Is Facebook changing our brains?

Submitted by AWL on 4 November, 2014 - 6:25 Author: John Cunningham

Susan Greenfield is a leading neuroscientist and her book on how the new electronic media, “cybertechnology”, impacts brain development and human behaviour, makes for fascinating and alarming reading.

The latest research and statistics are clearly summarised and deftly employed to pursue her analysis. Although the jury is “still out” on many of the issues she raises, it can be said with some degree of certainty that cybertechnology and the culture surrounding it (iPhones, ipads, e-mail, computer games, chat rooms, Facebook, blogs, snapchat, twitter etc.) is impacting on brain development and human behaviour in serious and often detrimental ways.

These include: a reduction in attention span, a reduction in basic empathy for other human beings, a decline in social skills, a reduction in the ability to absorb and process information in-depth, an increase in levels of obesity and a growth in narcissism and self-obsession (e.g. the “selfie”)

None of this is conclusive however and there is much discussion of the chicken and egg problem. For example, do computer gamers show increased aggression because of the violent games they play or are they already inclined in that direction due to other influences in society (drugs, alcohol abuse, family environment, abuse in childhood).

By contrast the positive side of cyber culture seems rather thin. Computer gamers are often better at the speedy processing of information than non-gamers and are also, apparently, very good at guiding drones! However, even the positives have their downsides: computer gamers may be deft at processing information with astonishing rapidity but their ability to manipulate and utilise information is often shallow when compared to non-gamers. There is also strong evidence to suggest that the much-vaunted practice of “multi-tasking” merely results in all tasks being performed badly, nor does Greenfield offer any evidence (pro or contra) that women are better at multitasking than men.

Mind Change makes for depressing reading for those who place the stress in their lives on collectivity and social action for beneficial and radical change. Again and again Greenfield presents evidence of a tendency among regular cybertechnology users towards an individualism where the “I” comes first and where the often harsh reality of the world, past, present and future, disappears into an obsession with the transience of the present moment, a world where the understanding of consequences, cause and effect, broader social concerns and an awareness of world issues is diminished.

In her own words, “We may be living in an unprecedented era where an increasing number of people are rehearsing and learning a new default mind-set for negotiating the world: one of low grade aggression, short attention span and a reckless obsession with the here and now.”

One of my main criticisms of the book is that Greenfield devotes only one and half pages (of a total of 286) to a discussion of where and when cybertechnology has benefitted larger communities or groups of people, causes, campaigns for social justice and so on. She certainly isn’t the first person to note how cybertechnology helped spread the news of the Arab Spring and only recently news has emerged of Chinese workers using devices similar to Twitter, and WhatsApp to organise industrial action. Two years ago when I was involved in raising support for striking Spanish miners there was a marked increase in activity and support when we set up a campaign website, a blog and a Facebook page (not that I can take any credit for this).

More analysis was called for here although perhaps Greenfield might be excused as this is not the main focus of her book. I suppose that the questions posed here boil down to the key issue of how you translate what is onscreen into activism in real life? Doubtless, there are no easy answers and any readers who want to comment on this and maybe relate some of their personal experiences are invited to do so.

The concluding chapter, “Making connections” is something of a letdown. No one, surely, could disagree with her call “...to stretch ourselves en masse to our true potential, to ask big questions and to develop original and exciting solutions” but this doesn’t answer any of the questions she raises in the preceding pages. Likewise, her final plea for “connectivity” seems yet another “wouldn’t it be nice if...” moment and the feeling of disappointment is palpable. Perhaps this is simply where we are at the moment.

This is an important book about the world we live in and its future. We ignore the issues raised at our peril.

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