Reviewed by Stefanie.
Mind Change: How Digital Technologies Are Leaving Their Mark on Our Brains, Susan Greenfield has provided us with an even-keeled examination of the intersection of digital technology and neuroscience. She explores various ways in which digital technology is affecting our brains, identities and culture and the possible consequences. Human brains are naturally plastic, everything we think and do changes them; this is a known and uncontested fact. There is no reason to believe that digital technology will not also change our brains and ultimately, who we are. Isn’t it a good idea to assess the potential risks and benefits of technology before we are so deep in it that it is too late to go back?
Greenfield takes time to expertly lay out the basics of neuroscience. If you are inclined to reading general science books about the brain, you might find much of this familiar. But Greenfield manages to move along at a good pace and, before you know it, she is outlining a really interesting theory of mind.
You have probably heard the human brain compared to a computer. But our brains are nothing like computers. Computers have fixed circuits that cannot be changed. Our brains on the other hand, are always changing, always creating new connections and neural pathways. Brains are dynamic networks that so far no computer can come close to emulating. We are all pretty much given the same basic brain starter kit when we are born. The unique person, the mind that is you or me or that guy over there, is “the personalization of the brain through its individual neuronal connectivity.”
Greenfield writes about “mind” and not “brain” because, while our brains are changed by digital technology, she is concerned about what the changes to our brains are doing to us as individual minds. You might want to argue that screens have been around for a long time; after all, before spending hours in front of a computer, a good many of us spent hours in front of the television. The difference between then and now, however, is one of degree. We never took our TV sets with us wherever we went.
I’ve been one to argue that technology isn’t bad, it’s how we use it that’s the problem. It’s up to each of us to regulate how much time we spend looking at a screen. Greenfield has persuaded me that, while self-regulation may work for some, the majority find it difficult. Therefore, proceeding with caution in the adoption of technology is probably a good idea, especially when it comes to children.
Greenfield focuses on three main areas: social networking, video gaming and search engines. Out of the three areas, we probably know more about video gaming simply because it has been around longer.
Video games flood the brain with dopamine and dopamine makes us feel good. Game designers know this and deliberately create games that regularly provide our brains with dopamine treats to keep us playing. Lest you think this only applies to games like World of Warcraft, ask yourself how much time you’ve spent playing Angry Birds.
Excessive gaming has been clearly linked to difficulties with attention as well as an increase in aggression and recklessness. Those who become addicted to gaming also tend to exhibit autistic behaviors even if they are not autistic. But gaming isn’t all bad. Certain games can increase visuospatial processing as well as motor control and even reverse cognitive decline in the elderly. The ultimate question then, and Greenfield does not have the answer, is how do we balance the good and bad of gaming?
Perhaps the most disturbing portion of the book is devoted to social networking. It has its benefits, allowing us to keep in touch with people we don’t see often. But studies reveal that the more time we spend socializing online, the more difficult it is to interact with people in the real world. We lose, or in some cases never develop, the skills of talking with people and reading faces and emotion. And, we often end up feeling bad about ourselves because everyone else’s life seems to be so much more exciting than our own.
Additionally, the evidence of an event becomes more important than the experience itself. Taken to extremes, this can lead to a life in which something isn’t real unless it’s posted on Facebook. Our public selves and private selves are beginning to merge and the result is a self that is always looking for approval from “friends.” We are heading towards personal identities constructed, not by each of us as an individual, but for us by others.
The final section of the book on digital technology, memory and learning, is the weakest because too much is crammed in. Greenfield briefly discusses search engines and memory (why remember something if I can just Google it?), e-reading versus print reading, and digital learning versus traditional learning.
Google does tend to make us stupid. Sustained reading and comprehension are becoming more difficult. And, as educational instruction using technology moves more toward spoken word and visual images, Greenfield worries what effect this might have on literacy. She asks, “Why learn to read or write when everyday communication can be so readily accomplished without either of these skills?”
Throughout the book, Greenfield uses authoritative sources, explains what we know and what we don’t know, and provides sometimes detailed notes. Technology for Greenfield is neither all good nor all bad, it is murky grey. What she hopes to achieve with this book is to get us to all slow down and think. We should be the ones who choose our future, technology shouldn’t choose it for us.
Stefanie blogs at So Many Books http://somanybooksblog.com and was thinking of becoming a gamer girl until this book scared her straight. Now Luddite doesn’t sound so bad.
Susan Greenfield, Mind Change: How digital technologies are leaving their mark on our brains (Rider Books: London, 2014). 978-1846044304, 368pp., hardback.