Mind Change: How Digital Technologies are Leaving Their Mark on Our Brains

| June 22, 2016 | 0 Comments

Author: Susan Greenfield
Publisher: Random House
ISBN: 978-0812993820
Reviewed by: Patti Blackhurst

I recently read the book, Mind C hange: How Digital Technologies are Leaving Their Mark on Our Brains, by Susan Greenfield.

Baroness Susan Greenfield CBE, of Oxford University, is a British scientist with a doctorate and more than 32 honorary degrees. In this book, she examines research that will further humanity’s study of the impact of technology on our brains, cognitive skills, lifestyles, cultures and personal aspirations.

Neurons, like the muscles of the body, grow stronger and larger with whatever activity is rehearsed, says Greenfield, citing Alexander Bain’s 1872 statement: “For every act of memory, every exercise of bodily aptitude, every habit, recollection, train of ideas, there is a specific grouping or co-ordination of sensations and movements, by virtue of specific growths in cell junctions.”1

Greenfield notes that on the positive side, the digital age is eroding traditional constraints of time, space and discrimination and moving humanity towards a blurring of cultural differences. This will increase our awareness and understanding of each other at an unprecedented rate.

Greenfield believes, however, that there is still much to learn. According to her, we need to fully understand the impact of technology so that we can effectively plan the kind of world we want and the kind of people we wish to be.

Mind change vs climate change

This approach aligns with that of Dainfern College, in Johannesburg, Gauteng, where we embrace information technology (IT). Staying ahead in the field of technological advancements is one of the “BluPrints” that entrench our unique identity and culture, and provide the outline from which we work out our strategic plan for our school.2.

As a highly regarded scholar and scientist, Greenfield makes it clear that an obvious advantage of IT is that it has enabled speed and efficiency in the workplace as well as in educational spaces. IT in the educational arena has led to many more children accessing education and information than ever before, and to many others accelerating their academic progress and enlarging their
conceptual frameworks.

Accepting that our brains are “magnificently and exquisitely
adaptable”, they are undoubtedly now developing in parallel to
the cyberworld’s ever-changing 21st century environment, says
Greenfield. In this book, she considers exactly how the human brain reacts to this new digital frontier – sometimes termed, she
observes, the “digital wildfire”.

This is the central premise of Mind Change, which can be understood by comparing it to the concept of climate change.
Our brains are changing in response to the way we use IT, just as our planet’s climates are changing in response to the way we use our resources.

It is salient to note at this point that multinational companies such as Ernst & Young are already hiring new employees based on traits and demonstrable skills, as opposed to paper qualifications only.3 Like other global companies, Ernst & Young want employees who possess, inter alia, resourcefulness; resilience and the ability to fail and persist; flexibility and adaptability; communication and collaboration skills; intrapersonal intelligence; the desire to continue learning and growing; critical thinking; judgement and the ability to manage one’s reputation online and offline.

I encourage you to bear the above in mind as you read my summary of the various different aspects of the impact that IT may have on our lives, and the lives of our children, according to Greenfield.

As I mentioned at the start of this article, Greenfield urges us to tackle the challenges facing humanity so that we can plans our future accordingly.

Plan to use, not use to plan

It follows, thus, that we should be teaching children how to plan to use technology. A logical human should argue that we should “ration” our use of digital technology, says Greenfield, so as to maintain a balanced approach to a fully lived life, but this argument has not stood the test of time. Greenfield uses the analogy of smoking. Otherwise sensible adults and children continue to smoke cigarettes, despite our knowledge that it is a harmful habit. Sensible, moderate use of computers is a subjective concept, but all current research shows it is not happening. Many people who can be described as sensible are immersed in digital technology for much of their daily working and social lives.

Ethics always important

Never before in a child’s development have there been so many easy opportunities to create an alternative identity (primarily through social media sites and games) and, within these spaces, to accept the notion that actions don’t have consequences. As such, this environment is raising unprecedented questions as to what is “best” or “ethical” practice. Greenfield argues that, while our children’s brains are not “hard-wired” to interface effectively with screen technologies, each has evolved to respond with sensitivity to external influences, in whatever particular environment it inhabits, and therefore the exposure to technology is undoubtedly changing their brains. Children are also being introduced to the digital environment at increasingly younger ages, as reflected by the production of Fisher-Price’s potty training seat with an iPad stand.4 The question of the impact of digital technologies is ever-more important, as these early years are so vital in a brain’s development.5

The graver side of gaming

Internet and video games are very popular with children and young people and offer a range of opportunities for fun, learning and development, but we cannot ignore the fact that relationships – including a child’s relationship with their parents – are compromised by the time spent engaged with these activities. If a young person does not experience sufficient rehearsal of the basic non-verbal communication of eye contact, voice modulation, body language perception and, above all, physical contact, they will not be particularly good at them.

Everything takes practice. Consequently, the youth will not be good at exercising empathy. Research done on university students in various parts of the world already shows declining levels of empathy.6

Excessive or obsessive use, exposure to violence and other inappropriate material are all obvious negative “affecters” too. With regard to aggression and recklessness, whatever we practise repeatedly affects the brain. Aggressive video games do promote aggression. Excessive play of video games can lead to abnormalities in brain fibres associated with emotional processing, powers of attention, decision-making and cognitive control.

Most researchers agree, says Greenfield, that the digital age is producing an easily distracted generation with short attention spans. This is a grave area of concern for classroom learning, which demands concentration and focused, sustained attention.

TV and video games decrease attention spans, according to Greenfield, who adds that playing with parents can be a good social activity, but not for long periods (as there are no gains beyond a short period of togetherness on these games) or on age-inappropriate games. She suggests that gaming causes problems with sustained attention and explores the contentious idea that excessive video gaming – even if just for an hour or so a day – can be associated with the increasing prevalence of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

Identity and addiction

In recent years, there has been a vast increase in the numbers of global social network users. Greenfield states that if a person is increasingly anchored to the screen in the present and consequently devoting considerably less time to the demands of the real outside world, a robust sense of inner identity might be harder to sustain. The thrill of reporting or posting and retrieving may exceed the pleasure derived from life’s ongoing experiences – for example, tweeting or facebooking at a restaurant becomes more important than the restaurant experience itself. Privacy becomes a less-prized commodity. What are these practices doing to each brain? A continuous state of high arousal, the craving of novelty and stimulation, also make one very vulnerable to manipulation, both in how one sees the world and how one reacts to it. Social media participants have been found to readily obey and conform, wanting constant approval of others. Fact and fiction may then blur, and one’s conceptual framework for understanding of the world around one will disappear.

Assert impulse control

Speed, efficiency and ubiquity are also generally rated as good things,but it is worth considering that we all often sacrifice the time necessary to reflect deeply before responding to an email or text message. Greenfield urges us to consider how, in this lightningfast world, we digest what is happening around us. Do we, she asks, specifically and consciously allocate enough time to each task? How do we think? If we accept that thinking is a complex process and involves several interconnected cognitive processes – as opposed to an instant emotional outburst or reaction such as a scream, refusal, acceptance or laugh – then we acknowledge that, as humans, we should not just react to digital/social media prompts, for example, almost as soon as they appear. What is the price we pay for reacting and responding instantly? How does that behaviour impact our ability to manage our impulse control in other areas? Are we thinking deeply and giving serious matters the attention and consideration we should? Greenfield also talks about how the average family unit (in affluent societies) has been changed by the fact that family members in different parts of the world can be constantly connected. There is often, now, a more intimate connection between family members on opposite sides of the ocean than there is between the family members inside the home, who are often all on individual devices and not connected at all!

A new kind of human emerging

Greenfield asks: What kind of individual is going to emerge from these new, life-changing digital experiences? Definitely, one less attuned to the outdoors, she opines, adding that since 1970, the active activity radius of a child at home has shrunk by 90%. This decrease in outdoor play and exploration of the real world is unprecedented in history and may have fundamental consequences for the well-being of children. Inter alia, they may never develop a realistic sense of risk, or an imagination that allows them to suggest to a friend that they make up a game or a one-act play. The amount of exercise people take is curtailed by sitting in front of a screen or standing on a pavement while texting, when the dog wants to run. Will obesity numbers multiply faster than ever?7

Throughout the book, Greenfield is at pains to remind readers that brain changes occur not just through learning, but through all experiences and environmental change. An enriched environment is also known to reduce anxiety and compensate for early childhood problems. Exercise and conscious thought can also produce brain changes.

Reading a book still the best experience

Greenfield opines that reading children stories is still the best way for them to develop necessary cognitive skills such as imagination, attention span, empathy and insight into the minds of others. We can understand our own facts through someone else’s story. We connect, in our own framework, with their experiences and decisions. We care deeply about what happens to characters, much more than in a video game. Stories demand time and imagination. The chain of cause and effect is in a strictly ordered sequence in a book. That creates meaning.

On the internet, parallel choices, hypertexting and randomised participation is more typical. Can these develop empathy?

Unsurprisingly, the best environment for learning is one in which people are having fun and interacting with others, irrespective of whether these key ingredients are provided through a screen or a more traditional scenario. Logically, though, off-screen excitement and interest should produce the best results, according to Greenfield’s research.

We need to shape our future now

While the screen can readily offer a more rigorous rehearsal regime in mental processing than people or paper ever can, does the same apply to how effectively we learn? Technology definitely seems to have produced great benefits for mathematics, though the evidence for this is always linked to a close connection with teachers’ efforts. Even with a good teacher, however, complex material is not learned as well online. Greenfield states that nothing beats an inspirational and exciting teacher. There is always a case for real classrooms in which real teachers oversee real-life conversations. Greenfield presents her readers with a challenge, saying: “Don’t ask what will happen in the future, but how we should shape the future.” She suggests, in her carefully scientific writing style, that working out what digital connectivity may mean and what we decide to do about it is surely the most far-reaching, crucial and exciting challenge of our time.

References:

1. See, for example: http://neuroscience.umwblogs.org/history-of-neurons/neurondoctrine- vs-nerve-network/.
2. See: http://www.dainferncollege.co.za/the-college/dainfern-college-bluprints.
3. See, for example: http://zakslayback.com/2015/12/10/ernst-young-doesntrequire-degrees-why-do-you/.
4. See, for example: https://www.washingtonpost.com/business/economy/fisherprices-
infant-ipad-seat-raises-concerns-about-baby-screentime/
2013/12/10/6ebba48e-61bb-11e3-94ad-004fefa61ee6_story.html.
5. See, for example: http://www.beststart.org/OnTrack_English/1-
importance.html.
6. See, for example: http://www.nytimes.com/2015/09/27/opinion/sunday/stopgoogling-
lets-talk.html?_r=0.
7. See, for example: http://www.sparkpe.org/blog/how-has-the-childhood-obesityrate-changed/.

Category: Winter 2016

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