Rider, £20. Order at £16.50 inc. p&p from the Independent Bookshop
Mind Change: How Digital Technologies Are Leaving Their Mark On Our Brains by Susan Greenfield, book review
Thursday 14 August 2014
London taxi drivers' "Knowledge" shows up clearly as an enlarged hippocampus (concerned with memory) in the brain. Similar results are found in anyone who practises difficult mental feats such as playing music, learning foreign languages, performing complex maths operations. The rule for all bodily functions, especially nerve and muscle functions, is: "use it or lose it". But The Knowledge and playing Bach fugues are clearly "good" brain activities that reinforce patterns that lead to better performance. What's the problem with digital media?
That's the question Susan Greenfield, neuroscientist, writer and broadcaster, sets out to answer in Mind Change. Does the habitual and apparently sometimes addictive use of digital media have a physical impact on the brain? It would be very strange if it didn't. The obvious difference between acquiring The Knowledge, or any knowledge, old-style, is that all traditional learning tasks require slow, sustained work on material that yields its rewards, with difficulty, in an orderly fashion. When you are playing a piece from a score, distracting passages are not constantly intruding. But when you open something online, everything else is only a few clicks away. As Greenfield says, in pre-digital activities there was always a linear sequence; this is no longer true – the hyperlink destroyed that.
When there is no hard scientific evidence available, Greenfield employs common sense; much of what she says seems obvious, although it's sometimes clothed in obscurantist language: "Your identity is therefore a spatio-temporal phenomenon..." Yes, we exist in space and time – we got that. At times, her concerns for the younger generation lead her into unconvincing advocacy. A smartphone-toting teenager is not going to be very impressed by her endorsement of Enid Byton stories "where the young heroes and heroines were so busy catching smugglers and other villains that they only ever went indoors at mealtimes and to sleep". As it is, computer gamers are developing skills that may one day make them very good drone pilots: a job far removed from anything envisaged in Blyton's world.
Greenfield cites many studies, often with inconclusive or contradictory results; nevertheless there are some startling statistics in this book. According to the UK law firm Divorce Online, Facebook was implicated in 33 per cent of marriage breakups in 2011, which makes it the greatest serial co-respondent of all time. It is the speed of change that is unnerving – Facebook went from start-up to marriage breaker in seven years. Whether it is a reliance on Google and Wikipedia instead of memory; SatNav or Waze instead of maps; online dating instead of meeting socially; the entire world's music available onstream instead of being slowly and expensively acquired – the digital world challenges all our age-old mental processes.
The importance of Mind Change's subject is clear but the book is hard to digest: with pros and cons batted back and forth and hedged about with caveats, there are times when you are almost driven to video games for relief. Strangely, although it's clear from statistics and her commentary that Greenfield is deeply worried about the effects of digital technology on the human psyche she says nothing about the currently fashionable attempt to counter it: mindfulness. Espoused by IT giants such as Twitter, mindfulness is a 21st century update of meditation derived from Buddhism. For most of us, there's a middle way between narcotic thumb-twiddling and zoned-out contemplation.
Watch the new House of Cards series three trailerTV
Oscars 2015It was the first time Barney has compered the Academy Awards
Oscars 2015 From Meryl Streep whooping Patricia Arquette's equality speech to Chris Pine in tears
Oscars 2015 Mexican filmmaker uses speech to urge 'respect' for immigrants
Oscars 2015 Bringing you all the news from the 87th Academy Awards
TV ReviewThe intrigue deepens as we delve further but don't expect any answers just yet
Razzies 2015 Golden Raspberry Awards 'honours' Cameron Diaz and Kirk Cameron
Film Hollywood's new leading lady talks about her Ramsay Street days
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 Michelle Rodriguez: Fast & Furious actor apologises after telling 'minorities' to stop taking on 'white' roles
- 2 Raif Badawi, the Saudi Arabian blogger sentenced to 1,000 lashes, may now face the death penalty
- 3 PornHub turns masturbation into energy in bid to save the planet
- 4 Robert Mugabe eats a zoo for 'obscene' 91st birthday party
- 5 The remarkable archaeological underwater discovery that could open up a new chapter in the study of European and British prehistory
Broadchurch series 3: David Tennant and Olivia Colman to return for third season, ITV confirms
Eurovision 2015: Finnish punk band with learning disabilities applies to raise awareness
Drake matches The Beatles' record with 14 singles in top 100 chart at the same time
James Bond: Director Sam Mendes teases clips from upcoming 007 film Spectre
Fifty Shades of Grey movie shows first sex scene 'after 40 minutes'
New theory could prove how life began and disprove God
This is what it's like to be dead, according to a guy who died for a bit
'Cash for access' scandal: Sir Malcolm Rifkind says 'unrealistic' for MPs to live on £67,000 salary
'Jihadi John': CAGE representative storms off Sky News accusing Kay Burley of Islamophobia
Ukip would cut billions from Scottish budget to fund English tax cuts
Russia's roadmap for annexing eastern Ukraine 'leaked from Vladimir Putin's office'