Will the internet eat your brain?
A PICTURE doing the rounds on social media a few months ago showed two Hong Kong lovers hugging on a train. Resting their heads on each other’s shoulders gave the girl and her boyfriend an ideal vantage point to gaze lovingly at the smartphone that each was fiddling with behind the other’s back.
It was meant to be funny. But for Susan Greenfield, a British neuroscientist, this is no joke. For several years Lady Greenfield has been warning of what she sees as the dangers of computers and the internet, as they move out of the office and into people’s living rooms, pockets and personal lives. She has written newspaper articles and given lectures about the dangers of the digital world. She frets, worrying that smartphones and social networks are sucking users into an unsatisfying digital facsimile of reality, frying their memories, atrophying their social skills and generally rotting their brains.
These are familiar worries to parents. As a working neuroscientist, Lady Greenfield’s worries carry more weight than most. Yet as plenty of bloggers and other scientists have pointed out, her warnings have thus far been light on supporting evidence. Her latest book, “Mind Change”, is an attempt to corral her arguments into one place and to underpin them with psychological and neuroscientific research.
After a brief history of the rise of the internet, Lady Greenfield presents a well-written summary of how the brain works. In particular, she emphasises the brain’s ability to adapt to stimuli. It is this adaptability (or “plasticity”, in the jargon) that is the source of the claim, often associated with Ms Greenfield’s pronouncements that using the internet can alter the physical structure of your brain. That sounds scary, but it shouldn’t. Virtually any experience—reading the morning paper, divorcing your husband—will alter the physical structure of your brain, because such physical alterations, in the form of creating or pruning connections between neurons, are how the brain learns. The brain you go to sleep with every night is not the same as the brain you woke up with that morning.
Once the basic neuroscience is dispensed with, though, the book begins to run into the sand. Lady Greenfield rehearses familiar worries: that video games make their players violent, that social networks such as Facebook make their users lonely, socially inept and envious, and that search engines are immersing a generation in shallow answers to trivial questions and crowding out the capacity for deep, serious thought.
The evidence offered in support of these arguments is often interesting and almost always tentative. But Lady Greenfield cannot resist extrapolating to catastrophe. After discussing the usefulness of Google as a prosthetic memory, for instance, she jumps to an implausible future in which people had not “internalised any facts at all” and discussion of the world becomes impossible without a pocket digital helper. Her chain of reasoning can be shaky: after pondering whether spending time on social networks erodes real-life social skills, she points out that both Japan and South Korea are nations whose young people have embraced technology and which have very low birth rates, inviting readers to conclude (without ever quite saying so herself) that social networking might abolish sex.
The parallels with 20th-century concerns about radio, rock ’n’ roll and television, which is presently enjoying something of a rehabilitation as a proper, serious medium, are striking. Lady Greenfield is aware that misgivings such as hers are as old as writing itself (famously condemned by Plato, who worried that it would atrophy memory). Over the past 500 years everything from chess to coffee houses and vernacular Bibles has been seen as possibly corrupting the young, making them frivolous or indolent or filling their minds with nonsense. Perhaps this time things will be different, and the rise of the web, social networking and video games really will have profound and negative effects on society. But you will struggle to find a convincing argument within Lady Greenfield’s book.