Screen culture may be changing our brains

This theory of Professor Susan Greenfield (and ongoing research by her and, presumably, others) deserves the widest circulation especially among those concerned about the effects of prolonged interaction with computer games and the many social networks which have proliferated on Web 2.0.

This important interview by the eminent TV journalist Kerry O’Brien has just been screened on the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s 7.30 Report (ABC TV) on Thursday, 19/03/2009.

Introduction: “Baroness Professor Susan Greenfield, an eminent brain expert who commands enormous respect in her field has sounded a cautionary note about the screen culture of the computer age that she says may be changing our brains, in ways that could have a serious impact on personality and behaviour. As a pioneering scientist she heads a multi-disciplinary Oxford University team investigating neuro-degenerative disorders and also the Oxford Centre for the Science of the Mind, exploring the physical basis of consciousness. Professor Susan Greenfield speaks with Kerry O’Brien from Adelaide.”

Here are some excerpts from the lengthy interview.
Kerry O’Brien: “Susan Greenfield, you’ve warned that screen culture may be changing our brains. You obviously believe that it’s not a change for the better. First of all, what do you mean by screen culture?”

Susan Greenfield: “By screen culture, I mean literally that; a world of two dimensions where for six hours a day or more, people in the western developed world, more particularly kids, are spending time either playing games or on social networking sites and thereby putting themselves in an environment that is very much in the here and now, that has very strong audio and visual sensations, where at the press of a button you get instant feedback from whatever you’re doing.

“But at the same time, you’re perhaps removed from some of the aspects that we take for granted. Those of us who are older or those of us who are born in the 20th century, that we taken for granted. Things like metaphor, abstract concepts, logical narrative, conceptual frame works, long attention spans, imagination. The kind of areas we can explore in more detail, if you like.

“But it’s primarily a world of a small child, a world of the here and now, a world of a sound byte, a world of an instant frozen moment where nothing has consequences, and where everything is literal. Where nothing has a meaning, you’re not saying one thing in terms of something else, you’re saying literally, what you see is what you get.”
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Read or view (13 minutes) the rest of this fascinating and alarming dialogue at:

http://www.abc.net.au/7.30/content/2009/s2521139.htm, or directly from the 7.30 Report website.

There is also a further 2 minute video clip of a web extra: ‘Extended interview with Susan Greenfield’.
Just another two appetisers in case you have not already opened the link:
Susan Greenfield: “What we know in neuroscience and this is getting really exciting, is that the brain is what we call plastic. That’s to say it’s very sensitive to the environment and that’s why human beings are so brilliant at occupying ecological niches than any other species on the planet. We don’t run fast, we don’t see particularly well, we’re not particularly strong – but what we do fantastically, more than any other species, is that we learn, we adapt.

“And because of this so-called plasticity, this means that your brain is different from anyone else’s for the last hundreds of thousands of years we’ve stalked the plan and it will be never the same again. And every moment you’re alive it’s modified and changed and revised by every little experience, literally leaving its mark on your brain.

“So if that is the case, it follows that the environment in which that brain is developing will be very much influenced by the kind of features of that environment. And if, for the first time – and this is my reasoning – that environment has changed in an unprecedented way, if it’s bombarding you with boom bang and bang images, what I call the “yuck and wow” scenario where every moment you’re having something flash up in your face and bombard your ears. All I’m suggesting is that that might drive brain connections and drive the configuration of your brain cell circuitry into the kind of mindset that mandates a short attention span.”
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Susan Greenfield: “I think it can be a problem, like everything, if it’s done to excess. I personally don’t have a social networking site but I certainly communicate, like most people now with access to computers, through email.

“Of course, that’s not a problem. It becomes a problem if it’s your main form of communication. I met a young person who boasted they had 900 friends. And that made me rather sad as to what he thought a friend really was and what kind of quality of relationship that you might have with one, if there’s any one of 900. And how often, if you have 900 friends, how much time of the day do you spend in sustaining a friendship with 900 people when there’s only 24 hours of the day. And however advanced or slick the culture, the inescapable fact: you only have 24 hours a day and if you spend six hours doing one thing, that excludes you, by definition, of doing other things.”

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