Mind change — a moral choice?

By Ken Perrott 16/09/2010 3

The human brain

Ian Sample wrote yesterday in the Guardian about Lady Greenfield’s appeal for an investigation into the effects of computer games, the internet and social networking sites such as Twitter on the human brain (see Oxford scientist calls for research on brain change).

Lady Greenfield has coined the term ’mind change’ to describe differences that arise in the brain as a result of spending long periods of time on a computer. Many scientists believe it is too early to know whether these changes are a cause for concern.

’We need to recognise this is an issue rather than sweeping it under the carpet,’ Greenfield said. ’We should acknowledge that it is bringing an unprecedented change in our lives and we have to work out whether it is for good or bad.’

Everything we do causes changes in the brain and the things we do a lot are most likely to cause long term changes. What is unclear is how modern technology influences the brain and the consequences this has.

’For me, this is almost as important as climate change,’ said Greenfield. ’Whilst of course it doesn’t threaten the existence of the planet like climate change, I think the quality of our existence is threatened and the kind of people we might be in the future.’

Lady Greenfield was talking at the British Science Festival in Birmingham before a speech at the Tory party conference next month. She said possible benefits of modern technology included higher IQ and faster processing of information, but using internet search engines to find facts may affect people’s ability to learn. Computer games in which characters get multiple lives might even foster recklessness, she said.

Is this alarmist?

I have heard her talk before about the influence of new technology on the human brain. This was on Car Pool (see Baroness Greenfield on CarPool). At the time she seemed to be denying any charges that she was being alarmist. Rather she was just pointing out the fact that our environment and activity has an inevitable influence on brain development and changes.

Now, however, I think she is being alarmist. Her claim that there is a problem ’almost as important as climate change’ is extremely one-sided. And, unfortunately, it will be accepted uncritically by many, including parents and educators, who are technophobic or consider computers, social media and electronic games are ’bad’ because they are differ from their own experience as children.

Of course our technology will influence our brain development. That’s normal during human development and even the mature human’s brain has a degree of plasticity. On the whole, that is just as well. It enables us to adapt so that our lives are more comfortable and of greater quality as technology changes.

Obsession changes mind and body

And yes obsessive use of any technology could change one’s mind in a way that makes interaction with the rest of society problematic. This is also true for obsessive use of pornography, politics, sport and religion, for example. Just consider how problematic many politicians and bible-bashers are in there interactions with society.

One could also ask the question how desirable it is to range one’s children to excel at a particular sport or even an intellectual pursuit. If this is done obsessively it will change the mind and body. And this could influence how the child interacts with society now and in future.

However many in society consider this acceptable, even desirable. Others may not.

By all means lets have more research on the effects of new technology on our brains and minds. Let’s also include the effects of other things we do obsessively. But we shouldn’t consider these effects will be bad just because they are new.

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3 Responses to “Mind change — a moral choice?”

  • When many of the more aggressive computer games started being produced some researchers came out with claims that such games would have not affect on behaviour. I found this quite surprising, as my observations (admittedly anecdotal) have been that children after playing such games can be more aggressive and disruptive. A friend of mine also recalls playing one of those car games where you run over things etc and then 5 minutes into his drive home found himself way over the speed limit and driving uncharacteristically aggressively.
    I think it is a possibility that we do underestimate the effects of computer games and other technology so why not do some research? What could be wrong with more research to assess how technology influences us so long as it is done properly?
    In fact in a recent New Scientist (28 August) there is an interview with the author of “The Shallows: How the internet is changing the way we think, read and remember” which sounds quite interesting

  • There is a great deal of research being undertaken into the effects that technology (in particular, gaming) has on our behaviour and brains, and the findings are, to be honest, generally positive.

    If we’re being anecdotal, I can say that my gamer friends do not drive more aggresively than others. Nor are they more violent, aggressive or disruptive (often quite the reverse, in fact).

    And yes, I do agree with Ken – Greenfield’s somewhat overstating the case to conflate it with the dangers posed to us (and the earth as whole) by climate change. She has been making claims for some years now about the effects to tech on people, but has (to my knowledge) not followed up with any actual research on the matter.

  • drmike – I agree that the sort of observation you describe is relevant. As are similar observations of the effect, eg, of an argument with one’s spouse or even reading or being exposed to specific words.

    However, I was referring to (as I think Greenfield was) the deeper changes that occur in the brain via its constant interaction with the environment during development and even at maturity. I think there is definitely work on that. I expect the modern brain of young people today to have some different features compared with such brains 2000 years ago. There may be different wiring, different mapping, etc. All this will enable modern individuals to operate more efficiently in our modern society. This will largely be positive. Unfortunately Greenfield’s recent statement seems to concentrate on the possible negative effects which, I think, is alarmist. Especially as we could envisage equally significant (and possible negative) effects from other obsessions.