions... so we can start talking about it. She asks these questions because, I think, she believes that we are perilously close to producing a generation of people who just can’t think the way we need to do. And having read this book... I now have the same concerns... or at the very least, my own concerns and anxieties surrounding these issues magnified.
It’s become something of a known fact, at least in my everyday conversations with people, that our reliance to reach for a search engine has stunted our brains' capacity to recall details we used to be able to conjure up for ourselves to a great degree. We don’t stretch our grey cells anymore, we just look it up on our phone or computer or whatever digital device is the most handy. And this, among many other things, it would seem, are cause for concern.
Now, I’d never really thought about this before but Greenfield points out something that I guess I should have thought of but never really had cause to contemplate before... our thoughts, or for the oldest of us now in this increasingly digital world, are linear expressions across a space of time... tiny though that space of time might be. That is to say they traditionally have a beginning, a middle and an end and, honestly, I really had never even thought about that concept before. It staggers me in the way that it might not stagger many, I concur, but also it then highlights what happens when somebody is on social media a lot, or getting a load of emails, or receiving a load of texts or whatsapp messages... or many of these things all at the same time. Yes, our pace of life has changed greatly and the acceleration of the way new bits of information or requests take up our time means we are programming ourselves to think purely on a reactive basis to what’s coming in. We may start to have a thought about something but we’re just not getting to the end of it before the next thing is already hitting us and to which we will also quickly respond before our thought process is quite finished. I may be saying this wrong but that seems to fundamentally be happening.
Lots of things are covered in Mrs. Greenfield’s book and I have to say, though I can’t go into them all in the space of my average review length, I was fairly impressed about how intricate and broad the spectrum for concern is. She gives all the data she can and also highlights arguments for and against her own, treating other views fairly and, quite often, pointing out why they could be flawed due to the way in which the research on various phenomena have been handled. She’s also quick to point out, and I also found this concept quite refreshing, that we can’t just isolate the brain reacting to something as a cause and effect piece of evidence. For example, we can show quite demonstrably that playing action video games demonstrates a low level but abundant amount of hostility or aggression in a lot of people playing them. However, are we highlighting that the video game is causing that or are we highlighting that people who already have those characteristics are drawn to play these things in the first place. It’s a concept of which comes first, the chicken or the egg, and this comes up again and again in many guises throughout the book. If Susan Greenfield is one thing, it’s definitely that she’s very fair and open to the possibilities that nothing is really, at the moment, being proven at all.
One thing which rang true to me, for reasons I won’t go into here, is that it seems that learning on electronic devices such as iPads, computers or whatever other kind of tablet device is given, is not helping students of various ages but, in fact, hindering them. By encouraging people to be 'digital natives', as she puts it, we are discouraging them to make associations in a narrative context, which is where meaning and therefore knowledge comes from... yeah, the value of fiction over non-fiction as the best experience to learn from is supported quite highly by the writer and explains, to me, the popularity and value placed on various forms of narrative in modern culture. It seems people’s brains are all over the place when it comes to the digital world and although they are becoming exceptionally good at finding the answers to things, they are not arriving at the questions themselves and therefore not making the kind of connections required to take any real meaning from those answers. Their IQs are raising but their knowledge and the wisdom needed to make that knowledge a potent force for good, is absolutely a lot worse than it was before. So much so, she informs us, that some states in America have now got institutions in which electronic devices are banned as an aid to teaching because the results from the students are so poor when reliant on digital stimulation. We are living in, she says, a question poor/answer rich society... which is a complete 180 degree turn from what we used to be, although when we were in a question rich/answer poor access society, we used to take more away from asking the right questions, rather than being bombarded with too many fascinating and seductive but ultimately ‘off the point’ answers.
A conversation I had last week with a lady at work corroborates this. Over the years, she told me when I raised this subject, that she’s had three children. Two of them were not ‘digital natives’ and when they were growing up, they were a lot further ahead than her latest child, who has had all the so called benefits of digital learning but behaves a lot more poorly because of the way teachers have used it in the process of... well... teaching this person. It sent a shudder down my spine because I know a lot of higher education establishments in this country are poised to go the same way in terms of investment into a much more aggressive push into ‘virtual education’ and I know that results are declining rapidly in this country over the last ten years. I firmly believe the ‘distractions’ of the digital age, among other factors, may well have had some large part to play in that.
Of course, it raises the question of whether current concerns are going to be dismissed in future generations as quaint and antiquated notions and Greenfield is quick to point that out too. However, her speculative summing up in the final chapter of where we may be in just fifty years time, which certainly falls into the realms of science fiction but which seems more probable than some other future outcomes, is quite sobering and certainly gives pause to thought that we should really be taking this phenomenon, some of the negative effects which are certainly with us already, as something serious and maybe find a way to take a step back and investigate our approach to the digital world, rather than just jumping in and seeing whether the waters are infested with hidden sharks after we’ve already started swimming.
I do have one criticism of the book... and you knew I had to have one, right? The design of the book is such that rather than have conveniently placed footnotes at the bottom of the page, all the notes are shoved in to a quite large section at the back of the book. This of course means you have to actively leave the main text for a while as you flit around finding the right note and then come back to the main text, distracting you from the flow of the original message. For the author, who quite convincingly details the perils of the allure of hypertext links on the internet, this seems just a little ironic to me, it has to be said.
And that’s about all I’ve got to say about Susan Greenfield’s non conclusive but certainly provocative and excellent book Mind Change. Other than the fact a complete laymen like myself was able to understand it because it’s so well written and understandable. She also uses, in some chapters, little passages which may be deemed page turner cliffhangers, were they in a work of fiction, whereby she finishes off a section by asking a question which leads us in to the next chapter. Proof, I suspect, that her grasp and use of fictional narrative devices, and what she’s learned from them, are serving her in life more than many younger authors might be able to make appropriate use of. A truly riveting book and one which I think deserves to be read by as many people as possible because, if you agree with her thoughts on the subject or not, the questions she raises are something we all should be more aware of and mulling over, to do the right thing by future generations, I think.