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]