Does the internet cause brainrot?

Are computers making us dumb?
Illustration: Kev Gehan -

In a world of ever-advancing technology, is every advance an improvement? Is forward always better than back? Is new always to be preferred over old? The last two decades have witnessed incalculable technological progression, and one device alone – the computer – has practically changed the world. But not necessarily for the better, says Professor Susan Greenfield.

Thirty years ago the boom in the personal computer market began. Computers, primitive by modern standards, such as the BBC Micro, Commodore 64, Sinclair or Amstrad were bought for children and adults by the million. But it was only with the mass popularisation of the Internet in the early 1990s did computers – by now, modern PCs and Apple Macs – begin to saturate society.

So today, at least one generation has grown up not with books, or playing in streets and fields, but knowing only an always-on, hyper-connected world accessible through their computer monitors. And it is this instant capacity to fill time, to communicate with others, and to sate desires and curiosity without the need to think that Prof Greenfield believes could threaten a child’s mental development.

Notable neuroscientist and director of the Royal Institution, Greenfield suggests that what she calls “screen life” is coming to replace life in three dimensions for young children and teenagers, with potentially disastrous results.

“The brain is very sensitive to the environment, and very good at adapting to it – what we call plastic. If the environment changes in unprecedented ways, so will the brain,” she tells The Big Issue.

An example of the malleability of the brain is shown by an experiment in which one group of people were asked to play scales on the piano every day for a week, while a second group were asked merely to imagine playing the scales, visualising using the same five-finger technique. While none of them could play the piano, the areas of the brain that control finger muscles improved in just five days. Most astonishingly, both groups improved by the same amount – suffused in an environment of piano-playing, their brains had responded immediately, with or without actual physical action.

Greenfield adds: “Modern life is now very different from how it has always been. Technology has now invaded and pervaded our lives as never before. According to one survey, children of between 10 and 11 are throughout the year spending on average 500 hours with their family, about 1,200 hours with friends and 2,000 hours on the screen.”

The extent of youngsters’ screen life, including computer games, internet browsing and social networking sites like Facebook, is in danger of “infantilising” the brain.

“Computers are not bad per se, but I am worried that the screen activities in which children spend their time are infantilising the brain, keeping it in childlike state of short attention span, literal images, no metaphors or abstract concepts, no sense of narrative, no empathy, no consequences – just sensations,” she says.

Greenfield is scornful of computer games as nothing short of a waste of valuable time – perhaps not surprisingly for someone whose jam-packed diary makes her probably Britain’s Busiest Boffin.

“It is sad that technology has given us longer lives and more free time, but that people waste their time and money playing games where you achieve nothing,” she says.

“If you read a book, you gain insight into others, you handle abstract concepts, use your imagination without visual queues. If you play to rescue the princess, you don’t care about the princess, you don’t gain any insight or learn anything.”

Social networking sites also risk replacing a child’s valuable understanding of communicating in the flesh with a screen-based simulacra, one that fails to offer social interaction skills such as judging tone of voice, body language or visual queues.

With the brain reacting and changing to accommodate the experiences and stimuli it receives, Prof Greenfield sees that without anything more than rapid-fire, visual stimulation children’s intellectual ability to perform abstract reasoning would corrode. In extreme cases, it could leave children unable to distinguish between ‘comedy’ violence without consequence in computer games and violence in real life.

The core of the problem is the prefrontal cortex, the region of the brain that grows as children mature into adults and deals with complex reasoning, moderating correct social behaviour, decision making and the expression of personality.

An underactive, or hypoactive, prefrontal cortex is often associated with obsessiveness, a lack of idea generation, and even problems with speech, and is also found in schizophrenics and the obese. The screen activities Greenfield criticises can lead to decreased activity in the cortex, and for the young whose brains are still developing, could leave lasting underdevelopment for the rest of the adult’s life.

“It will create a generation that are restless, live only in the moment, have less sense of consequences, take the world literally, and don’t have a sense of narrative or meaning, only of immediate processing and gratification,” she says. “They live in a solipsistic world where it’s ‘all about me’, which leads to a lack of respect or empathy for others, and a disconnect between cause and effect.”

One explanation, then, for the rise in violence among teenagers, whose sensation-rich screen life drives them to take increasingly extreme action in reality to provide comparable stimulation, without connecting the concepts of violence meted out and the pain it causes. Or for the obese, for whom the experience of eating is not controlled by an understanding of overeating, or overruled by a desire for instant gratification.

Even, Greenfield said, for the financial crisis. “If you climb a tree recklessly and fall out, you won’t do it again. But if you play a computer game and lose, then you just play it again,” she says. “It’s that short-termism and disregard for consequences that has been a contributory factor.”

This need not be entirely pessimistic, however. All that is required, Greenfield says, is research into what makes screen life so attractive, and how it can be improved so that it provides the cognitive training and concepts that it lacks.

“I want to see people with a strong sense of identity, feeling fulfilled and adding to a creative society,” she says. “It is for us to generate the kind of environment that help people to develop their brains along those lines to become creative people.”

ID: The Quest for Meaning in the 21st Century by Susan Greenfield is out now published by Sceptre, £8.99


[This article was originally published in The Big Issue, May 2009]


High Society

Is modernist housing part of the problem?

“We all sleep down here in the living room – my two sons and I – because there are no radiators upstairs. There’s no lights upstairs either, because the water that comes through the ceiling has fused them.”

Anab Goodasir has lived in her ground-floor flat in the Balfron Tower since 1990, and the roof has leaked since 1992. “The landlord’s useless,” she adds. “I’m not sure they even remember where the tower is.”

The 27-storey Balfron Tower in Tower Hamlets, East London, is the first of architect Erno Goldfinger’s estates in the 1960s Brutalist style, all bare-faced concrete and imposing, right-angled corners. Its slightly larger twin, 31-storey Trellick Tower, stands in North Kensington, West London. In the four decades since they were built, the towers have been loved, despised, abandoned, rediscovered, and finally listed by English Heritage in the 1990s.

Iris Westwood moved into Carradale House, alongside Balfron, when it opened in 1971. “I was born and lived in a house that was bomb damaged, but it was crumbling around me,” the sprightly 83-year-old says. “I put my pound down as deposit for the keys and I’ve never regretted moving in here, not for a minute.”

She even had a brush with Goldfinger himself, who lived on the top floor of the Balfron for a few months. “He said that he hoped I’d keep the walls the colours they were, and not paper over them. It was all browns and yellows and greens, very sixties. Of course we wallpapered them all,” she laughs.

Carradale House, part of the Balfron Estate. Photo: Michael Parker
Carradale House, part of the Balfron Estate. Photo: Michael Parker

In spring sunlight the bare concrete seems less severe, the grass more green. But the rubbish hurled from flats above, the water-damaged concrete, the dark and twisty passages are obvious. Inside, flat after flat is cursed with water pouring through ceilings, mouldy walls and decades-old fixtures and fittings.

Alan Humphrey, 46, has lived in Balfron for 14 years with his family. “They’re quite spacious inside, but the council have just let them run down.”

Loved at first, Britain’s 1960s and 1970s housing estates became widely hated, the futuristic living their designers promised spurned in favour of Georgian and Victorian terraces – the very same ‘slums’ that were cleared to make way for these modern homes. Where did it all go wrong?

The Second World War left Britain bankrupt and in ruins, with bombing and slum clearances meaning two-and-a-half million people needed new homes, quickly and cheaply.

Towering over the rebuilding of post-war Europe were the ideas of Swiss-French architect Charles-Édouard Jeanneret-Gris, better known as Le Corbusier. An influential Modernist since the 1920s, he advocated the use of concrete stripped to its bare essentials, with simple, angular design making a clean break with the fussy ornamental styles of previous eras. Raised in the Swiss countryside, he was keenly aware of the health-giving benefits of nature and open space. He sought to refashion the way people lived, creating light, modern, healthy buildings that would raise workers out of the filthy air of the slums – so vividly described in George Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London.

His famous Unité de Habitation in Marseille, France, combined all a community’s needs: access to outside space and light, shops, services such as nurseries and schools combined with housing in unified structures – like a neighbourhood of streets, but stood on its end.

Lydia Yee, whose exhibition of Le Corbusier’s work is currently at London’s Barbican, explained his bold, inspiring ideas to change the way people lived. “Cities had become so crowded that people were crammed together in unhealthy conditions. The easiest way was to level whole neighbourhoods and start again,” she said. “Corbusier believed the right architecture, the right conditions and right environment could promote good social relations.”

But the views of mainly European architects were not accepted by all. While apartments are commonplace in Berlin, Barcelona or Bordeaux, British tastes favour the house and garden. And though the continent boasts many inventive, successful Modernist housing estates – in Berlin alone there are six with UNESCO world heritage status – the towers that mark British skylines today are the product of local authorities taking advantage of an architectural regard for concrete by throwing up tower blocks on the cheap.

Balfron Tower. Credit: Michael Parker
Balfron Tower. Credit: Michael Parker

“The Modernists tried to think sociologically, to build communities and new environments,” Jon Wright of the Twentieth Century Society says. “They shot way too high. While some achieved great things, when done poorly and cheaply it produced results no better than the slums that came before.”

Architects easily replicated the concrete construction of Le Corbusier, but failed to see the bigger picture – to include necessities like shops, schools and nurseries to bind a vertical community together. Instead: towers marooned in oceans of open space.

When Rowan Point, an undistinguished pre-fabricated tower block in east London, partially collapsed in 1968, killing four, public trust in high-rise living collapsed with it. The appearance of social problems in modern estates not foreseen by idealists like Le Corbusier turned public opinion against modern architecture for decades to come.

But Wright denies that the high-rise was responsible for the social problems they became synonymous with. “Vandalism is widely held to have sprung up without precedent in the 1960s, it was not something that was rooted in the living environment.”

Dutch sociologists studied what they called “broken window syndrome”; a single broken window, if left long enough, will attract vandals who destroy more. Local authorities, Wright said, were guilty of abdicating their responsibilities to estates by failing to keep on top of repairs.

Trellick Tower’s appearance is little different from its East London sibling; the same surface damage, the same twisty concrete passageways. But inside, full-time cleaners keep corridors clean and walls repaired. A security concierge regulates the entrance and keeps track of CCTV, and tenants’ association notices keep residents informed.

Sean O’Neill has lived on the top floor for six years: “It had a terrible reputation in the 70s and 80s, but now it’s listed and security are really on top of any antisocial behaviour.

“I lived here in the early 90s for a year, and it was definitely rougher. Now I travel down in the lift, at one floor a crackhead will get in and at another an elderly couple in dinner suits on their way out for the evening. You get all sorts living here, but the trouble stays out of the building. There’s a definite sense of a community.”

Flatmate Miguel Pagan, 36, agrees. “I can honestly say I feel comfortable here, you can’t hear anything through the walls from the neighbours. I’ve lived in some newer buildings where you can hear them fart. This building’s amazing, futuristic.”

O’Neill is selling up. “If I could stay I would. I’ll never have a view of London like this again.”

Trellick Tower. Photo credit: Michael Parker
Trellick Tower. Credit: Michael Parker

As with the slums and tenements before the war, buildings left to rot only exacerbate their residents’ problems. Robin Hood Gardens, an East End estate in the Brutalist style, is threatened with demolition after years of neglect, while investment and sympathetic restoration has changed residents’ views of the equally abrasive design of Sheffield’s Park Hill Estate or Camden’s Brunswick Estate. Bethnal Green’s Keeling House was sold off, attracted middle-class owners and is now highly desirable, and of course the Barbican and Trellick have become bywords for rediscovered Modernist cool.

Wright adds: “Nationally, there has been horrendous neglect not just of the architecture but of people’s lives as a result of a popular misconception of the Modernist project. Concrete buildings need looking after just as a wooden fence or oak cabinet.”

What next? Contemporary house-building has concentrated on low- and medium-rise homes based on traditional styles, or luxury high-rise for the wealthy in prime locations.

Staiths South Bank estate in Gateshead, designed in 2001 by Wayne Hemingway, steers clear of harsh lines and template homes by mixing house shapes, sizes and finishes.

“You’ve got to listen to what the public want, and the majority don’t want to live high-rise,” Hemingway says. “Le Corbusier’s Unité might have attracted the middle-classes, but in Britain we built tower blocks, filled them with the poor and unwanted and created ghettos in the sky.

“Our estates have to be reconfigured for actually living in, otherwise they have no future.”

For conservationists and those with an eye on costs and sustainability, demolishing and starting again is not an option.

“We cannot sweep a growing population under the carpet,” says Wright. “I accept that some are only fit for the bin, but until the stigma of post-war idealism, of living in concrete, is exposed and discussed that debate cannot be had.”


[This article was originally published in The Big Issue, May 2009]


Answers to the repossessions crisis

Repossessions and unemployment are up, house prices and the economy are down – things look grim in UK plc, not least for those in danger of losing their home. So what can be done to stave off the repossessions crisis, refloat the housing market and keep families in their homes?

The Big Issue’s campaign, launched two weeks ago in partnership with 38 Degrees, calls upon the government to hold a moratorium on mortgage repossessions for owner-occupiers until the recession has passed. But how would it work in practice?

One solution proposed by experts is a mortgage-to-rent scheme. The government’s Mortgage Rescue Scheme, where homeowners struggling with payments can sell a share of or the whole property to a housing association, is similar. However, eligibility for this scheme is very tight, not all properties are attractive to housing associations – who also find themselves credit-crunched – and there are fears that families in the midst of a crisis may not apply for it. In fact, since its introduction in January the scheme has helped only two families from the 12,800 repossessions in the first quarter.

A more encompassing approach was suggested by Gwilym Pryce, economist and Professor of Urban Economics and Social Statistics at Glasgow University, in a report for the government’s Housing Expert Panel in October. This would compel lenders to contact local authorities as soon as repossession proceedings begin. Councils would offer the property for sale first to local housing associations, and secondly to a national company set up by the government. This national body would buy up properties at risk until the housing market picked up, at which point it could be floated on the stock market and sold to recoup taxpayer’s money.

Professor Pryce told The Big Issue: “It’s a classic role for government; government is so big, it can take the risks, play the long game – and win.”

He added: “The government has been advocating home ownership for years, despite the risks. I mean, skydiving is risky, but the government doesn’t advocate skydiving. It’s only fair that they bear some of that risk now.”

An alternative system devised by York University’s Centre for Housing Policy for the Joseph Rowntree Foundation envisions a collaboration between government, lenders and borrowers. Each contributes to a pool of cash used to support overstretched borrowers in the event of certain events, for example divorce, unemployment or bereavement. The point is to spread the risk and bail out the borrowers, not the banks, because if borrowers are secure in their payments, banks won’t panic and repossess.

Others share the view that fairly drastic action is required. In February, MPs on the Communities and Local Government Select Committee urged the government to introduce penalties for lenders who repossess too quickly, noting that efforts to limit repossessions – the pre-action protocol that requires lenders to explore all avenues before seeking possession – were unenforceable. “As useful as a chocolate teapot,” was how one economist more forcibly described it.

Despite protestations from the Council of Mortgage Lenders and lenders themselves, it is apparent that repossession is not always put off as long as possible. Mother-of-two Sharon Amato, from Bristol, found herself being repossessed by lender Halifax Bank of Scotland last year after they fell into arrears – despite not previously having missed a payment in 11 years, and, incredibly, despite the fact she was an HBoS employee.

“The judge in the court at the time was absolutely gobsmacked,” Sharon said.

“I’ve worked there for 24 years, I’ve got a good track record. I said, you’re paying me, take it straight from my salary, which I’m perfectly willing to do. And they said no.

“They would rather evict me and my children than allow me to stay and pay the mortgage.”

Only at the 11th hour – minutes before an eviction hearing – did HBoS back down after the questioning of a BBC reporter rang alarm bells.

The major lenders asked by The Big Issue all confirmed they would at least conform to the pre-action protocol requirement of three months forbearance before starting repossession. Only RBS has agreed to wait six months.

Part of the threat that repossessions pose to the economy suffering a recession stems from international banking regulations.

The rules used to stipulate that banks hold cash equal to a percentage of their loans, depending on the size and type of bank. But with the rapid growth of complex financial products, derivatives and securities, this restriction was seen as outmoded, leading to the Basel II banking accord in 2004.

Pryce said: “Basel II agreed to adopt mark-to-market as a means for lenders to value their assets, in other words, the current market prices of the houses they had mortgaged.

“But this is destabilising: whenever prices fell, red lights would start flashing at the banks because their ratio of debt to value of assets had suddenly risen. So the bank starts to rid itself of debt, cutting lending to others,” he said.

“Because no one can get credit, this pushes down demand for housing, which in turn pushes down prices. And as prices continue to fall, the bank’s red lights continue to flash as their assets continue to drop in value.”

As banks are required to reduce their burden of debt, the vicious circle that results, he said, could be “cataclysmic.” Using a longer-term average to value assets would protect banks from sudden rises and falls in the market, and provide an escape from the vicious circle.

Although Britain’s economic instability has been caused by ‘toxic debts’ from America, should repossessions continue in this country it could usher in a second wave of UK bank collapses, making the need for reform urgent.

Critics of reform claim that bailing out borrowers creates a ‘moral hazard’, that the knowledge the government will step in will encourage risky borrowing.

Pryce is adamant: “The complex securitising and repackaging of risky sub-prime debts from the US has allowed lenders to profit from selling on debt – without any care to what happens after.

“There is a moral hazard, but it lies squarely with the banks, not the borrowers.”


[This article was originally published in The Big Issue]